How Kirthi Jayakumar is addressing gender equality by giving women ‘Saahas’

Kirthi Jayakumar started the Red Elephant Foundation to advocate for peace and gender equality through digital advocacy, training, and storytelling and apps such as Saahas.

The brutal gang rape of 23-year-old Nirbhaya on a moving bus on the night of December 16, 2012 shook the country like no other, stirring up emotions and anger and leaving a lasting imprint on many who wanted to change the world for women.

Kirthi Jayakumar channelised her anger and rising emotions to start the Red Elephant Foundation, which works towards gender equality through diverse media.

This is how it happened. The day after the incident, on December 17, Kirthi was receiving an award for her work with a US-based NGO called Delta Women, at the US Consulate General at Chennai. She says she felt like a hypocrite. “I was receiving an award when there was so much more left to be done especially when a girl was battling for her life because we as a community sacrificed her at the altar of patriarchy, misogyny, toxic and hegemonic masculinity, and inaction on the part of a civilian populace that should have been vigilant. I went to bed that night thinking of how much we had allowed to pass in the name of ‘we are like this only’.”

Kirthi Jayakumar of Red Elephant Foundation

The same day she also came to face her dissociated past where she had faced bullying and abuse. “I had completely blocked out my own memories of facing abuse as a child but that day it all came back to me. That night, the Red Elephant Foundation was born,” she says.

The Red Elephant Foundation is an initiative that is built on the foundations of storytelling, training, tech-for-good, and digital advocacy for gender equity and civilian peace building.

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Painting the elephant red

Kirthi who spent her childhood between Chennai and Bengaluru, took up law when she realised that being a doctor was not the only way she could impact people’s lives.

She went onto volunteer with the UN Online Volunteering System and a couple of organisations in Chennai.  Simultaneously she started freelancing with a few local publications and other legal journals and publishing initiatives. Her work made her realise that everything connected to the gender quotient.

“If I worked with communities on awareness on their Right to Public Health, I noticed that women were kept out of it. The same applies to food, education, health care, infrastructure, and jobs. That was when it hit me: there's so much sitting on one domino - gender inequality. If we knocked it, this enormous global burden of inequality could just be knocked out,” she says.

From it launch in 2013 until now, the Red Elephant Foundation has told 300 stories online, held 112 workshops, and worked with 3,514 children. They have worked with 12 schools and four colleges. On why it’s called the Red Elephant Foundation, Kirthi says, “The idea was to paint the elephant in the room red until people would take notice of it and talk about it.”

Evolution and growth

The Red Elephant Foundation has continued to evolve over the years based on Kirthi and her team's learning. While storytelling helped parents become aware about their children’s vulnerabilities, after a year, they realised they had reached a plateau.

From that point onwards, the foundation ventured into policy and legal research to suggest and inform change and started training parents through workshops to not just help shift mindsets but also help them internalise gender equality as the norm.

But Kirthi felt they could do more and that led her to address the issue of violence against women.

“One aspect of this has been to help women get out of a violent environment and get help. This led us to work on developing a tech tool called Saahas (available now as mobile app, a chatbot, and a web app in six languages), that maps organisations across 197 countries (right now, out of these only Syria and North Korea remain information blackholes for obvious reasons), providing medical, legal, resource (food, shelter, clothing, crisis response), education and employment, police and medical  services, and consular establishments so that women can access them, get help, and stay safe.”

A six-member core team with the help of 50 volunteers drives the work the foundation does. Kirthi says, “More volunteers are always welcome.” Its revenue comes from the workshops they conduct for private schools. “We do not charge schools that work in the non-profit space or schools that educate children from marginalised communities,” she adds.

As the foundation evolved, they also began driving their mission of peace. The Red Elephant has built a peace bot.

“It teaches peace and by using simple language, engages with users. It also has two 50-day challenges - gender and peace - where you sign up with Saruki and it gives you one activity a day to engage with your challenge.

Saruki also has a Compassion Footprint Audit, which helps you assess your behaviour every day and determine how to become more peaceful,” reveals Kirthi.

Kirthi’s goal is to create impact by changing mindsets through encouraging the individual's themselves to think, rethink, shift, and grow with every thought.

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Funding and other challenges

As an entrepreneur, she feels her biggest challenge has been to find faith in herself. “If I fail to believe in the dreams I bring to the table, then there's really nothing to go forward on. My key milestones in my journey have been all my failures, pitfalls, grazed knees and bruised egos - because that's what I've been striving to respond to with lasting solutions.”

Kirthi’s primary challenge has been funding and community buy-in. Both necessary and crucial for growth and scale.

“Funding is usually hard to come by when you want to do work that involves asking uncomfortable questions and making people see how they've been buying into views that are not ideal for the future of the world. Community buy-in is a big challenge for the same reason - you're swimming against the tide to make change happen.”

Kirthi’s work has been recognised and she has received multiple awards. She has been a member of the SheLeadsTech (SLT) programme by Facebook.

“I am a lawyer by qualification and left anything to do with science back in 2003. When I set out to teach myself to code, a point came when I would go to sleep and find HTML codes jumping at me in my dreams. SLT gave me all that I needed to run the show - from marketing support, to space to speak and share, to even building networks.”

Woman on a mission

The birth of the Red Elephant Foundation and its evolution has also been closely linked to Kirthi’s own life experiences.

While the Nirbhaya gang rape drove her to start up, her entire life has been inspired by her mother, who has always supported her to heal, so that she could move ahead to change and impact the life of others.  

Kirthi grew up with a lot of violence and was bullied for her appearance and among other things, her focus on studies. Her mother was unaware about this till her 25th birthday when it all came out.

“My mother let her own grief and pain at what happened sit aside, and instead, focused on being an objective support system. She told me I had two choices: to move on, or to stay stuck. Either way, she said I had her unconditional support, and that every decision has its consequences that I had to know before I made one. She did not decide for me or push me. She gave me all that I needed to know and told me that I had all the time in the world to make a choice, and that the choice itself was dynamic. The Red Elephant Foundation was born from the courage she gave me.”

And it is the same feeling she wants to pass on to others through the work of the Foundation and that is what makes her a woman on a mission.  

Also read: Exploring the three dimensions of gender equality


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