How it began at Akshara Centre

The Mumbai-based Akshara Centre grew as result of the contemporary Indian women’s movement of the 1980s, which primarily campaigned against violence against women. The organisation was established in 1995 as a resource centre, at a time when women’s rights were gaining momentum in society and there was a rising need for material from a gender perspective. Their initial goal was to educate both women and youth on the subject of women abuse so as to rid society off the same.

In a casual and frank conversation with co-founder and co-director Nandita Shah, I learnt about the influences and motivations that led her to set up Akshara. It was no single incident but simply her observations of society that essentially lead to the same. As she said, “From a young age, I noticed inequalities between males and females in societies, and I wasn’t totally comfortable with it.” As she grew, she encountered more incidents through which the unjust social attitude and abuse towards women became more and more evident. With these incidents in mind, Nandita went on to study social work, gaining a masters in development and women studies. Later came a Phd in Social Science from Amsterdam. Post her activism in the Indian Feminist Movement of the 80s, she became part of the World Social Forum, which is one of the largest civil society voices in the world. In 1992, along with Nandita Gandhi, she co-authored “The Issues at Stake: Theory and Practice in the Contemporary Women’s Movement in India,” which has now become a very significant resource and textbook on the issue.

In 1995, the two of them set up Akshara in response to the changing culture at that time. There was a desperate need for a centre which educated women on the rights they were entitled to. With time, they realised the need of taking the center and its resources to the people rather than being a place where people came to. It was also important to take the resources to the people in a language that they understood. So, they began conducting plays and workshops at colleges and events to educate people, especially youth, about women’s rights. After all, it’s in the late teenage years when the two genders start mingling a lot more.

While their efforts saw positive impact, they felt they were incomplete. Simply because education on the issue was not enough to pull women out of poverty. Rather empowering women through skills or higher education could bring about the desired results. As that would help them get jobs, earn a living and be truly independent. So began Computer and English trainings, which form a core of what Akshara does, even today. The organisation also supports girls in completing their higher education, especially those who need to pay for the same themselves.

A host of other programs have been introduced too as part of their efforts to take their mission to the street. This includes mobile libraries, which transports their library resources to poor communities on a temporary loan basis. Mobile libraries reach 200 women currently.

Then there’s Bare Foot Counselors, through which women are trained for 4 hours a day, twice a week, for 3 months. The training teaches them how to deal with domestic violence, how to handle various situations, how to diffuse them, legal options available etc.

Kishore Kishori is a program targeted at young school kids. Through games and events, the underlying message of gender and sexual harassment is communicated.

Through Safe City, they conduct audits through the city to assess the security of particular streets and lanes for women to pass through at different times of day; documenting possible threat issues including past incidents, no street lighting, less police patrol etc. These efforts have lead to measures, such as Harras-Map, which is a virtual map where results of Safe Walk can efficiently and effectively be accessed, edited and updated.

The Akshara team has also trained drivers and conductors of BEST buses on women safety and on how to handle various situations in which women commuters on their buses are threatened. Once they finish training the complete force of 3,000, they will begin training RPF (Railway Police and general police) personnel too. A similar tieup exists with Sion, KEM and Nair hospital, where in nurses and staff are educated on womens’ safety and trained on how to handle different situations.

Yes, that is a lot of programs and activities. This is clearly a cause that’s close to both the Nandita’s hearts and they are leaving no stone unturned to achieve the same!

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