Hyderabad: I grew up with Amma, Nanna, and Akka in Venkatapuram town of Secunderabad in a confused middle-class family. Growing up, I often heard visitors and relatives express emotions (I couldn't comprehend) to my parents for not having a son, or asking them if they are prepared enough for two daughters.
I remember my parents smiling at me and brushing them off, but they also made me learn Carnatic music instead of dance as it is a skill I can demonstrate even after I get married. I remember being told to constantly watch out, keep my eyes down, cross my legs, to not drag my feet, because girls should not invite attention. My evolving feminist mother might disagree here!
I grew up taking as little place as possible and weighing every move of mine against the attention it takes and redirecting it accordingly. But, it was an arduous task given how chirpy and curious I was about life and full of ambition. I studied in a co-ed college where dress code applied to only girls and if a friend shared about receiving messages or men stalking her, we asked her to attract less attention.
At 21, I decided I wanted to be an Army Major but I was permanently rejected for medical reasons because my toes were 2 degrees cross. But, I was asked to feel relieved I didn't get through because it's not an easy/ safe place for women, including the Army medical officer. No one explained about who made it unsafe in the first place.
As most Telugu youth, I also joined a software company post my engineering. I felt freer. I wanted to work, learn, laugh, but I mostly ended up discontent with those cracking husband-wife jokes and those engaging with them. I also ended up being the one questioning them. But, I was approached by men and women individually, expressing solidarity to my views much later. After few engagements, such friends also started challenging the misogyny openly.
In 2012 Nirbhaya happened. It should not have happened. Those graphic images of that night will stay with all of us. It changed the way all of us looked at rape and shifted the narrative of victim-blaming and also got in much needed policy change.
I was raging and so was everyone else. All of us had easy simplistic solutions to ensure this never happens again, and all of us moved on with a hope that someone else is doing all these. Because, if we came up with different ideas, in just our mini brainstorming circles, our experienced and powerful decision-makers surely can come up with something more effective and important. I have been watching ever since for changes, I just couldn't seem to move on.
In 2019, Disha happened. A vet doc wanted to come home, and she was gang-raped and burnt alive, left to die. Again, it should not have happened. What could have prevented it?! How are such brutal men made? I cannot even begin to list UP cases. In Madhya Pradesh, abuse against minor girls is on the rise. Isn't this a serious issue in our country?!
Telangana NFHS-4 survey also reveals that approximately 85% women and 75% men say wife-beating is okay and acceptable (in three situations). Imagine children growing up in such environments that normalize violence! Is this how we picture our following generations to be? Is this how we see our #BangaruTelangana? 17 year old girl in Kothagudem district, 31 year old software professional in Hyderabad, 13 year old in Khammam, 14 yr old in shelter home, etc. Let me also add Domestic Violence and Dowry harassment in our own gullies and families and everywhere around.
This is our society. But, who has the duty to change it?
When Telangana became a separate state, it was my hope that there would be a renewed focus on women's rights. But the shocking facts emerge continuously and that disappoints me and countless other concerned citizens of the state and the country.
As a woman in Telangana, I felt scared, angry and discouraged - but, also as a citizen here, I know Telangana has been doing a great job with its Bharosa centers and SHE teams in empowering women. So, where exactly are we going wrong? The problem is that women rights are not considered community issues. Who has the mandate to engage and empower our community?
On researching, I realized that the Andhra Pradesh State Commission for Women was constituted in 1998. (after 20 years of struggle). And its sole purpose was to improve the status of women and to inquire into unfair practices. A lot of us want to help achieve gender equality and volunteering with Telangana State Women's Commission would be a start. But, to my surprise, there is no website! No Commission! Nothing! Nada! For more than 2 years 4 months!
Telangana is the youngest state in India and has already received recognition for its progress, especially in the IT sector. Even trees and sheep had digital presence under Telangana schemes!! It is therefore shocking to see that there was no website for our State Commission for Women. States like Karnataka and Kerala have their own fully-functional online portal with detailed information on their activities, volunteering opportunities, annual reports, legal documents and other relevant data.
