In recent times, with the upsurge of vocal dialogue, especially in urban areas, against a linearly led and male-dominated society, the ceiling of patriarchy has started to show evident cracks. But, still swirling around the edgy corners of quaint towns and quieter households, lie a palpable brew of stereotypes that restrict women to certain choices that limits their liberation. Change might be visible, but more stories of breaking the glass ceiling must come out to trigger masses and conjoin a constant upheaval. The journey of Sushmanjali is one such inspiring story.
Hailing from Ongole, Prakasam District in Andhra Pradesh, Sushmanjali was always an energetic and friendly student, popular among her peers as well as teachers. Right since childhood, she could sense the lines of patriarchy intersecting the way in which she was brought up. She noticed the differences in the upbringing of her brother and herself, even in the minutest of things. Sushmanjali recalls how her brother was freely encouraged to ride a bike, at any time of the day, while she had to remain at home because she was a girl. She also noticed how the fact that her mother earned more than her father, was looked down upon a substantial chunk of their neighbourhood.
After acing her 10th standard board examinations, Sushmanjali was an eager beaver, ready to take up humanities. However, her parents were against this. In the small town of Ongole, where Sushmanjali studied, it was a vested expectation to take up science if you did well in your 10th board examinations – a scenario popular in many parts of the country. She remembers the days of frustration during her high school, where she felt no personal connect with any of the students or faculties, unlike in school. Yet, despite her despair, she managed to secure a whopping 97.3% in her 12th board examinations. There was no looking back now. Undeterred by her parents’ constant disapproval, Sushmanjali applied for the BA course in History and Political Science in one of the country’s most prestigious humanities colleges – Lady Shri Ram College for Women in Delhi (LSR). “I really had to fight to come here. In fact, I filled in my application forms all by myself.”, says Sushmanjali.
Life was a mirroring opposite in Delhi than it was in Ongole, but with grit and gumption, Sushmanjali embraced this new way of living. Her passion for volunteering traces its lines right since her school days, but she got an opportunity to develop this passion after coming to LSR. In her first year, she applied for the role of volunteering for the Volunteer Agency Placement Programme (VAPP) of LSR, and that’s when her journey with Pravah commenced. Pravah is a Delhi based organization that has been working to support and inspire thousands of Young people to understand themselves and how they can constructively contribute to the society, since the past 25 years.
She says, “Back in my hometown, my marks and my gender defined my identity. I wanted to break this identity and establish myself as an individual once I came to college. Thus, I decided to volunteer for Pravah as it seemed like the right place.”
She became a part of the Smile In-turn-ship programme run by Pravah and volunteered at Jagori Rural Charitable Trust in Himachal Pradesh. SMILE (Students Mobilization Initiative for Learning through Exposure) Rural In-turn ship, is Pravah’s flagship youth programme; where young people (18- 25 years) are placed for a period of 3-6 weeks with grass-root level organizations and social movements across India. Jagori, primarily focuses on empowering women to become financially independent. The first week of the internship included an orientation program in a village in Jaipur, where she realized how she privileged she is to be studying in such a coveted institution, while people here indefatigably work just to earn one meal. She was exposed to the realities of different parts of the country, and forced to question. “I’ve always wondered why some people are privileged while others barely have basic necessities for survival. I often question why the world is like this.”, sighs Sushmanjali.
After the orientation program, Sushmanjali travelled with Jagori across various villages in the Kangra district of Himachal. She helped in raising funds and organizing self-help meetings. She also actively engaged in rallies on organic farming protection and sexual abuse. She played a major role in the ‘Mere ghar aake to dekho’ (Come and visit my village) campaign. One of Sushmanjali’s biggest myth busters was that the women of the village are very open and accepting, as well as aware about various issues. She also talks about how this experience helped her conquer her inherent fears, through small incidents, such as travelling solo in overly crowded buses or communicating with the locals.
One thing which intensified her commitment to Pravah, she says, is the value they give to each and every one of the volunteers. “The space that Pravah provides us with is what makes me visit them at least once every fortnight.”, she says.
Thus, after the internship, Sushmanjali fortified her bond with Pravah by engaging in the extended SMILE Fellowship program. Along with fellow volunteer Tahir, while working for an NGO called ‘Kat-Katha’, based in G.B. Road which primarily works to uplift sex workers, the duo helped in sensitizing not only the other volunteers but the general public as well, towards the conditions of sex workers. They observed, analyzed, but most importantly, understood why certain things happen in a certain way. They signified the importance of creating a dialogue to talk about subjects which are criticized as taboos.
Sushmanjali has been actively engaging with various NGOs including Pravah & MTB Himalaya to help different sections of society. She aspires to take up Development Studies for her masters. She believes that her impact is limited by just being a volunteer, and that by studying further, it will help her understand society better and thus enhance her capability to become a social entrepreneur and create a bigger change. She finally adds that her parents today are immensely extremely proud with her choices, and she has helped them realize that social sciences are something not for the ‘below average’ students, but instead, something that can transform societies.
This story of Sushmanjali can be a new stone to that palpable ceiling of patriarchy. It can be a new brick to lay foundation for inclusive spaces for those willing to break exclusions in society. This can be a new dialogue between the society and youth, where there can be a multitude of social change in mindset and community outreach.
Pravah SMILE In-turn-ship is a 3 – 6 week voluntary placement with an organisation/movement in any part of the country. SMILE encourages volunteers to turn the gaze inwards, and extend the understanding of their own selves to the society. It is thus referred to as “In-turn-ship”.
Pravah SMILE Fellowship aims to create self and social impact by enabling youth to take up leadership roles and run social action projects for a period of 6 months.
To connect to the Pravah SMILE programme you can get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or can directly apply here before November 20th.
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