When I was 17 years old in 2002 I saw a video on television that I will never forget for as long as I live. It was an image of a group of children being burnt alive in a street in Gujarat, a state in Western India. These children were from Hindu and Muslim communities and they were being burned alive in the name of religious fundamentalism, in one of the worst incidents of state sponsored genocide in India’s history. We were having dinner at my home that day, 3 generations of family sitting together and this was the evening live news coverage.
And later on, when the media asked the Chief Minister of that state, what he thought was the reason for riots between two communities and why the government had done nothing but watch this massacre, I will never forget his response. ‘Every action,’ he said, ‘has an equal and opposite reaction’. It hit me hard, when I read those words that we live in a country with zero accountability. Where government officials can quote Newton’s Third Law of Motion as sufficient justification for communal riots. Where so many of us silently accept the violation of people’s human rights because somewhere, we’ve accepted the idea that we can do nothing.
I was a high school student that year, preparing to give my final year examinations. The images and statements from the riot kept coming back to haunt me. As a young woman, I realized that I was powerless and that I was not alone. Young people constitute 31% of India’s population. That’s 315 million young people in India, who think they have no ability to affect change. Would this be the legacy that we left for future generations to come? That my generation stands and watches silently as people lose their lives?
I began my work 9 years ago, because I wanted to change those silent spaces in our lives. I want to live in a world where human rights are upheld, where young people’s leadership skills are strengthened, where women and young people are recognized as powerful change makers and equal stakeholders in society, and are involved in making policies and executing programmes that impact our health, rights and lives.
In 2002, with this vision, we started a youth led organization in India known as The YP Foundation or TYPF. TYPF supports and enables young people to create programmes and influence policies at all levels in the areas of gender, sexuality, health, education, the arts & governance. In the last 9 years, we have gone from 3 high school students working from my parent’s bedroom to 300,000 young people across the country.
In 2009 we decided to challenge the status quo, setting up India’s first youth led campaign for legalizing and supporting the implementation of sexuality education. ‘Know Your Body, Know Your Rights’, a campaign supported by IWHC, UN organizations and civil society. Since then, the Know Your Body, Know Your Rights programme has trained 300 young activists from different communities and cities across India. What we are challenging is the convention that young people diverse communities cannot work with each other, because they are too different. Rich and privileged and poor and unprivileged young people come together to lobby collectively and in their own communities, for safe access to health information and services.
When I began this work, people told me at every stage in my community, that change wasn’t possible and that this wasn’t my path. Women in own family and my community told me as a girl, to be ‘careful’, as women entrepreneurs weren’t considered ‘good marriage material’. They didn’t make good wives, and that I should focus on growing up to get a husband and having children. Living and growing up in a tremendously strong patriarchal society, my parents and my brother had to defend my decision to many people, but they stood by me, their strength giving me the unusual freedom to challenge the societal boundaries of being a girl.
In 2007, I got accepted to an Advocacy in Practice training in Hyderabad, India. At the time, sexuality education had been banned in 11 states and with the tools, information and skills we learned, were able to challenge this ban, by holding our first Press Conference and getting young people’s voices into daily newspapers, beginning a much needed dialogue with decision makers and policy makers. 4 years later, we have begun much needed dialogue within committees that enable us to input on national policies that address HIV, Drug Abuse and Sexuality Education.
Earlier this year, we received a request from an 18-year-old young woman, as we often do, to find a safe and affordable health clinic that could provide her with safe abortion services she needed. She called me at 3am, her parents had asked her to leave their home, as they were ‘embarrassed’ of an unwanted pregnancy. It took us half the night to find her the services and support she needed and I will never forget how upset, scared and worried she was. Our work is not a 9 to 5 job where we just give technical information, but providing critical support systems to young people when they have no one else to turn to.
I grew up with very information on my sexuality, body or right to health, despite being a privileged young person. No one ever taught me that women have the right to experience pleasure. We are always taught about our sexuality and bodies with fear, as if it is a disease and almost never, as a right that can be celebrated. This must change. If young people are trusted, given accurate information about their bodies and are encouraged to make informed decisions, they can be empowered to protect themselves and support their peers.
Leadership for my generation embodies the challenge of bringing together people from diverse fields and schools of thought. ‘Leaders’ in our generation don’t need to be single individuals with exceptional brilliance, but rather shared roles in communities. When you invest in building the skills, knowledge and access that a young person has, you empower young people to create change in their communities, not just for each other, but also for future generations to come. The return on that investment is boundless and standing here before you, I am but one example of that.
There is a time when everyone comes across something that they need to stand up for –within yourself or in your environment. Women need to stand up for other women. Our work is not about giving people privileges, but ensuring that their human rights are realized. This is the way it should be. Until every woman and every young person can stand up for themselves and lead just and healthy lives, our work is not done and we cannot go back to the comfort of our silence.
Ishita Chaudhry is the Founder and CEO of The YP Foundation. She made this address at the 2011 Annual Gala at the International Women’s Health Coalition in New York. Ishita can be reached at email@example.com