Closing speech: Build Together 2022

Sep 22, 2022


Namaste, everyone. And wow, it has been an exhilarating one and a half days. Of presentations, conversations, the igniting of ideas , the sharing of experiences and the airing of our hopes and our fears. That too in a place called IF?BE. Which reminds us that IF we can converge in our ideals and our approaches, we can BE successful in our societal mission.

This gathering has been a melange of people and organisations that work in the gender space, with both men and women and other genders, of practitioners and donors, of academics and artistes, and of diverse people all passionately interested in this very human project of together building a more gender equitable world, and more importantly a compassionate, more empathetic society that is both empowered and Co-Powered (a term I first used at one of our similar conferences before) to create the better future we crave.

A big thank you to you all for coming here, for sharing, for helping build together this field of gender equity. RNP does have a special focus on young men and boys, but really it is for the goal of universal equity and agency, and this is one pathway to that, something we see as a root cause to address.

I am so humbled and delighted to see so many organisations that work with women present in the room. Six years ago when I made a rather naive though passionate speech on the need to work with young men and boys, I thought maybe I have burnt some bridges at the bridges conference as it was called, because many of the feminists in the room were clearly worried that I was going to cause a shift away from women’s empowerment. But of course that is NOT AT ALL what I was talking about. I was expressing my concern that if we overlook the needs of half of humanity, we may be missing something crucial in the big picture, and exactly for the women whom we want to empower.

I think recent events, not just in india but worldwide confirm that there is indeed a backlash from increasingly insecure males of all political and religious hues. And all of us here in this room must pay keen attention to why that is happening, and design a non-judgemental, highly creative response to this emergence, not just in our programmatic work, but within each one of us, and in our homes, social groups and in the broader samaaj.

As Rajni Bakshi said yesterday, we should not forget how much has already been achieved. You can never lock up an idea that has already been liberated. Yes, powers that be may try to push women back – in the US, in Iran, In Afghanistan, and here too, but this is like the waves on the Sea in a high tide. As they recede, you see the ocean of possibilities underneath. Gender fluidity, gender equity are now in the body of this ocean, no matter the shapeshift of the ebbs and flows. So let’s make this belief, this hope, a habit, the positive energy that drives our work together. And as I keep saying, we have to be particularly optimistic in a country as young as ours, history tells us how idealistic youth are, how energetic and how determined to make their own futures. Young people always innovate, always find new ways to meet old goals, and I can really see that in this group. So a shout out to the idealism and energy and optimism of the youth in this room, and May you infect us all.

I picked up so many ideas and thoughts from all of you since yesterday. One clear message was that we cannot lump all men together. There are vast power imbalances among men due to caste religion geography and income. We need more qualitative, maybe ethnographic research to understand both the lived realities and the pathways forward. I couldn’t agree more. But as some of us were discussing yesterday, can we create new opportunities from this understanding? Even as we acknowledge and empathise with the harsh conditions in the lives of Dalit or other minority males, can we work alongside them to reimagine their use of power in their horizontal groups, and with the women they live among? If this whole mission is really about reimagined power structures, and not simply about replacing one set of oppressed people with another, then this work becomes incredibly important. So let’s keep these questions and these debates alive in all our gatherings going forward.

Another thread I picked up on yesterday was on funding anxiety. It is hard to find donors for the gender space. While we will do our bit to expand the donor community, and I again call out with gratitude the number of donor organisations represented here, I also want us all to commit to telling our stories better. We need to build stronger bridges to the islands inhabited by the donor community. Good stories are the bricks by which this bridge can be built. We cannot expect donors to fund us just because we are doing really good societal work. We must draw donors to us by the power of our stories, by the analysis of our impact, and by our keen understanding of how this problem affects them and their interests as well. As I have been writing and saying for a while now, we are all interconnected, the elite and the poor and the ones in between. Some of us are on the upper decks, in private cabins, some in the lower decks, some are right at the bottom of the boat, shovelling coal, but we are all perhaps on the Titanic together, and we must all work to steer it away from the iceberg, or we all perish. No one can secede from this task. So there lies the opportunity for us, to share this story and reel in some big donor fish. Donors, I do hope you are coming close to the bait. And don’t worry, we release the catch!

Speaking of stories, I watch this Hindi serial, which is currently the most popular TV serial in the country. Millions of people watch it every day , including many many men, some surreptitiously, as I read in an article. It is called Anupama, and it is on Hotstar. How many of you watch it? I watch it partly to educate myself, partly to keep my Hindi current, and partly because no one in India can really resist high melodrama.

The point of bringing it up is that its story line quite confuses me at times. Sometimes, its ideas are boldly progressive, sometimes confusingly regressive. But maybe that just reflects the state of our society. Many ideas, many centuries, many streams are lived in simultaneously on this land. There is good and bad in all of us. Maybe we should thrive in this diversity, in this confusion, until the clear streams of reason emerge. The good news is that all those ideas, all those view points are passionately aired in this serial, and there too, the arc of its history seems to be towards justice. More power to good stories, I say.

That reminds me of another thing that we have been talking about at this conference. We must remember that there are , many many many good men in the world, who have silently worked on themselves and with the women in their lives to balance power better. Again in the spirit of inclusion, of not generalising, of not lumping men together, let us acknowledge, celebrate and ally with and work with the men who are in this journey. Many of them are in this room, so dhanyavaad to you all. And to our great joy, as we found out in the extensive research work done by our communications partners, Cracker and Rush, some of whose findings are represented on the walls outside, and I urge you to really look at that carefully, apparently many young people now celebrate and idolise a new kind of male, Shah Rukh over Salman earlier and now Ayushmann Khurana. That gives me great hope for it represents new norm formations and new sensitivity and new aspirations, as well as newly found comfort in a more caring, less aggressive, less overconfident maleness. As we heard in Men Ki Baat, Gen Z believes in women’s rights. They need embodiments of this sentiment. So Yay to actor humans like Ayushmann, Ranbir and Ranvir.

And now, as I come to a close, I want to point out again, as I did yesterday, how many senior leaders and established organisations we have in this room, from MAVA and Harish, to Abhijeet and CHSJ, to Sujata and CORO, and many more. Among our many partner portfolios, this is the one where all these organisations already have much experience of working together , and that is fantastic. so while we promise to support the convening, we urge you to take the leadership to continue to broaden and deepen these meetings, to give them a rhythm and a cadence, so that more meaningful work can happen, more bonds of trust can be woven, and this becomes a true, inclusive and strong movement for gender equity and reimagined power relationships. We still have a long way to go, to together create the grammar, the accessible language , the many more approaches needed to make our societal mission a reality, so let’s continue to build, but together.

At RNP, we feel we have come a long way from when we could partner with only one organisation ECF, to get this portfolio up and running. And now look at this room full of possibilities. Once gain, I thank you all, and I say a heartfelt thank you to the team at RNP, in this case especially Natasha Joshi, for working so hard to gather us all. At RNP, we are committed to the journey ahead, and as you will be hearing more of, we are renaming this portfolio because it was getting a little awkward to keep saying how interested we all are in young men and boys! I kid you not, that after some of my phone conversations with my colleagues on this subject, I get ads for dating services! So after the brilliant work done by our agency, we have converged on the word LAYAK. We like it because it means worthy, and the one strong aspiration that young males expressed in the research was to be layak, for themselves, for their loved ones, and for society at large. The word also holds us responsible at RNP to ourselves to be layak for the task ahead. We do look forward to your response and your collaboration.

Enjoy the rest of the meeting, including the film, safe journeys home, and see you again soon. Dhanyavaad and Namaste.



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