Opening doors …
When I hear the term feminist, I associate it with individuals and their personal politics, rather than an organization. I was always under the impression that any organization can never be truly feminist in their manner of operation, simply because the people embodying it could never have the same level of sensitization. Therefore, their policies and principles would hold no water when it came to actions. After joining Gender at Work, and as a part of it, Vikalp Sansthan, I had the opportunity of reviewing my stance.
To start from the beginning, Vikalp was officially formed in the year 2004 by a group of friends dedicated to one mission of bringing an end to gender-based violence. They were then working with different organizations, contributing their time here as volunteers who would visit several villages in and around Udaipur district to engage with women and girls, and facilitating workshops with them. Sooner than they expected, a participant asked why were they not building a more constant presence in the community. In fact, the name of the organization was also coined at one of the workshops with young girls, when during a discussion session, they suggested that it can be named ‘Vikalp’ meaning alternative.
When I heard the story from Yogesh Ji (founder and treasurer of Vikalp), I learnt how the process of formation was democratic, organic and entirely based on the need of the community. Perhaps, this is why they wanted to implement feminist principles in the structure of the organization as well.
Vikalp believes in a non-hierarchical approach when it comes to functioning as a team. They have strict policies against their founders, Usha Ji (the Director) and Yogesh Ji being addressed to, as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. They do not believe in a top-down approach and encourage every team member to put forward their opinion on any matter. The strategy is to bring sustainable change in the society by breaking gender norms through a process of replication. This is a three-tier process in this order:
- Behavioral change
- Institutional change
This starts at office where the team members are from the communities that Vikalp works with, in the two blocks of Mavli and Gogunda. Most of them are survivors of sexual violence and/or child marriages and a few are single mothers. Vikalp consciously chooses to involve them in work because their empowered selves become a symbol of inspiration and hope for the larger community. They being decision-makers and then influencing others creates a cadre base as well, so that even in the absence of Vikalp, the work can go on independently. Volunteers are also chosen from the communities.
One of the most interesting aspects of Vikalp is that their initial idea of fighting against gender-based violence shifted to fighting for gender justice as their work progressed. Once again, it was the women of the community who suggested that they would like their husbands and sons to be included in the sessions because men needed to be educated and empowered on gender sensitization.
Since then Vikalp has been working with adolescent boys and young men in various capacities. This way the men and boys are not demonized and are made a part of the change process that needs to be seen in the society. My feminism hardly allows any margin of error to the men in my life who are feminists, let alone the rest. Naturally, I was a bit taken aback when I first heard this.
While in a conversation with a member from a partner organization of Vikalp, I was told that in her organization also, there is a culture of putting the male co-workers under strict scrutiny with zero tolerance for error because, well, they are men. But I understand that when it comes to urban cisgender men of privilege who have had access to a certain amount of education regarding gender, maybe mistrust is not always a manifestation of bitterness but is practiced more as a caution. I am not saying that it is ideal, but perhaps it is what it is, for now. In many urban and rural setups though, men (and women) are not aware of how patriarchy is functioning and evolving like a living organism every day, preying on their insecurities regarding their masculinity. Therefore, it is easier to start from scratch and educate them about the importance of gender equality by contextualizing the issues present in their society.
Vikalp holds counselling sessions for young, newly married couples and makes men aware of the importance of sharing household duties, not viewing their wife as an object of desire, support her dreams and not pressurize her into having more children. For adolescent boys, the importance is on educating them about menstruation and normalizing it. Sports is also used as a tool to build platonic friendships with girls and respect their presence in the public. This was something I could personally relate with, as someone who has always had the opportunity to grow up in the male company at both my school and the dance institute.
I am not saying that Vikalp is an ideal organization. There are some more observations that I am keeping in store for another blog post but its attempt of striving to be a feminist non-profit is something I wanted to have at my workplace. As we are told time and again at India Fellow, showing up is important, no matter how big or small your contribution is — I believe that Vikalp is doing just that. It is still too early for me to comment on how they are faring in comparison, but their effort is what keeps me going every day.