By Ria Gupta
Five powerful women from South Asia and the diaspora leading change in their own ways came together to discuss innovative approaches for empowering humanistic political leaders of tomorrow.
The solutions varied from creating more gender equality in leadership positions in both the public and private sectors, to developing leadership capabilities at the grassroot levels. The speakers also discussed the need for more humanistic leaders who put people before politics.
The discussion titled “Focus on Youth: Empowering Humanistic Political Leaders” was part of eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women, and was moderated by Beena Sarwar, Boston-based journalist-filmmaker, peacebuilder, and the founder-curator of South Asia Peace Action Network.
Beena opened the discussion with pertinent questions around how we can empower youth to become the kind of leaders that we need for a humanistic South Asia, and what needs to be done to inculcate humility in children of today’s society.
Joining her were Peggy Mohan, linguistic expert, author and educator; Tara Krishnaswamy, software director, activist, author and co-founder of Political Shakti women’s collective and Citizens for Bengaluru; Saba Gul, technology entrepreneur, investor and feminist activist; and Vani Tripathi Tikoo, actor, producer, columnist and socio-political activist.
US entrepreneur Saba Gul, who is of Pakistani origin, shed light on the privilege witnessed in leadership positions wherein the impact of societal and economic resources are not distributed equally. Such a difference occurs not only at the economic level, but also between genders.
“When you look at corporate leadership, last year’s statistics show that less than 3 percent of seed funding went to female founders. The system that thus gets perpetuated is very masculine,” she said, adding, “When I look at how entrepreneurs are groomed, I see a glorification of growth at the expense of people and the planet.”
“My background is in tech and I’ve used that in building companies, teams and solutions for problems on the ground. Over and over, I’ve seen that it is important to think about an alternate form of leadership. The red flag we should be looking for is a combination of hubris and ignorance. But when I look at teenagers, I feel so much hope,” she said. She believes the level of activism and care of the current generation is unprecedented across the globe.
In that light, it becomes the responsibility of today’s adults to challenge all such current notions and allow youngsters to lead with the possibility of creating a more egalitarian society.
Approaching the topic from another angle, Peggy Mohan, who was born and raised in Trinidad and now spends her time between India and US, drew a parallel between the Indian education system and apartheid.
“We find very small children admitted into elite schools [where the medium of instruction is English] from the start. Those who never speak English at home understand absolutely nothing, and for years end up occupying the bottom 25 percent of the class. These children are, in linguistic terms, separated from the children whom we wish to be leaders tomorrow,” she said.
According to her, we currently stand at a crossroads with two ways to choose from. “Either South Asia can turn into a remake of South Africa and Philippines, where few people know their own ancestral languages and keep it up for casual conversations while all other communication is in English. The other is to find a way at children’s levels to integrate them, so that they are not complete strangers to each other. It’s more important for an elite and an ordinary child within India to be able to communicate with one another, than for a child to communicate with someone in Silicon Valley,” she said.
This kind of an intra-national communication and sense of fraternity is the need of the hour to improve the current local socio-political situation, she asserted.
Peggy, who has authored the book Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through Its Languages (Penguin India / Viking, Rs 599), and currently teaches in a Delhi school, pointed out that, in India, the schooling system requires teachers to be sent from cities to teach in villages. Instead of forcing these teachers to learn and adapt to the area’s cultures as well as language, it would be better to have a locally adept teacher teach the students.
“We have to be open to other ways in which systems can run. Give children an opportunity to learn in a language they do understand. We also need to learn from children – it takes courage [for an educator] to say, ‘I don’t know, let’s find out’.”
Vani Tripathi Tikoo, who founded India’s first state-run drama school Madhya Pradesh Natya Vidyalaya in 2011 and who has worked as an educator at Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD), suggested alternate education and learning methodologies to achieve this.
“When we talk about leadership, we always look at the top-down approach rather than the bottom-up approach in most countries of Asia. India is a young country with more than 72 percent of the population under 35 years of age; this is why the former approach is flawed, and needs to be approached from the very beginning, the bottom,” she said.
Taking women in leadership as an example, she explained, “Communicative skill is the biggest challenge apart from finding funds for elections. No political party or leadership institutes who otherwise work on women’s empowerment ever give a thought to the woman who is starting out at the electoral arena, and is facing her first election, and to how difficult it is for her to address an election rally of five-hundred, five-thousand, or even sometimes fifty-thousand people.”
Similar to primary level education for children, a primary level educational tool should be set up for women fighting their first political battles on official turf, she suggested.
Activist Tara Krishnaswamy related her own experience to explain how active citizenship is another way to exercise the effects of the bottom-down approach. Her journey towards activism started when some friends who were standing for elections asked for her help with writing and backend work.
“I agreed to do it in complete anonymity, but was slowly drawn into the process. I moved into civic activism for the city of Bengaluru, and being able to get things done by pushing the local parties gave me confidence to start Political Shakti,” said Tara, who is a software director at an American software MNC.
Political Shakti is a nationwide non-partisan group calling women to join politics and fighting for 50 percent female representation in parliament and state legislature.
Tara’s experience is testimony to the flexible path active citizenship offers for young leaders to enter the political arena. On a voluntary basis, one can choose to devote as much time as suitable and to whatever vertical of work they’re comfortable with.
Pushing the audience to question the status quo, she said, “We keep talking about capacity building for women, assuming that men have those skills, which is untrue. Look at where we are from roads to water after 70 years of independence.” Now is the time to shed complacency, and employ a new way of thinking.