1. What inspired you to create the organization Women of Worth?
The Indian woman has come a long way in breaking out of the clutches that hold her from realizing her potential. On the one hand, we are an India that sees women lead in all facets of society and who have taken giant leaps in helping the nation move forward. But, on the other hand, we are an India where discrimination and exploitation on the basis of gender, class, caste, and color remain commonplace.
In spite of continuous efforts by the government, non-profit organizations, and social activists, marginalization of women continues to be one of the most pressing issues in modern day India. Women are suffering serious human rights violations both at home and in the workplace that often go unreported for fear of public embarrassment and social isolation.
WOW was born in the midst of these realities by a group of like-minded women who wanted to be agents of change. WOW is not merely in the business of fighting for women’s rights but in restoring human rights being denied to women. WOWs mission is simply to help women lay hold of their true value and worth. This message is intertwined into all our programs and projects.
2. Can you tell us about the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign and how it ties in with the mission of Women of Worth? What has the response been like and what do you hope to achieve?
The Dark is Beautiful campaign is a WOW initiative that was launched in 2009. Through this campaign WOW challenges the iniquitous belief that the value and beauty of an Indian woman is determined by the fairness of her skin. This belief, shaped by societal attitudes and reinforced by media messages, is corroding the self-worth of countless girls and women.
Our interactions and surveys on the issue have revealed that women with darker complexions are:
• Seen as the second or last option in industries that set beauty norms such as: fashion, entertainment, hospitality and the service sector
• Put down and treated differently from their lighter-skinned siblings
• Suffering from detrimental effects on their self-esteem by the uncomplimentary words from their own family members and relatives
• Rejected by potential marriage partners based on the color of their skin
• Subject to negative comments made by friends and even strangers from a very impressionable age (E.g. ‘She has nice features but she is so dark’ or ‘Being dark, she will have trouble finding a good husband’)
While it would appear that skin color is an issue that affects only women, our campaign has drawn a strong response from men as well.
We have had an overwhelming response since the campaign’s launch in 2009. The campaign went viral on social media in March 2013 and has received the support of several Bollywood actors like Nandita Das, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Gul Panag, Shekar Kapur, Vishaka Singh and others.
In July of last year we launched a petition on change.org asking Emami the makers of “Fair and Handsome’ to take down their discriminatory advertisement which suggests that life can be more successful with ‘fair skin’. With over 27, 000 signatures on the petition Mr. Goenka, Director of Emami refused to take the ad down.
However, just last month, the Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory body drafted a set of guidelines to be followed in products that suggest whitening. We feel this is a huge first step in ensuring responsible advertising (www.ascionline.org) when it comes to whitening products. But we are aware that mind sets still need to change and may take a long time to see beauty being redefined in the psyche of the common person.
3. Your most recent initiative has been the “Girl Arise” campaign. Can you share with us the mission and goals of this campaign?
The UN International Women’s day theme for 2014 is “EQUALITY FOR WOMEN IS PROGRESS FOR ALL”. In keeping with this theme, Women of Worth (WOW) launched the “Girl Arise” campaign.
Women’s Safety is a huge area of need which includes dangers a woman faces in the womb through sex-selective abortions, to child abuse, eve teasing, human trafficking, bonded labor, sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape and more.
The vision of the campaign is to celebrate the value, strength and worth of a woman while challenging status quo and social taboos, to anticipate change by focusing on practical solutions to safety issues in the work place, campuses, public spaces and homes and to participate in the process of change by bringing together influencers and change makers to make a difference
4. The violence and murder of girls in India is escalating despite stricter laws. Why and what are the solutions?
Laws alone cannot change society. Attitudes are shaped by our world view. Equality begins in the mind first. It is not surprising sometimes to see how women devalue themselves and are not convinced enough to say ‘no’ to abuse or violence. Crimes against women go unreported for that very same reason.
Violence against women is very often accepted as the norm in a society that shows gender discrimination at every stage of the woman’s life. Changing a society’s world view takes time and continuous effort.
Introducing gender equality lessons to children at an early age could be one such step in trying to educate a society towards positive change.
Another overlooked area is including men in the change enforcing process. Men need to be empowered to realize that women are valuable and equal. Men need to be encouraged to join hands with women to show the positive effects of gender equality.
5. Why do you support the documentary Petals in the Dust?
Our organization is aware of the existing issues surrounding sex selective abortions and skewed sex ratios in our country. These issues actually highlight that laws by themselves are not sufficient to protect women, even unborn girls. More grassroots work is necessary to raise awareness, sensitize men, change patriarchal beliefs and attitudes, and experience a true sense of equality in our society.
6. How can people get involved in your organization/campaigns?
Our initial call is for people to BE THE CHANGE THAT THEY WANT TO SEE (Mahatma Gandhi).
We invite people to initiate discussions or organize a simple an event around Dark is Beautiful or Girl Arise. We encourage people and especially women to stand up for what they believe, speak out boldly against injustices in their spheres and to use their talents as photographers, designers, artists, writers, musicians, etc. to bring awareness on women’s issues.
It is not easy to stand up to discrimination that one faces within the four walls of one’s home or workplace. Our hope is that campaign such as ours will give people the courage to fight back for what is rightfully theirs. We are convinced that change begins at home.
We also call upon men to join our movement in changing beauty perceptions based on skin color and to raise their voice to fight for women’s safety and well-being.
Thank you to Amisha Patel for interviewing Kavita Emmanuel