Inspirational Woman Interview: Kirthi Jayakumar

Kirthi Jayakumar is the Founder and Director of The Red Elephant Foundation, an organization in Chennai, India built on storytelling, civilian peace-building and activism for women’s empowerment. She is the author of Stories of Hope and The Dove’s Lament, both short story collections. For her efforts related to women’s advocacy, peace activism and international development, Kirthi has been honored with the US Presidential Services Medal and two UN Online Volunteering Awards. Kirthi holds a Law Degree from The School of Excellence in Law in Chennai and a M.A. in Sustainable Peace in a Contemporary World from the University of Peace in Costa Rica.

What is your background?

Kirthi Jayakumar: I was born in Bangalore, and grew up between my grandparents’ home in Bangalore and with my mum, dad and brother in Chennai. I grew up with stars in my eyes, hoping to do medicine in the hope of “helping people”, until I realized that I could do that with development, too. I studied Law in Chennai and once I left law school, I began working – I tried my hand out at the corporate sector and at litigation. They were all wonderful people doing some great work, but something about the system had me running out, kicking and screaming. It got me thinking that many cases that sat warming the benches in the judiciary could have been addressed had the people involved been aware of their rights at the inception. That led me to start volunteering with the UN Online Volunteering System and a couple of organizations in Chennai. I began freelancing with a bunch of local publications and a bunch of legal journals and publishing initiatives. With time, I gained experience that gave me the freedom and the chance to found The Red Elephant Foundation.

You are the Founder of The Red Elephant Foundation, an initiative in Chennai built on storytelling, civilian peace-building and activism for women’s empowerment. What inspired you to found The Red Elephant Foundation and its impact on the community?

Kirthi Jayakumar: On December 15, 2012, I had turned 25. On December 16, 2012, the gang-rape in Delhi, as most people know, took place. On December 17, 2012, I was at the US Consulate General at Chennai, receiving an award for my work with a US-based NGO called Delta Women, which worked for the rights of women in the US and in Nigeria, and the right to education for children in Nigeria. When I received the award, I truly felt like a hypocrite – because here I was, receiving an award when there was so much more left to be done, and when a girl was battling for her life because we as a community sacrificed her at the altar of patriarchy, misogyny, toxic, hegemonic masculinity, and inaction on part of a civilian populace that should have been vigilant.

It was on the same day that I had come to face a dissociated past, where I had completely blocked out my own memories of facing abuse as a child. I decided to start by telling my story. Six months later, I looked back to see how telling my story had made a difference: one, parents and to-be parents began to be vigilant about the vulnerability of their children and began to work with their children to have open conversations towards staying safe. Two, I realized that I began to feel better because I had owned my narrative instead of dissociate it; my journey to healing began, and finally, people were beginning to get issues that were otherwise covert out into the open.

We then decided to get down to doing sound research (legal and policy) that we now use to suggest and inform change, We also work with youth and their parents through workshops, to shift mindsets through interactive and educational workshops to make them internalize gender equality as the norm.

Can you tell us about some of The Red Elephant Foundation’s programs working to address violence against women?

Kirthi Jayakumar: The Red Elephant Foundation’s activities are fall under five categories, and all of them relate to addressing themes of gender equality and VAWG.

Storytelling: In the long term, we hope to shift mindsets and pivot people naturally towards equality, peace and non-violence. This change can come only by making lasting impact through information. We curate stories of survivors, change-makers and peace-workers around the world so that these stories inspire action, empathy and awareness of the world around us. It is about putting a name and a face to the world’s many statistics. The stories we tell are curated on our home page.

Education & Sensitization: While our stories remain online and paint portraits of reality, we make them actionable by building curriculums to address issues of gender inequality, violence in communication and action, and to address the need for sensitization around gender based violence. These curriculums are tailor-made to suit each demographic’s needs, and are then used to conduct training sessions at schools, colleges, community groups and work places.

Tech For Good: We also understand the imminent need for assistance, sensitized help and qualitative support for survivors of violence. This encouraged the birth of an online tech-based tool that maps organizations providing legal, medical, resource, education/employment help and police, ambulance and consular services across 196 countries in the world. Our GBV Help Map can be found on this platform.

