At a time when many people her age think updating their Facebook status is their day’s apogee, Akshuna Bakshi, all of 25, is working towards gender sensitisation and women’s empowerment.
And she’s putting money where her mouth is, moved by the experience of millions of women day in and day out, facing harassment, discrimination and downright misogyny.
Fed up with the tribulations women face, Akshuna’s entrepreneurial spirit goaded her to start SHE, an NGO that engages women from all walks of life in Delhi NCR, helping them cope with day-to-day struggles. In the process, they are also sensitised to larger issues through simplified, structured activitieswoven with powerful messages.
Delhi girl Akshuna is the founder of Travelista, a company that encourages those struck by wanderlust to make travel films. It is also an e-commerce portal that showcases trinkets like jewellery, accessories and trinkets from various lands. HerStory had spoken to her in 2013, and three years down, she recaps her journey towards women’s empowerment.
All-women team takes on entrenched attitudes
She recalls,“I had approached Delhi Tourism about hosting India’s very first Travel Film and Photography Festival and they loved the idea, though they were slightly amused that a young 23-year-old woman would be organising it. From dealing with corrupt employees to being harassed by an onsite building worker in one of the city’s leading shopping malls while working on my pet project past midnight, I have faced it all. I often came across suggestions like hiring men to do the dirty work at the ground level. However, we have an all-women team and wouldn’t change it for anything. We prefer to fight and change attitudes.”
Today, her base has grown from a mere 25 designers to over 2,000, who regularly exhibit their product lines on Travelista. The company has seen more than a 100 percent increase in annual average growth rate (AAGR).
Something more meaningful
Even as Travelista was becoming an established name, Akshuna’s experiences convinced her she should use her clout for something more meaningful. “We thought instead of merely updating Facebook statuses and blaming the government for everything, we need to stand up and do something about the problems women face.”
She decided to organise a gala that united women from various walks of life and celebrate womanhood under the Travelista banner. That was how the SHE festival started.
A colourful affair with an impactful message, the festival’s USP is that it showcases oft-ignored topics on women empowerment like financial independence, body shaming, beauty biases and the like prevailing in society.With underlying humour headlining their activities,such as ‘A man is not a financial plan’ and ‘Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all’, along with workshops, SHE fosters women entrepreneurs. Some 70 talented designers and women entrepreneurs exhibited their wares at the last edition.
SHE becomes an NGO
The success of the festival brought applause as well as encouragement to set a loftier agenda. “We were approached by a number of women who loved the whole concept and wanted us to work more extensively. Hence, we decided to establish a NGO that uses innovative methods, rather than lectures and seminars, to resolve issues at the ground level.”
SHE was re-registered as an NGO in 2014, aiming to bring together a strong woman force. “As our new project, we wanted to address Delhi’s safety issues with an utterly personal and direct activity.” Thus, SHE conducted 18 women safety campaigns and workshops with organisations like Krav Maga India. Along with other NGOs like SARI and Rotaract, it distributed whistles as threat alerts and got Delhi University students to give performances on women empowerment at Dilli Haat INA.
The happiness of the girl child
In addition, SHE tied up with the restaurant franchise Johnny Rockets and real estate developer DLF to hold girl child education camps for youngsters from the JJ Colony slums, and organise Happiness Days for the little girls there with fun tea parties and treats on festival days.The NGO conducts SHE Happiness Trips and treks for over 50 underprivileged children to brighten up their Diwali and Christmas.
Last Diwali, SHE rewarded 20 girls from a slum with school bags, colouring books and crayon sets for achieving good grades.
However, one of the biggest challenges was how to continuously innovate to keep the community engaged. “There is a lot of resistance. We have to win the confidence of the slum leader. We often have to bribe the parents by offering free meals from McDonalds and gifts for the kids at the end of the drive or workshop.We were shocked to find that most women don’t want to stand up for themselves and are okay with settling for ‘societal norms’ deemed fit for them.”
Catching ’em young
But Akshuna and her team have persisted with their efforts. Adding gender sensitisation to their prime agenda as the year progressed, they developed special curricula highlighting gender equality, responsibility of the male child, cultivating respect for their female counterparts right from childhood. This has been incorporated into all their local education sessions.
It is a long haul. But in the meanwhile, SHE Festival, her signature project, grows bigger in its reach every year. Year three saw footfalls of over 20,000.