An Interview with Priyanjali Mitra

Kurisumasu! (2)

Priyanjali is a development sector professional based in New Delhi. Having completed her under graduation in sociology from Lady Shri Ram College for Women (University of Delhi) and masters from the University of Oxford, she went on to work with the International Labour Organization (ILO) at the ECSAP Regional Office in Bangkok. Thereafter she was a CM’s Good Governance Associate in the Haryana Government posted in Panipat.

Presently, she is working with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Bharat – on microfinance, livelihoods and social welfare of women in the informal sector. Her key areas of interest are gender, education and labour and employment in South Asia.

struggle

You worked with rural women in Haryana. What were the key issues they were facing?

The most pressing issue faced by women in rural Haryana is the adverse social norms and gender discrimination that is deeply entrenched in society. The second would be the discriminatory laws and lack of legal protection. The reason why I mentioned the former is because it is the main barrier to women having freedom of mobility, education and the ability to express themselves. To add to that- a collapsed public health system, lack of infrastructure/transport in the districts are other factors that are hindering the advancement of women in the state.

How can these issues be solved?

It is essential for a wide range of stakeholders including women themselves to come forward and do their bit to push the envelope on issues related to women empowerment. State and non-state institutions as well as every individual if you come to think of it, has a role to play. Without a sustained, collective effort we won’t be able to ensure equality in its truest sense. To me, the issue of gender is as much a personal issue as it is political. Often the toughest space to bring about any change, is within the confines of the home. Each of us should begin there.

Why is empowerment important?

Empowerment is a broad term that has multiple meanings and various definitions. Borrowing from a UNFPA definition of the same, if we consider empowerment to have five components:  women’s sense of self-worth; their right to have and to determine choices; their right to have access to opportunities and resources; their right to have the power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home; and their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally, then the reasons informing the need to empower women are clear. To ensure the advancement of half the population of the world, it’s a moral imperative to empower them. Gender bias is still deeply embedded in cultures, economies, political and social institutions around the world. Women and girls face unacceptable levels of discrimination and abuse, which is not only wrong, but also prevents them from playing a full part in society and decision-making. This is the most crucial reason for furthering empowerment. Secondly, most of the work done by women today goes uncounted, unremunerated and unnoticed. In most societies and economies, women’s unpaid work and nature’s services are not accounted for and therefore not valued properly in our systems.

Why did you decide to work in the development sector?

I have always been inclined to work for people at the grassroots, workers who were more vulnerable and those who do not have the kind of access to social welfare we often do. I didn’t box this as a sector per se but through the work I do and hope to in the future, I want to keep the evidence based research and bridging the gap between policy and praxis at the core.

How important is it to consider gender concerns while working in development?

It goes without saying that it is not just a programmatic requirement or ‘good’ practice today to do so, but also the most pragmatic consideration to include gender in the entire policy cycle. The idea case is when a specific intervention/policy/programme seeks to transform gender relations in a community.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism is one of the guiding principles of my life. If I had to pin point at exactly what point the awakening occurred – it was during my under graduate years at LSR. We were taught gender as a paper by one of the stalwarts in the sociology department- Dr. Anjali Bhatia. It was through her tutorials and the debates in the classrooms that we developed a feminist lens. Stalwarts like Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Nivedita Menon, Sylvia Plath, Gloria Steinem were introduced to us and we were encouraged to examine the ideals against our everyday lived experiences. This was the turning point for a lot of us – questioning patriarchy, thinking through how we could influence change in society and our own lives. Feminism in a nutshell is the idea of establishing radical equality between the sexes- whether that is political, social or economic. And no, humanism is not feminism. To be a feminist is to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us and it is a responsibility to make the world a better place for women. I find a lot of women our age hesitating to accept the word for the myriad often negative connotations it has. To make it easier – Do you believe that women should be paid the same for doing the same jobs? Do you think that women and men both deserve equal rights? Well if you do, then you’re a feminist.

Are cultures and traditions changing in India?

This is a tough one. It needs to be understood that norms and traditions are deeply entrenched in society and to bring about change it often takes generations. If you take an example of marriage – a cursory glance at the matrimonial sections of the newspapers will tell you where we stand even today. If you think about honour killing in parts of north India, ‘love jihad’, incidence of rape and molestation – it is hard to conclude that we are changing as a nation.

Do you think India has made progress towards gender equality?

We surely have made some progress when it comes to gender equality. This itself is a vast and complex term. What does equality mean? Are women more empowered to take their own decisions today? In some spheres, they are and in a great many there remains much to be done. More women are getting educated today, compared to a few decades ago there is greater mobility due to development of infrastructure, more women hold positions of power in politics and in the higher rungs of the corporate world, women are pursuing off beat careers. But having said that, the scenario is far from ideal.

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