“Your sexist comments on the dining table often enrage me. When I think about my life goal it would be to live in a world where men and women are treated equally” reads a letter from someone trying to express the experience of being a woman in India. Quite apt given that it narrates the truth of many dining table conversations in the average Indian household. But again, there's another side to the story and there are bleaker truths to be heard.
Ironically, even complaining about the sexist conversations and gender disparity while sitting in the comforts of your home is a privilege that not everyone can enjoy. It was the same segment of underprivileged children that had Ananad Kapoor flabbergasted when he first moved to India back in 2004.
"I was really distraught with what I was seeing," Anand recollects.
The instant Anand looked into the hardships of the underprivileged youth of the country, he knew he had to something to "disrupt the cycle and impact a change." He immediately launched an inquiry into what was happening in the charitable spaces for children. What they found out was that it wasn't charity but a system to get them on their own feet that they really needed. Because while those below 18 were still getting support, all of it went kaput the instant they hit 18. This was the gap that needed to be bridged and Anand decided to shoulder the responsibility.
What followed was the inception of Creative Services Support Group (CSSG), a charity organization to support underprivileged youth by helping them into long-term careers through the provision of training courses and mentorship programs within the creative sector. A little work with these children and it didn't take long for Anand to understand that it was the gender disparity that had to be their starting point.
By then there was so much that had started bothering Anand. He shares "A lot of things baffled me. Why was it not safe to let my daughter out at night? I mean, I’d have been a very careless dad to do it. In fact, it was the same in my son's case. Also, there were other things. I kept wondering why wouldn't they educate girls after a point while their sons carried on with the education?"
Thus, without much delay, CSSG launched its initial operations and took around 2000 children under their wing and trained and educated them about the nuances of gender. The idea was to educate them on gender issues that affect their personal development and career opportunities that are open to them.
Soon enough this culminated into the second leg of their mission and the organisation ended up training 40 girls to be chefs. However, it was a side hustle that eventually became Anand's preoccupation. It was during his work with these girls that the thought of sharing their story with the world crossed his mind and thus CSSG came with the idea of asking girls from different walks of life to write open letters. The response was overwhelming as letters started pouring in from all over the world.
That was exactly when Anand knew that this was just the starting of something grand. He shares, "I noticed that it was the letters from Indian girls which were the most powerful. They were really fierce about wanting to create a change. I knew that we couldn't let this spirit die and that's when we started wondering: what to do with these letters?"
Inspiration struck soon enough as they decided to ask influential women and role models from all over the world to write replies to these letters. You'd be surprised to know some of the names that have gotten involved over the years. From Dia Mirza and Sonakshi Sinha to Donatella Versace and Pratibha Patil.
The project is now called "And Still I Rise" and Anand's vision is very clear. "We want to invite more responses from inspirational women and we'd then compile it into a book and share it in school. We want kids to read them and create a movement. Perhaps the book can lead to more letters and catalyse something even bigger."
In fact, the bigger change is already here. Back in 2016, Anand's 13-year-old daughter, Avaania got so moved by the initiative that she got involved in the process. Today at 17, she is spearheading the entire project. Well, didn't they tell us change begins at home?
Imagine girls from all walks of life, across the world, having a platform to voice their hopes, dreams, and fears. And most importantly, receiving a reply as a surety that they are cherished, that they are important, and that they aren't alone in this fight. Won't that be the kind of world that we have been envisioning all this while, women like you and I?
Images Courtesy: Anand Kapoor