Kavya Program To Foster Female Leadership In Politics and Development

10th Apr 2013
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After graduating from the University of Mumbai with a Masters of Commerce, Geeta Ramakrishnan received a job with Ernst & Young as a fraud Investigation and dispute services consultant. While achieving significant success in the field, earning 3 promotions in her 5 years working there, the role made Geeta increasingly aware of the direct links that exist between the corporate sector and society, and the deep repercussions that unethical behaviour in the corporate sector can have.

“Given my role at Ernst & Young I had a lot of experience with the immoral conduct that takes place in the corporate space,” explained Geeta. “The want to create a positive impact on communities led me to the social sector.”

Geeta left Ernst & Young to search for a job in development, specifically in the public sector. Soon she was accepted as a fellow with the Swaniti Initiative, an organization that connects young Indians with political leadership with the end goal of social development. During her fellowship she engaged with Mr. Anurag Thakur, MP, on small consulting projects to develop skill training and education programs in Himachal Pradesh.

Geeta took a job with Swaniti as the Director of Strategy & Operations immediately after the fellowship. It was during this tenure that she began noticing another issue that she felt needed to be addressed: after three rounds of Swaniti fellowships and inducting 23 fellows overall, only two fellows, including herself, were women.

“There is a lot of apprehension among women in engaging in this sort of work,” said Geeta. “Some of the reasons are that working in this sector often requires you to go into rural parts of the country and that it involves engaging with political representatives, an idea that many women are apprehensive of. They question the rationale of engaging with governance and social development mechanisms in the country.”

In order to dispel these myths and shed light on the importance of female leadership in nation building and economic growth, Geeta has embarked on a new initiative – The Kavya Program, a daylong conference organized by Swanti Initiative and Harvard’s South Asia Institute. Kavya, a workshop for 25 passionate and talented young women, was conceived to bring about a change in this outlook by introducing the women of India to policy matters and social leadership opportunities, and by educating them on the complexities involved in the development of a nation.

Geeta Ramakrishnan in front of a classroom of students at a government school in HP

“Women experience a number of hurdles while trying to take on leadership roles in the public and social space,” explained Geeta. “With Kavya we want to encourage women to push through those hurdles, so it is easier for all women down the line. We hope to achieve this by inviting trailblazing leaders to come share their stories with our young and high potential participants and thereby inspire and encourage them to pursue their dreams in the area of social development and policy.”

If all goes to plan, Geeta hopes that the conference will soon lead to a yearlong program, connecting women with mentors to help them build on their development solutions, implement them as sustainable programs, and help them overcome many of the barriers they may face.

Kavya’s first conference is taking place on April 13th at the Welingkar School of Management (WeSchool) in Mumbai. Speakers include Smriti Irani, Parliamentarian, Neera Nundy, Director and Co-Founder of Dasra, Professor Richard Cash, Senior Lecturer on Global Health at Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Nachiket Mor, Advisor and Chairman of IFMR Trust, and Revathi Roy, Founder of Viira Cabs – India’s first all-women cab service.

“Civil societies and not for profit organizations in the country are a force to reckon with which motivate and provide numerous opportunities for women to actively participate in nation building,” said Geeta. “Women should take advantage of such avenues and work towards finding solutions to circumvent the smaller hurdles that come their way to achieve the much larger impact that their contribution can have on our society and economy.”

Along with her own efforts to shift the perception of women as members of the political and development processes, Geeta recognizes the need for a larger cultural shift in the way that society itself receives women as active members in these spaces. As such, the awareness and mentorship taken on by Kavya must be complimented by concentrated efforts from both the public and private sectors, says Geeta.

“At the government level the implementation of the Women’s Reservation Bill would mark a huge step forward in increasing women’s participation in nation building… It is also vital for women to actively participate at the grassroots administration through administrative bodies such as gram panchayats at the village level and panchayat samitis at the tehsil level,” noted Geeta. “Since it is not an easy task for rural women in the Indian society to participate in such governance activities, it is vital to create reserved seats for women in such administrative bodies.”

At the corporate level, Geeta points out that “the private sector can play a huge role by making strategic investments on women’s issues that will in turn empower women to take on academic and professional pursuits. Studies have proven that economically empowered women create healthier and more productive societies and a stronger economy.

Like any mass shift in societal perception, institutional efforts must be catalysed by grass roots movements. On Saturday, at the inaugural Kavya Program in Mumbai, Geeta hopes to plant the seeds that will turn the movement into a reality.

Visit the Swaniti website to find out more about Kavya.

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