Dr. Kiran Modi is the founder & managing trustee of Udayan Care. She expounds on the social status of women and their positioning in society through her experiences.
Q. First of all, happy women’s day to you, Dr. Modi, you’ve contributed extensively to society through your NGO, Udayan Care, having a doctorate from IIT, what inspired you to decide that you’ve to work particularly for society?
A: Udayan Care was my chance to turn a deep, personal tragedy into boundless happiness and joy for myself and my family, as well as for thousands of impoverished children and youth. It was a watershed moment in my life when I have reinforced in my belief the importance of championing the cause of children without parental care, as that was my entry into the world of development.
Through the years, as my work took me across the world, to know about children growing up in care, outside of family, I came to understand the universality of the trust deficit of children who had been violated and torn from family. My life’s goal, thus, became the development of a model of care whose cornerstone would be as close to a ‘family unit’ as possible.
In India, where large-scale institutional care is the first rather than the last resort for children without parental care, we, at Udayan Care, conceptualized the small group home model of care, for Udayan Ghars, under LIFE model: Living In Family environment. We have served more than 1500 children in our 16 such homes, by now. My efforts were recognized by the Government of India in 2011 when its report to the United Nations Committee on Child Rights referenced Udayan Care’s promotion of the group care model.
Family is the anchor for an individual’s emotional and physical well-being. A weakened family structure or absence of it hinders the development of an individual into a confident, strong, and emotionally balanced individual, who is capable of caring for his/her own family in the future. As a result, Udayan Care began to broaden its mission.
Udayan Care’s single-minded focus is on strengthening the family structure and it also informs and drives the curation and design of all our programs – whether it simulates a family environment as in Udayan Ghars, or supports the girls by providing for education support, as in Udayan Shalini Fellowships, or even vocational skills and employability training to youth coming from lower socio-economic strata, so that they can sustain and strengthen their families, after receiving IT training from our Udayan Care Information Technology and skill Centres.
Twenty-eight years of tireless, concentrated efforts to strengthen families and communities, through our deeply researched models, Udayan Care has earned me and the organization thousands of supporters, as well as the right to family and education for tens of thousands of underserved and disadvantaged children and youth.
Q. It’s been a long time since India got Independent, India, as a country has so many challenges to face the one that remains at the core, is strategies to empower women of the country, you have more than 28 years of experience in the field of social work, you must have worked with so many women and have interacted with so many women across the country, what do you think has been the country’s growth in terms of women empowerment in terms of your experience what growth have you seen?
A: Women empowerment is considered as a process that takes place over time, making women agents who formulate choices, control resources, and make strategic life choices. However, with the changing times and constant efforts by various activists, advocates and scholars, our society has evolved better in the last decade than in the last 50 years.
There have been significant improvements in the enrolment of girls at primary and elementary levels, but the dropout at the higher secondary levels is drastic from 91.58 percent (elementary) to 31.42 percent (higher secondary) (National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, 2018). The increase in school dropout between lower secondary and upper secondary levels is due to a number of factors including marriage, economic barriers, safety concerns, quality of school education, taking up paid work, or engaging in unpaid care work within the household. Traditionally defined gender roles and cultural norms add to the mismatch between the school enrolments and progress in the labour market.
Additionally, education is not perceived to be geared for employment and employability by parents of adolescent girls. Close to half (51 percent) of Indian girls drop out of school by the age of 15; 7.9 percent of women aged 15-19 years are already mothers or pregnant; 26.8 percent of women aged 20-24 years were married before the age of 18 years; 22.5 percent of the married adolescent girls and women have experienced spousal violence (UNICEF, Girls Not Brides, n.d.). With consistent efforts, we need to check this imbalance and move away from hegemony towards equity of gender balance in society.
Data shows a decline in child marriage in the last decade (from 46 percent to 23 percent for women) (National Family Health Survey (NFHS V, 2019-21), in India. However, one in three (29 percent) women (aged 18-49) married or with a partner have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence by their husband or partners, and 1.5 percent of young girls had experienced physical violence of the age group (NFHS V, 2019-21).
