Kirthi Jayakumar

And still, she rises...

I imported an idealistic mind set into my adulthood. I was an idealist as a child. I used to dream of a world where we would all sing songs together and eat muffins and just be together without fighting. I try to hold onto that little girl's ideas even today.

My name is Kirthi Jayakumar. I was born in Bangalore, and grew up between my grandparents' home in Bangalore and with my mum, dad and brother in Chennai. I grew up with stars in my eyes, hoping to do medicine in the hope of "helping people", until I realised that I could do that with development, too.

I studied Law in Chennai, mostly out of the fact that my father is a lawyer and if I failed in a career in development, I could still fall back on my father's practice. Once I left law school, I began working - I tried my hand out at the corporate sector and at litigation - they were all wonderful people doing some great work, but something about the system had me running out, kicking and screaming. It got me thinking that many cases that sat warming the benches in the judiciary could have been addressed, had the people involved been aware of their rights at the inception. That led me to start volunteering with the UN Online Volunteering System and a couple of organizations in Chennai. To put money in the bank, I began freelancing with a bunch of local publications and a bunch of legal journals and publishing initiatives (because it did, at that age, irk me that my peers were earning and I wanted to save the world without a pie to my credit).

With time, I gained some understanding of the way things worked, and realized that one of the most common narratives in the journey remained tied to the gender quotient. If I worked with communities on awareness on their Right to Public Health, I noticed that women were kept out of it. If I worked with communities on their right to clean water, I noticed that women had little to no access. Similar was the case for food, education, health care, infrastructure, jobs and what have you. That was when it hit me: there's so much sitting on one domino - gender inequality. If we knocked it, this enormously global burden of inequality could just, just be knocked out. You can see that I imported an idealistic mind set into my adulthood. I was an idealist as a child. I used to dream of a world where we would all sing songs together and eat muffins and just be together without fighting. I try to hold onto that little girl's ideas even today.

In all honesty, you could say that the idea was in the making, but didn't quite catalyze into the form and shape until June 2013. But the story, though, begins on the night of December 17, 2012. On December 15, 2012, I had turned 25. On December 16, 2012, the gang-rape in Delhi, as most people know, took place. On December 17, 2012, I was at the US Consulate General at Chennai, receiving an award for my work with a US-based NGO called Delta Women, which worked for the rights of women in the US and in Nigeria, and the right to education for children in Nigeria. When I received the award, I truly felt like a hypocrite - because here I was, receiving an award when there was so much more left to be done, and when a girl was battling for her life because we as a community sacrificed her at the altar of patriarchy, misogyny, toxic and hegemonic masculinity, and inaction on part of a civilian populace that should have been vigilant. I went to bed that night, thinking of how much we had allowed to pass in the name of "We are like this only". It was on the same day that I had come to face a dissociated past, where I had completely blocked out my own memories of facing abuse as a child. I decided to do what I could on my own, and started by telling my story.

Six months later, I looked back to see how telling my story had made a difference: one, parents and to-be parents began to be vigilant about the vulnerability of their children and began to work with their children to have open conversations towards staying safe; two, I realised that I began to feel better and my own personal comfort levels felt like they were higher because I had owned my narrative instead of dissociation and my journey to heal began, and finally, that people were beginning to talk, openly, and get issues that were otherwise covert, out into the open. Since then, I run the Red Elephant Foundation and work for gender equality, child safety and for peace building through non-violent solutions and strategies.


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