|2011 Gala Remarks by Ishita Chaudhry|
Summary: On February 8, 2011, the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) held its annual gala at 583 park Avenue in New York City. More than 300 friends and supporters joined us in honoring Partners in Health co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer, who has provided quality health care to those most in need for more than 20 years. Below are remarks made by Ishita Chaudhry, founder of the YP Foundation, at the event.
ISHITA CHAUDHRY: Good evening. Thank you, Adrienne. I cannot tell you what a privilege it is to be here today, and to have listened to Dr. Farmer. I can tell you that there are plenty of colleagues back home whose levels of jealousy have risen as the evening has gone on.
I'm here tonight to share with you some of my stories. When I was 17 years old, in 2002, I saw a video on television that I will never forget for as long as I live. It was an image of a group of children being burned alive, in a street in Gujarat, a state in western India. These children were from Hindu and Muslim communities, and they were being burned alive in the name of religious fundamentalism, in one of the worst incidents of state-sponsored genocide in India's history.
We were having dinner at home that day, three generations of family sitting around a dining table, and watching the live news coverage. Later on, when somebody from the media dared ask the Chief Minister of that state why he thought the riots between these two communities were happening and why the government had done nothing but watch, I will never forget the Chief Minister's response: "Every action," he said, "has an equal and opposite reaction."
Those words hit me hard: that I live in a country with zero accountability where the Chief Minister of a state can quote Newton's Third Law of Motion as the only justification for communal riots; where so many of us have silently accepted the violation of people's human rights because somewhere we've accepted the idea that we can do nothing.
I was a high school student that year, and was preparing to give my final year examinations- the images and the statements from the riots just kept coming back to haunt me. As a young woman I realized I was powerless, and worse still, I was not alone. Thirty-one percent of India's population is young people. Think about that number-that's 350 million young people in a country who think that they are incapable of making change. And would this really be the legacy that we left behind for future generations to come? Would I tell my grandchildren that my generation really stood and watched silently as other people lost their lives?
And so I began my work nine years ago, when I graduated from high school, because I wanted to change and challenge those silent spaces in our lives. I want to live in a world where human rights are upheld; where young people's leadership skills are strengthened; where women and young people are recognized as powerful change makers, and equal stakeholders in society; a world where they're involved in making policies and executing programs; that we work with them, and not just for them, to impact our health, our rights, and to safeguard our lives.
In 2002, with this vision, I founded (and today am proud to work in) a youth-led organization in India known as the YP Foundation. We support and enable young people to create programs and influence policies at all levels in the areas of gender, sexuality, health, education, the arts-because we believe they're equally important-and governance. In the last nine years, we have gone from three high school students working from my parents' bedroom, to 300,000 young people across the country. Needless, of course, to say, my parents' bedroom is now famous.
In 2009 we decided to challenge the status quo, setting up India's first youth-led campaign for legalizing and supporting the implementation of sexuality education. The "Know Your Body, Know Your Rights" campaign in India is supported by IWHC, UN organizations, and civil society. And since then, "Know Your Body, Know Your Rights" has trained 300 young activists from different communities and cities across India.
What are we challenging? We're challenging the convention and the notion that young people from diverse communities cannot work together because they are different. Rich and privileged, poor and unprivileged young people come together to lobby collectively and to work in their own communities for safe access to health information and health services.
When I began this work there were a lot of people in my community who told me at every stage that change wasn't possible and that this wasn't my part. Women in my own family and my community told me that I should be careful because women entrepreneurs aren't considered to be good marriage material, they don't make good wives, and that I should focus on growing up to get a husband and having children. Living and growing up in a tremendously strong patriarchal society, my parents and my younger brother had to defend my decision to many people. They stood by me, and their strength giving me a very unusual freedom: to challenge the societal boundaries of what it means to be a girl in India.
I got accepted to IWHC's advocacy and practice training in Hyderabad, India, and at the time sexuality education had been banned in eleven states in India. With the tools, information and skills the incredible IWHC staff gave me, we were able to challenge this ban by holding our first-ever press conference. We got the voices of young people into daily newspapers-something that hadn't happened before-beginning a much-needed dialogue with decision-makers and policy-makers.
Four years later, we are now serving on committees that enable us to input our national policies that address HIV, drug abuse, and sexuality education. My experiences with IWHC remind me that I am not alone. The ripple effect of their advocacy and practice programs, and their leadership supports the YP Foundation to sustain itself as one of India's few professional youth led and run institutions, and provide critical and lifesaving information to young people.
Earlier this year I received a phone call at 3:00 a.m. It was a request from an 18 year-old woman looking for a safe and affordable health clinic that could provide her with the safe abortion services she needed. She called me at 3:00 a.m. because her parents, who she decided to tell earlier that evening that she was pregnant, threw her out of their home because they were too embarrassed to tell their neighbors about their daughter's unwanted pregnancy.
It took us half the night to find her the services and support that she needed, and I will never forget how upset, scared, and worried she was. So my work is not a 9 to 5 job where we just give technical information: it is really about providing critical support to young people when they have no one else to turn to.
I grew up with very little information about my sexuality, my body, or my right to health. Despite being a privileged young person in India no one ever taught me that women have the right to experience pleasure. And I find it so strange that we always talk about our sexuality and our bodies with fear, as if it's a disease, and almost never as a right that can and should be celebrated. And this must change. If young people are trusted, if they are given accurate information and encouraged to make informed decisions, they can be empowered to protect themselves and to support their peers.
Leadership in my generation is a very different kind of challenge because it embodies the challenge of bringing people together from very different and diverse fields and schools of thought. And leaders in our generation, I believe, don't need to be single individuals: When you invest in building the skills, knowledge, and access that a young person has, you empower young people to create a certain kind of change in their communities, not just for each other but also for future generations to come. And the return on that investment is absolutely boundless.
Standing here before you, I am but one example of many that exist today. I think there's a time in everybody's life where you come across something that you need to stand up for. It could be in your home, it could be in your heart, or it could be in your environment. And I firmly believe that women need to stand up for other women. Our work is not about giving people privileges, but insuring that their human rights are realized. This is the way that it should be, and until every woman and every young person in every part of the world can stand up for themselves and lead what we call just and healthy lives, our work is not done. And it is not okay to go back to the comfort of our own silences. Thank you.