Even basic literacy removes barriers to women’s employment, more so when women receive higher education and exposure, which widens their employment opportunities beyond low-skilled types of work.
Enhancing Skills in Information Training and imparting vocational education and training can play an important role in helping women transition from school into the labour market, particularly as many poor women miss out on the higher levels of formal education which might expand their livelihood opportunities.
Women empowerment, especially in rural areas, has been a primary focus for Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) besides the Government. The Ministry of Women and Child Development collaborates with many NGOs for the implementation of its various schemes and for conducting research studies. The Government of India implements many of its schemes with the active participation and support of the NGOs as they play an important role in accelerating the pace of implementation at the ground level. Thus, the Indian government has identified ending violence against women as a key national priority for the same it has targeted to end all forms of discrimination, all forms of violence and exploitation against girls/ women, eliminate all harmful practices like child, early and forced marriage, recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, social protection policies and promotion of shared responsibility within the household, enhance the usage of information and communication technology for the empowerment of women.
Q. Dr. Modi, you yourself have a career in social work, what do you feel has been the most challenging face in your life, and how did you overcome it?
A: Udayan Care has been a part of my life. The most challenging phase of my life was the realization that a million children do not have a smooth childhood and adulthood as I did. They require help and support. Providing this help and support at interpersonal levels in the best possible way is a challenge that I still face. Life is full of challenges.
I would like to say, there are 3 characteristics that have helped me overcome all challenges; Self-awareness, Determination, and Resilience. I knew that working for children and women to strengthen their families and communities is my ultimate calling. It, therefore, became an inseparable part of my life and when you truly love what you do, no challenge is insurmountable. Your awareness of your life purpose, your mission, brings you the determination to fulfill it at any cost. That’s where your resilience to face challenges and emerge stronger, becomes your greatest tool.
Q. As your expertise is in child and youth care, what advice can you give to working women who have children, something that could help them to manage between the two?
A: Being a mother is the most demanding yet the most meaningful work in this world, and in addition to that, if you are a working woman, it just doubles the pressure. One must not forget that motherhood is one of those job roles which does not have any holiday, no offs, and demands constant attention. One suggestion to all the working women out there is, “Take Responsibility”, children require attention and direction, and no other individual does is better than, a ‘Mother’. With opportunities knocking on the door, for facilitating women’s empowerment, and women’s rising self-awareness, it does not require too much a push. There are enough role models all around us, who have struck a wonderful balance between work life and personal life. With a push towards equity of opportunities, menfolk also have started realizing the value, and most of them have started assisting their partners meaningfully at home too. Society is changing!
Q. Since childhood days girls are told and trained to behave in a particular way, do you feel that gender roles are responsible for women not being seen as strong and courageous, or there are different criteria to differentiate what constitutes a woman being strong and courageous than a man?
A: Gendered positioning of expected social behaviors creates the categorization of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. When gender roles are normalized, they become the default behavioral standard that is supposed to be adhered to by each gender. Women, of course, bear most of the brunt because patriarchy expects women to accept the idea that their place in society is not as relevant as those of men.
The detrimental effects of projecting an image of the ‘good woman’, without taking into consideration the structures that are employed in the creation of this problematic ideal. It is high time for us to realize that all of us are the victims of Friedan’s unnamed problem that is shaped and framed by our cultural learnings.
Patriarchy conditions female purpose in the social hierarchy in such a way that women are not expected to be the learners of sexual knowledge. It is men who must dominate and initiate it, not women. When we try to question this by citing how discriminatory and oppressive it is, we largely receive silence and the same old response – ‘it has always been like that.’
Equality isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong, it’s about changing the way the world, and more often than not, they themselves acknowledge that strength. With changing norms, with increasing self and societal awareness, a woman is now increasingly being seen as courageous and strong. The gendered lens is being reviewed thoroughly.