PRAVAH / Center for Women’s Development Studies (Delhi, Day Three)

The non-government organization PRAVAH derives its name from a Hindi word meaning “flow.” The NGO looks at ways in which citizens can take action in the battle to alleviate the country’s social ills. The buzz word around the office seems to be “youth,” based on what I heard during my morning visit. One of PRAVAH’s arguments is that the standard, public school education that students receive in India does not equip them with the skills they need to effectively respond to social conflicts. Social conflict is in fact what triggered the inception of this organization, and PRAVAH now develops its own curriculum for young people, which they are calling “From Me to We.”

After a round of personal introductions, the coordinators from PRAVAH asked us to brainstorm different ways in which people can interact and become involved with social issues affecting their community. We thought of schools, clubs, social networks, places of worship, volunteer organizations, malls, sports facilities and a lot of other places that are common in America. The PRAVAH coordinators pointed out that too few organizations in India are developing youth leadership initiatives. An enlightening figure was thrown to us: by 2020 India will have the youngest population in the world, at an average age of 29, which also means the largest potential workforce. No wonder PRAVAH is so focused on getting youth involved.

Much of our discussion centered around the concept of an ideal “Fifth Space.” The presenters outlined the four traditional areas of one’s social life–family, friends, leisure, work–noting that between all of these spaces there is overlap. PRAVAH wants to tap into a fifth area of social dynamics which they identify as active citizenship or civic engagement. Young people should join social organizations. They should form activist clubs that perform civic work. The idea at the center of all of this, the idea that I as a teacher particularly love, is that kids will always rise to the level of expectation set for them. The discussion about youth involvement caused me to ruminate heavily on how I can utilize project-based learning in my classroom and how I can find creative ways for my students to connect with the community to share what is learned.

The meeting was capped off with a video showcasing PRAVAH’s “fun camp” retreat program for students. The retreat lasts for 75 days, during which time they interact with other young people from various backgrounds. They are exposed to issues of social concern and through activities that promote collaboration and relating to one another, they find creative solutions. A key component of the program’s success is the fact that student’s are forced out of their comfort zone so that they can really begin to learn and grow. Kudos to PRAVAH. I really enjoyed this visit. During the entire meeting we sat cross-legged on mats in a sultry room with the distant sound of a masculine voice calling from the street–calling to what or for what I have no idea–and it was all well worth it.

Check out their website with streaming video and info on the youth activist camps:

In the afternoon we went to visit the Center for Women’s Development Studies directed by Dr. Mary John, who along with her staff, engaged us in serious intellectual discussion on issues of women’s rights and empowerment in India and answered all of our questions in depth. The CWDS is an autonomous body under the government which focuses exclusively on women’s studies. Established in 1980 as part of the International Women’s Decade and coinciding with the start of Indira Gandhi’s fourth term as India’s Prime Minister, the center maintains a public library full of reports on various women’s issues. We did not have time allotted to sift through the library’s contents, but I am already planning to make a stop there when I return to Delhi at the end of this trip.

The CWDS is a research center as well as an activist organization. The staff was clear in pointing out that though the center is government-supported it remains autonomous, i.e. not a department of the government. This separation from the governing body is crucial, as the CWDS is ironically sponsored by a government whose laws and practices it wishes to effect change in. The major focuses in recent times have been on women’s healthcare, gender conflict, land rights issues, child development, gender and migration, and women in modern professions. Each member of the all-female staff heads a special project related to an issue affecting women in India which is researched and then published to spread awareness.

The grisly subject of “sex selection” came up once again (I’d already been tuned into it at the Asharan orphanage) in which families choose to abort or abandon babies based on their sex, females being viewed as less of an asset to the family unit. The problem is so prevalent that the government has put up billboards to deter it. The social practice of dowry still plays a role in India’s modern economy, and that also adds to the sex selection problem. The presenters stressed that sex discrimination in India varies by region and social strata, and amongst the very poor neglect of girls is rampant. Women do not have the right to inherit agricultural land. The marriage system works against women in that they have little power our control over their destinies. It is horrible to say, but reprehensibly true, that there is an overall devaluation of women in Indian society.

With this inquisitive group of educators, it’s hard to get a question in sometimes. At the tail end of the discussion, right before we had a lunch of iddly, chutney, vadas and sambhar with the CWDS staff, I asked about the impact of media in Indian society, whether the portrayal of women in Bollywood movies, newspapers, television and commercials deviates from the roles women actually play in real life. I pointed out that for many young African-Americans, seeing the example of Barack Obama in the media is empowering. I mentioned that India has surpassed America in electing a female as head of state, something my own country, bafflingly, has never been able to do. Unquestionably, the media has a huge impact on youth, pointing to the possibility of a future, influencing the scope of one’s ambitions, simply by showing what can be. The perception of women as a burden, as inferior, as subservient to men, needs to change in India. As an outsider in this society, I’m shocked by what I’ve heard and seen. I’m still absorbing this, and I’m leaving my eyes and ears wide open.


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