Digital Advocacy: We curate campaigns for awareness on themes related to gender’s intersections with race, religion, language, color, social situations and more variables using digital media. Some campaigns include: More than my Body and Break a Gender Stereotype. We also participate in the 16 Days of Activism against VAW and He For She.

Research: We have an active research and development wing that addresses specific and pressing questions under gender equality and peace that tie in with the law across the world, policies across the world, and psycho-social impacts and needs.These papers are curated here.

You also wrote Stories of Hope and The Dove’s Lament, two collections of short stories centered on international political conflicts, human rights abuses, hope and resilience. Can you tell us more about Stories of Hope and The Dove’s Lament, and some of your most valuable takeaways as you wrote these stories?

Kirthi Jayakumar: Stories of Hope is a collection of short stories. Each tale narrates the journey of a thin red line of hope that fights through adversity. Right from the heart of Nazi Germany in the thick of the holocaust to the collapse of the regime in Egypt in 2011; from the story of hunger in the core of Africa to the tale of Palestine’s recognition as a state, there are stories that celebrate the resilience of the human spirit. From stories of a mother turned out of her house by her son, to a mother who loses her newborn, to the young wife who must face a baffling truth – these are stories that can be anyone’s narrative.

The Dove’s Lament is a collection of 12 short stories. Each story chronicles a human narrative set against the larger background of a conflict – there’s the Rwandan Genocide, Kashmir, the Peshawar Attacks, the war in Sri Lanka, the Drug War in Afghanistan, the War Lord culture in Afghanistan and the Israel-Palestine conflict. The idea is to show that there is a human face, a human cost and a human story to war – and to tell the stories that numbers and statistics don’t.

I’ve always been motivated to study and understand war. In the work I have had the privilege of doing so far in life, I’ve understood that there has been a side to war that the world doesn’t pick up on. We read placid reports in the newspapers, and watch documentaries that tell us one part of the whole thing. We don’t often hear what it feels like to live life while in the middle of a conflict. We don’t often know about how it feels to be in the centre of a conflict and deal with existential issues.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Kirthi Jayakumar: I’d have to say that it would be two women – my mother and my grandmother. My mother is the reason I am who I am today, and the most empowering force in my life. My grandmother was the first one to teach me the quintessence of feminism. Among the many stories my grandmother told me, the one narrative that keeps coming back is the story of Savitri and Satyavan. Yama, the God of Death in Hindu Mythology decided that Satyavan’s time was up and showed up to claim his soul. Savitri’s undying love for Satyavan was the fuel for her courageous pursuit of Yama until the end of the world. Her courage moved the God of Death, and he returned the love of her life back to her. This story had been recurrent in my conversations with my grandmother for many reasons – once about undying love, once about unconditional love, once about letting go, and the one conversation that’s coming back strongly today is about the real meaning of feminism.

Love like Savitri’s did not discriminate, it did not think about parochial considerations such as gender or identity, it did not think about anything that could contain or pigeon-hole it. Instead, it acted, it proved to be the fulcrum for something so poignant, so sincere, so pure that precious little could take away from it. My grandmother redefined my myopic feminism. Feminism, that day, came to be about the right of choice, the right of equality and the right to be empowered in one’s choices and exercise of choices therein. In simple terms, it is just equality. It isn’t about denouncing a man because he is a man, or upholding a woman because she is a woman. It is, rather, about being considerate to the human being – no matter what attributes maybe involved.

What advice do you have for those seeking to pursue careers in international and human rights law?

Kirthi Jayakumar: It doesn’t matter how much you score in your tests and how many medals / awards you win. Your work as a human rights lawyer will find success and make a difference ONLY if you cultivate empathy within.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Kirthi Jayakumar: I’d like to quote Maya Angelou to answer this one: “I’m a feminist. I’ve been a female for a long time now. It’d be stupid not to be on my own side.”

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to women’s empowerment and international development?

Kirthi Jayakumar: There are so many – I’ll pick my top five in each category:

  1. Books: Mornings in Jenin (Susan Abulhawa); A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini); The Essential Feminist Reader (Estelle B Freedman); The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank); Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  2. Films: Queen (Hindi), English Vinglish (Hindi), Pray the Devil Back to Hell (English), I Came to Testify (English), Peace Unveiled (English)
  3. Websites: The Ladies’ Finger, Bitch Media, World Pulse, Everyday Feminism, The Red Elephant Foundation (shameless self-promotion)

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