I was never a part of the social change sector for only my individual development. The community that I belong to, called Gadiya Lohar, is a nomadic tribe of India. Women and girls here have a precarious existence. Food, education and health – are all scarce, in fact this tribe is still searching for its basic identity and dignity in the caste divided society of India. This situation, struggles and the community that I have seen since childhood are the prime inspiration and energy behind my work and activism. Leadership, such as mine, that emerge from deprived communities need to take responsibility for the development of such vulnerable communities. This is etched clearly in my heart and mind and all of my work reflects this. I believe that change should be led by those who are facing the problem – therefore, developing youth leaders from marginalised groups is my prime focus.

Few months ago, we came to know of this contest Tell Her Story on Facebook by the University of California, Berkeley to recognize remarkable women in South Asia. We submitted a photo story about my and my organisation Anubhuti’s work in the area of sexual literacy and body literacy. My work of over 18 years in the grassroot, from a feminist, rights-based perspective was showcased on the Tell Her Story facebook page and received lot of appreciation and support from my community, co-activists, people who had seen my work, the youth and women I work with and so on. Our work in Anubhuti, as a team of young women working against entrenched patriarchal norms on the ground despite personal and socio-political risks was seen by a lot of people, and more importantly, appreciated. The story emerged as one of the top 25, became one of the top 3 finalists, and now has been announced as the Grand Prize winner from entries coming from across South Asia.

I am currently at the University of California, having been invited as one of the top 3 finalists for panel discussions, networking meetings,  presentations and the award ceremony – Tell Her Story Gala.

This is a historic and extremely important opportunity for me in many ways –

Firstly, I am the first woman from my entire Gadiya Lohar community in India to travel outside the country. My responsibility increases tenfold to represent the situation and needs of my community and towards effecting change especially for the girls and women of my tribe.

Secondly, I am the founder and director of the young women-led Anubhuti. This is a two year-old organization working in Mumbai and Thane districts of Maharashtra in India. Our work involves training, mentoring youth in rural and urban communities and thus developing youth leaders from the grassroot to start working for socio-political change towards equity and justice. Along with these youth leaders, the organisation works in collaboration with municipal corporations and is advocating with local and state government for various rights of women such as right to accessible and dignified sanitation, right to equal sexual & reproductive health, right against workplace sexual harassment, right to public safety and so on. We are also working with various stakeholders such as police, health system, education system and so on to make them sensitive to gender, caste and other issues and thus uphold rights of the most vulnerable.

Thirdly, being a young woman leader belonging to a marginalised caste, working in the grassroot with a strong feminist perspective, activists like me face lot of economic, social and political risks. A platform like this gives international recognition and validation to the kind of work we do. It shows there is support of the international community for this kind of work. This platform increases my own and my organisation’s responsibility and resolve towards our objectives of grassroot youth-led social change based on values of justice, rights, equity and democracy. It gives me the opportunity to present such a process of change and to mobilize networks and resources for the same.

At this event, I have had the chance to meet professors and students of the University of California, Harvard as well as individuals from Facebook, Zareen’s and so on – who understand and support the process of social change. I am truly glad to have met these like-minded people from varied fields and different parts of the world. We sincerely appreciate the Tell Her Story team, Facebook, Zareen’s and University of California for bringing together grassroot young women leaders and for supporting our work.

– A message from Deepa Pawar, Founder & Director of Anubhuti Trust