I started a petition change.org/WomComMatters in August, 2018 aimed at raising awareness on this issue. Soon, Prashanthi, friend and social worker, joined in. Sumitra Akka from Ankuram invited us to One Billion Rising event. Couple of friends and I went to the rally with posters on women's commission. We sang Kamla Bhasin's Azaadi song together that rainy day.
I was introduced to stellar women. Soon, I was joined by more friends and their friends. We met the previous Secretary of WCD Department Jagadeeshwar Rao multiple times who was very helpful. We worked together and helped in the website design. But, nothing concrete happened.
All this while, there was no Women's Commission. We thought it will happen soon as how can government not have a Women's Commission. Because the data is in front of all of us. I changed my petition asking for a website to fully-functional Women's Commission. A lot of friends and family supported my passion but very few understood why. It was understandable.
I read the Women's Commission Act about 30 times. I started picking out key points and sharing it with my team. Slowly, we started #ActReading session, where we bring 10-20 individuals together online for an hour and read the Act together. It's empowering to read and learn that provisions for safeguarding women's constitutional and legal rights exist but are blatantly disregarded. Some of those who attended the sessions joined the team full time.
Meanwhile, Media who picked up the initial petition story also started following the campaign. Friends in media started supporting the campaign. Priyanka from my team led a group of volunteers at Hyderabad Power Walk. She was able to convince the Anganwadi teachers to join the rally. Farheen led a team of software engineers, designers in three different time zones and we were able to launch a website womcommatters.in.
This website boasts of all resources in one place. Verified list of helplines, information on Acts/ policies, etc. Ms. Sharon Esther wrote to Hon'ble President of India. Prof. Jyothsna from TDP made it her fight. MLA Seethakka raised it in the Assembly after she promised us in our panel discussion. Prof. Sujatha Surepally wrote articles. Satyavathy Akka, Sajaya Akka have been raising this in their stellar writing.
We visited colleges conducting orientation sessions. We ran offline campaigns. Gayatri, Haritha, Ananya made a documentary which was supported by Video Volunteers and US Embassy. This was screened in Hyderabad film festival. We partnered with different NGOs during Covid. We helped rescue women from domestic violence, we helped in fundraising for cloth pads, and we just kept going. Savitri made a newsletter. Neha made social media posts. We have supporters from over 50 registered organizations. 30,000+ people have added their voice on the change petition. Mind you, Women's Commission is not a fancy ask by itself.
We have been successful in driving a campaign on awareness and action. Throughout, She Creates Change community has been a backbone. We did tweetathons and mailed the decision-makers. We started different initiatives. Teju and Gauri started Bodylogue – a space to talk about body positivity. Sreecharan is running marathons dedicating to #WomComMatters cause. Khalida Apa speaks about us at every opportunity we get. NCW chairperson met us and informed that she will follow up with Chief Secretary again. She issued press releases. Meghna designs kickass posters for us. We formed a Task Force of 25 active volunteers who bring their skills and expertise. Kola helped us with our strategic planning exercise with our goals beyond just advocacy for women's commission. Ms. Ramys Rao wrote a letter to Chief Justice which was converted into PIL. We were able to connect Asifabad young girls through letters to urban young women in a "letter of belief" campaign. Oh, I can go on and on.
This is what a people's movement looks like. There is no one single hero like in 'Tollywood '. But, there is one single cause that can connect people where so many of us come together for our collective good. Telangana Government hosted a website dedicated for Women's Commission. Now, Women can lodge complaints from anywhere and the data is in public domain. It certainly will not solve all the issues. But, it is the most powerful start. And I am grateful to have the opportunity, privilege and luck to be the influence, to have played a part in this historic movement.
Let us help Telangana achieve the No.1 position for its commitment towards women's safety starting with increased visibility, transparency and accountability of the State Commission for Women. Sign my petition. Join hands.
Together, let us make a difference and help Telangana take another step forward for Women's wellbeing and safety. So that no other girl is ever felt as a burden but a blessing.