As I sit facing him on a terrace in Premnagar, Pune, Shivraj Pudage, a young man of 20 years exchanges a nervous smile with me. He’s never been interviewed before. But this is a downright shame, I discover, because this is a story that needs to be heard.
Shivraj is an Action for Equality Leader in Premnagar since 2010. Coming from a community where street sexual harassment, domestic violence and child marriages are not just social evils but everyday realities, he is an unapologetically passionate advocate for gender equality. Meet the remarkable young man who has challenged gender norms in every sphere of his life for the last 6 years.
What did you learn in the programme?
Shivraj:One of the first things we were asked to do in the programme, was to list women’s daily chores – from filling water, cleaning vessels, going out for work, getting vegetables. I was stunned. In a day, I just go to college and come back exhausted, but never estimated how tired they must be. To make matters worse, I get holidays, they never do; when we’re home, we ask for special food – that’s additional work for them. Festivals mean even more work. And here I thought women just sit around the whole day. I decided to share responsibilities too. Now I go to the grocery store, clean vegetables, cut them, make my own bed and fill water.
Have you noticed any changes in yourself after joining the class?
Shivraj: In my community I was known as a ‘Chhapri’ or ‘Tapori’ (hooligan) who stands in the chowk and harasses people as they pass by. It was normal for me to use at least one swear word in every sentence. Now, I understand how my words could hurt somebody. I’ve given up using hurtful words.
(hesitates) Then, the way I looked at girls – it wasn’t nice. When a girl passed by, I would whistle to tease her. She would bow her head and keep walking- never reacting. That just encouraged my friends and I further. I was clueless about how much this troubled them. Earlier, I was known in my community for being the person who teases women and abuses the elderly. Today, girls know me as Shivraj Dada (elder brother)- they share their problems and want to know about the Action for Equality programme. I spoke respectfully to them – and they started respecting me.
When did you start thinking that teasing girls is wrong and how did you change?
Shivraj: When I teased women, I didn’t realise it was sexual harassment. For us, it was simply ‘fun’. When my mentor, Ramesh sir, told us how it affects women, I started regretting my behaviour. What really brought me to my senses was when Ramesh sir asked what would I do if someone teased my sister? Immediately, I answered, “I’ll take some boys along and beat up that boy.” That would mean: when I teased a girl her brother would be right to hit me. Ramesh sir asked, is this cycle of violence okay with you?
At this point, Sir also told us that my neighbours would assume this is how my parents have raised me. My parents work day and night. And what was I doing? Putting them to shame.
But most importantly, when I teased girls, they would complain to their parents. Instead of scolding us, their parents asked them to stop school and stay at home. I felt horrible that they had to leave school because of my behaviour. So, from then onwards, I’ve stopped teasing girls.
Let’s talk about your community. With respect to Gender Equality- what are the problems in your community and as a leader, what would you like to do about them?
Shivraj: While I go to college, most of the girls who have passed 10th standard drop out. I’ve tried to talk to their families. They almost always said, “Our daughter will get married soon, why waste money on their education?’’ I want to change this mentality. And sadly, there are so many child marriages in my community too.
If we tell women that they need to take a stand, that they can tell their parents that they aren’t a burden, that they can earn and support themselves, then there’s a better chance that the parents will listen to them. She’s got a right to take a stand for her education – I try to support women who stand up for themselves.
So how do you plan to do this?
Shivraj: I teach adolescent girls in a Study Centre. I tell them that they need to keep educating themselves- I give examples of Pandita Ramabai and Savitribai Phule.
Parents are really suspicious of their own daughters. What if she runs away with the ‘wrong boy’? Because one girl sets a bad example, all the girls have to suffer. So, I want parents to trust their daughters. If they do, then there will be no need for girls to drop out and sit at home.
What do you do to prevent this discrimination in your community?
Shivraj: Along with my peers, I perform street plays on subjects such as dowry, domestic violence and addiction in my community.
What is the audience’s reaction to your plays?
Shivraj: Mostly, women come to watch our plays – they request for more performances. They ask me to take up new subjects each time, they want to see issues that affect their life.
Shivraj and other leaders gear up for their next performance
What was your family’s reaction after you started talking about Gender Equality at home?
Shivraj: Earlier, I was never around at home – I used to come home from school, have tea and loiter in the chowk. I used to sneak into my house at midnight. I would watch TV and not talk to anyone. I never respected my sister. Ramesh Sir brought about a change in my attitude. He explained the importance of respecting women. That’s when things improved. Now, I come home on time. I work at home. I listen to my family and talk to them.
I hadn’t told my father that I go to ECF’s sessions, because I was scared of him. Once, he happened to see me performing a play in a chowk. He came home and asked me what I was doing in the chowk. I was really scared and kept silent. When he demanded the truth, scared, I told him everything about ECF. He took me by surprise and said, ‘Why hadn’t you told me earlier?’’ When he met my mentor, he said, ‘You MUST take my son for these classes, he’s learning a lot.’
One day, a couple of his friends saw me perform and told him how good I was. He is immensely proud of me. He has changed a lot too.
How is that?
Shivraj: Once, my father was really restless when he came home. That day, there wasn’t any salt in the curry. Annoyed, my father started shouting at my mother. That’s when I stood up and told him to stop. I asked him to keep calm because these mistakes happen. I asked him to take the salt himself. Surprised, my father relaxed a little and said sorry. From that day onwards, he’s a little more friendly with us and with my mother. I told him everything that Sir told me about how hard women work. That left him stunned. Earlier, my mother used to get up alone at 7 and do everything. Now, he gets up early and fills water with her. I like that.
Do you think other boys who are your age should take up this programme?
Shivraj: Yes. As future citizens, we need to question how we behave with our families; how to respect women’s freedom and their choices.
170 other young men like Shivraj are just as passionately working to challenge violence and discrimination against women in their own communities.