WHAT WE DO
Our team is small but our dreams are not. At Akshara, all of us want to create – and participate in – a society where all women can live a violent-free, dignified life with no discrimination. We dream of a society in which we can all be creative and productive members.
No matter how expansive a dream, it takes action to bring it to life. This reasoning is why Akshara focuses on empowering women and girls. With education, productive work and resistance to violence in their lives, they can be strong and independent contributing members to society.
We have a three-dimensional vision for change: changing hearts and minds of young women and men, impacting public attitudes, and reforming systems that deny gender justice. We carry out this mission through a variety of programs.
And it doesn’t end at Akshara. There’s much more happening to make India a gender just country. If you should like to know more about it, please feel free to read through:
STAND UP AGAINST VIOLENCE | HARASSMAP | STREENET | THE LATEST NEWS
HOW WE DO IT
Akshara provides scholarships for education, training in life and technical skills, and job placement for socially and economically disadvantaged young women between the ages of 14 and 20.
Akshara trains young men to become supporters of gender equality and take up personal and social action
Akshara creates gender oriented educational material online certificate course on violence against women manuals and training materialvideos and documentaries provides a reference facility and reading room
Akshara lobbies with the State
In the city, we lobby with the police for a better emergency helpline for women
With the Municipal bodies for open spaces and safety of women
With public transport authorities for the safety of women
Joins in networking with city based and national women’s and other groups for legislation and policies
Our vision is to establish a gender just and violence free society
Enhance societal consciousness on gender inequality
Empowerment of women and youth
• Breaking the cycle of poverty, vulnerability and disempowerment of girls
• Gender sensitive youth by initiating personal and social change
Prevent violence on women
• Promoting gender inclusivity in three cities of India by 2020
• Fostering partnerships for gender just laws and policies
We also utilize a variety of approaches in order to make this vision a reality. These approaches are:
Information dissemination and participatory research
Training and mobilization of youth and women
Promoting solutions through lobbying with local authorities and institutions
Mobilising public support through campaigns
THE BOARD AND GENERAL BODY
Dr. Nandita Gandhi is a Co-Director and Managing Trustee who has played an active role in the women’s movement for the last two and a half decades.
Dr. Nandita ShahCo-Director, Managing Trustee is a professional social worker, activist of the women’s movement and a gender trainer. She is one of the many backbones of Akshara.
Ms. Nina Kapasi is a chartered accountant and concerned citizen- she is involved with setting up and streamlining Akshara’s financial systems
Ms. Abha Bhaiya is a founder member of Jagori, New Delhi, and Jagori Rural in Himachal Pradesh. She is also an activist of the women’s movement, a gender trainer and a consultant.
Ms. Anjali Dave has been working for over 15 years with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ Special Cell for Women and Children along with the Mumbai Police.
Ms. Sudipta Druv is the creative head of Ideas Box, IV production house which brings out programs for children.
Ms. Shimul Javeri Kadri is an architect who works on numerous public and private constructions. It’s her vision that has helped create the space that Akshara functions out of.
Mr. Gagan Sethi is a founder of Jan Vikas in Ahmedabad. He is also an OD consultant who has helped develop numerous organisations.
Mr. Pravin Gandhi is an Information Technology professional. He is the director of several companies and has been associated with FREA and Akshara for over 20 years.
NANDITA GANDHI – Co-Director
NANDITA SHAH – Co-Director
SNEHAL VELKAR – Co-ordinator: Safe City & YCP
SAKINA BAHORA – Financial Consultant
URMILA SALUNKHE – Training Officer
POORNIMA MANDPE – PO-YCP
ROSHANI KADAM – PO-EDP
KIMAYA VARTAK – Secretary & Admin
Maruti Salve – Office Support
The 1960-70s were the harbinger of a counter-culture, a search for alternatives, methods and new ideas. Different people from different backgrounds came together to experiment, march and bring new hopes and actions. Fast forward to the 1980s and you have the women’s movement: new revolutionary ideas and women marching to transform their worlds into a safer, more loving and equal place.
The three founder members of Akshara were working in different development organisations in Mumbai. Like other women, they had read the open letter to the Supreme Court circulated by eminent lawyers asking for a review of the Mathura Rape Case. They joined the spontaneous gathering of women that lead to the formation of the Forum against Rape.
And so began the era of a new consciousness of women, a new stream within the women’s movement, with different issues and strategies. We participated in the many campaigns of the movement, protested on the streets, wrote articles, gave speeches and took feminism into other progressive movements.
But what is a revolution without realising one’s shortcomings? Ours was no different. We realised that we were running short on information. We needed more data to support ourselves. We needed theories for the process to be successful.
We did what every self-respecting activist does. We rolled up our sleeves and got to work. We began with Maitreyi, a newsletter on gender information which was stencil cut and cyclostyled for circulation. This was our idea of packaged information in the pre-Internet era! Soon enough, we had created a stash of documents so large, we needed a space for communication and an exchange of information.
Then came 1982 and an idea – an idea with little money and scarce resources. We survived in small rooms, met in public parks and worked on – ironically – kitchen tables. We received donations for books but had no place to keep them. We developed our own classification system for organizing the books called the Akshara Classification System. By compiling our new system into a manual, we were even able to share it with other documentation centres. And with all this, our informal library had been formed. But, running it out of our homes was no longer feasible, so we began the enormous task of finding an official space and financial resources; organising the library and producing much needed data.
In 1985, we began documenting the women’s movement and turned it into a book called The Issues at Stake: Theory and Practice in the Contemporary Women’s Movement, which was published by Kali for Women, a feminist publishing house. Three low cost booklets were produced called the Quota Question [on electoral reservations for women], The Shadow Workers [on hand based women workers] and Not Just a Matter of Faith [on communalism].
We formally established ourselves as an organisation in 1995 when we were able to procure a space as a program of an older development organisation called FREA. Back in the 1950s, several IIT students wanting to use technology for change had formed the Front for Rapid Economic Advancement (FREA). They invited us on the trustee board and as directors of FREA/Akshara. This route eliminated the legal and administrative red tape of registration. Once established, Akshara began its evolution as a project of FREA.
This budding organisation had to reflect the principles, concerns and strategies of the movement as well as have the stability and structure of an organisation. We saw Akshara as a space for activists and students of women’s studies. While we organised ourselves to be a women’s resource centre with our library of fiction and movement books, a question arose before us: How are we ‘alternative’? Our classification system was alternative to the established Dewey System. We were creating low cost booklets for activists who couldn’t afford to buy books related to current and controversial issues like electoral reservations, the uniform civil code debate, the controversy around Section 498A and domestic violence. The Library Program’s important plank was quite unlike a library. In that, Akshara went out to students and lecturers. We organised refresher courses for college lecturers and helped in training them to teach new topics. Students were given workshops on assignment writing on gender issues. But what about other young people? We made interactive games for young people and put them up as Yuvati Mela, which later included young men and boys in the Yuvak Mela. Currently, we have a Kishor and KishorI Mela for children and each Mela has the potential of reaching more than 300 people in one day.
And so began our Outreach Program. The year was 1998. We used the National Social Service as our entry point in several low-resource and non-elitist colleges in the city. In doing so, we were able to train youth to be gender advocates and supporters of gender equality in their higher learning institutes and daily life. Every year we involved a small group of leaders and a larger group of students in our college programs. Our ‘graduates’ went on to join social work colleges, take up jobs in NGOs or simply become sensitized and gender conscious citizens. Many of the women in our youth program had a desperate need for financial support, which lead to a third program called the Scholarship Program in 2000. It supported young women to complete their formal education and/or livelihood skills.
Basing ourselves on the results of a Strategic Planning Exercise in the year 2000, we revisited each program’s objectives and strategies and restructured them on the basis of the shifts in context and concepts.
• The Outreach Program was re-conceptualised as the Youth for Change Program. We shifted its emphasis to women’s rights and capacity building of youth for leadership and for group formation and action.
• The Scholarship Program became the Empowering Dreams Program, adding initiatives for self-development through gender trainings, exposure visits and other workshops to the existing financial support program. Moving into the Municipal Corporation’s Gender Resource Centre, 2013 found us developing the program in two wards with local young women and women activists. Each year about 100-150 young women are given financial assistance, gender education, life skills, employability and technical skills. The impact is at the personal level, creating a confident young woman who has the skills to be economically independent..
• The Information for Transformation Program, formerly the Library Program, concentrates on the collection of relevant information and dissemination through the reference library, Yuvati Melas and training modules. A course for long distance learning for activists from four cities – StreeNet – was also launched, in 2003. In 2013, this initiative was merged into other Akshara programs.
• The Community Initiatives Program was located in Dharavi and collaborated with 12 active partners. Within some time, we noticed that it required intense grass roots interactions, which is not the focus of our work at Akshara. Because of this, we closed the program after two years.
• The Partners for Justice Program was created to bring together all activities related to national and international networking and participation in the National Conferences in India and the World Social Forum in different countries. We are active members of the National Network of Autonomous Women’s Groups which is comprised of 42 old and new women’s groups and supported by the organisations of 6 National Conferences. At the international level, we participated in anti-globalisation platforms such as the Asian Social Forum in 2003, the International Youth Camp (IYC) and the World Social Forum (WSF). We helped organise the ‘Feminist Dialogues’ with 4 international networks from Latin America, Africa, USA, Philippines and Sri Lanka in four venues of the WSF. The Feminist Dialogues emerged as an interactive space for transnational feminist movements.
In a ripple of development, we moved from individual and group gender awareness to public awareness and to state advocacy. If sensitized people do not pressurize the state and its many bodies to take action, there can be no change in our systems. Through the years, we have actively built up a connection between the micro and the macro.
Our Safe City Program allowed us a focus on larger systems which can help reduce violence on women. Its roots lay in the 2006 participatory survey of 956 students and teachers relating to sexual harassment. We were surprised to find that 61.7% answered that they had experienced harassment. Strange to us, neither the students nor the teachers were aware of the existence of the Women’s Development Cell or the Grievance Committee. The students in Thane approached their Police Commissioner who set up a helpline for such cases. This survey and helpline lead to another wider survey and a more comprehensive helpline in the next two years.
On New Year’s Eve of the same year, a mob of men sexually molested two women at a 5 star hotel and roused the anger of women’s groups who demanded an emergency police helpline. With the Mumbai Police’s prior experiences creating Thane’s helpline, Akshara was able to work closely with them to establish 103 in 2008. In 2012 and 2013, Akshara conducted a 5000 people survey along with Hindustan Times on sexual harassment which discovered that women were most harassed in public buses. We began the arduous task of reaching out to 22,000 bus conductors and drivers who ferry at least 2 million women throughout the city and surrounding suburbs each day. The Safe City Program covers advocacy with the BEST, Police, Municipality, and urban planner designing the Development Plan 2014 to 2034 for Mumbai.