In Her Own Words –
An Interview with Pramada Menon
Profile by Bindiya Patel, MPA '02
Note from the Author
Bindiya Patel met Pramada at a workshop entitled “A Tapestry of Young Women’s Lives” at the Association of Women's Rights in Development conference in Guadalajara, Mexico in October, 2002. At the workshop, Pramada spoke candidly about the efforts to incorporate young women into the women’s rights movements around the world. She expressed her view that the women’s rights movement does not resonate with young women’s thoughts and ideas. Projects aimed at young people’s reproductive and sexual health try to convince young people of the “ABCs”: to Abstain from sex, Be monogamous, and use Condoms. They are not, however, taking into consideration the reality that many young people want a “buzz” out of their lives. They want to explore their sexuality and express their opinions. Projects that do not acknowledge these needs can never truly reach young women.
In this practitioner profile, instead of talking about Pramada, Bindiya has tried to capture what Pramada shared with her.
Brief Profile of Pramada Menon
Pramada Menon is a founder member of Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action (CREA) in 2000. CREA (www.creaworld.org) is currently based in New Delhi and aims to enhance the “capacities of a new generation of women leaders using a human rights approach. The organization works on issues of sexuality, reproductive health, violence against women, gender equity, economic justice and women's rights.”
Pramada began her career working with DASTKAR, a society for the promotion of crafts and craftspeople in New Delhi. Starting as a field assistant in 1987, she became the Executive Director of the organization in 1993. In the lead up to the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference, she was actively involved with women’s groups on the issues of sustainable livelihoods. She left DASTKAR in 1998 and spent two years as an independent consultant working on issues of women’s rights--sexuality, literacy, empowerment and livelihoods.
Throughout her career, Pramada has spent much of her time conducting trainings with both men and women on issues related to gender, leadership and empowerment. She is a strong believer in the idea that young people need the opportunity and space to challenge themselves and to be challenged.
“I think for many of us in India, we end up saying that one of the worst things that most of us did in school, was being part of something called ‘the leadership training service.’ However, it brought together a collection of people who actually believed that the world had to be changed. We talked about our commitment to changing the inequality in the world and what we thought the world should be like. In college, I continued to be involved in protest marches and indigenous movements. But when I graduated, I decided that I needed to earn my livelihood, so I joined advertising.
In advertising, I was doing meaningless copy for meaningless objects that I had never seen in my life. They weren’t even paying me that well because I was a junior copywriter. And then, I remember very clearly, my agency released a condom advertisement that read: ‘It was red and I took her.’
I was really pissed off. I remember saying to one of my copy managers, ‘Look, I think this is really awful, because what you are advocating is rape.’ He turned around and told me, ‘Well honey, we just sell condoms, we don’t care how we sell it. If you feel so bothered, shouldn’t you be getting into some kind of social services?’ So I said, ‘Yeah, actually that’s true.’
Working with DASTKAR
I was 22 when I joined DASTKAR, and I worked there 10 years, the last four as Director. Here was an organization that told me that as long as I could make the link to craft, I could do what I wanted. So I went off to study for a year in Dublin--a course in development studies. I had gone for a year and had promised to return back to DASTKAR. They were insistent that I return. For me, it was validation. I was only 25, and to have someone say, ‘we value you enough to have you back’ was very, very special
Around 1993 the Beijing conference process had started in India. The process involved a lot of young people. It was a truly grassroots kind of movement. There were a number of meetings held all over the country. The coordination unit was headed by young people, and they were all friends. A lot of us got involved in the movement. For me, Beijing was a complete transformation process because I suddenly started making links with the larger picture.
At that time, I primarily did marketing of crafts. I recall a meeting with some buyers who were interested in buying the product that I was showing them provided I made the artisans change the base material they worked on. It meant getting leather artisans to work on fabric. I recall telling the buyer ‘Working on leather is a traditional occupation. Changing what they have been doing for years means a change of tradition. And eventually that will lead to the artisans forgetting what their craft is, since every buyer will want some changes made each time.’ I suddenly realized that I was putting the artisan first rather than the craft. And I figured out that marketing of crafts was probably not what I wanted to do, and what I need to focus on is processes that would ensure that the lives of craftspeople would be enhanced.
So I started working intensively on development issues and women’s rights issues. I did a lot of training with the women that I worked with. I also found that I worked really well with the male crafts groups. Some of my most exciting experiences have been with male crafts groups talking about issues of gender and how to include women’s concerns and women within programs.
I had joined DASTKAR as field assistant and then moved up to be executive director. After 10 years, what scared me the most about my work was that I had reached a stage of being so very cocky, of being self-assured about what I was doing, and being so sure that I believed this was the only way to do it.
I found myself being pretty cynical about other people doing similar interventions that I didn’t believe in. I found the term “income generation” pretty offensive. I felt that it was not sustainable. NGOs, well meaning as they are, tend to be terrible at business because profit is a dirty word. And frankly, we end up doing a disservice to craftspeople by setting up alternative markets which really don’t change any trade patterns.
Fortunately for me, one of the things that really excites me has been training. I am a terrible writer, but I am fairly good at talking. So for me, it was a question of how do I use what I have learnt over the last few years to have a positive impact on people’s lives? For two years, I became a consultant working on myriad issues. I set up a whole program to link literacy, livelihoods and microcredit. For me it was an empowerment model, but once I moved out, the people who saw the project through turned it into a purely literacy program. I realized that as a consultant, there is only so much that you can do.
Creation of CREA
A group of us, all working on women’s rights, were contemplating what to do next. We wanted to have a positive impact on the field that had contributed to our growth as professionals. A few of us were fortunate enough to attend the “Culture, Society and Sexuality” course at the Sexuality Institute in Amsterdam. We had wanted to do something that was different; that was cutting edge. So we decided to establish a comparable Institute in India.
We wanted to focus on leadership, and we focus on leadership in a way that is similar to the ways that a lot of us have learnt. I don’t have an academic background in what I am doing now. I learned from working with craft groups--because they opened up spaces for me to challenge my own ideas.
We came up with CREA. When we began, it was a group of people who wanted to do things differently. We asked: ‘All of the things that we have truly found fun, can we transfer that programmatically? Can we create those spaces that were created for us at different points to enable other people to in achieving what they might want out of their lives?’ We will not talk down to people but include them within processes and learn from them as we go along.” That was really how CREA began. We wanted to enhance leadership capacity. We wanted to create a new generation of women leaders, using a human rights framework working in the fields of sexuality, reproductive health, violence against women, economic justice. But we would not be setting up livelihood programs.
CREA was established in 2000. It was truly like a dream.
CREA – Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action
[Author’s note: The following text is reproduced from CREA’s website, http://www.creaworld.org]
In keeping with its mission and long-term goals, CREA has developed initiatives spanning three broad areas of activity:
New Voices, New Leaders: Building the leadership capacities of young women by implementing leadership development programs, which address women's empowerment and rights.
Creative Learning: Enabling young women leaders to strengthen their work and network with each other through innovative learning mechanisms.
Public Education and Advocacy: Creating a broader public understanding of and influencing policies related to women's empowerment and rights.
These three initiatives include a range of activities including conducting leadership training programs; organizing exchange programs and study tours; creating and disseminating public education materials; coordinating thematic advocacy campaigns; and building and supporting networks. An important goal of CREA's initiatives is to change public attitudes and influence public policies that affect women's rights and empowerment.
The strengths of CREA
We are experimenting with collaborations, using strengths of other people. The second thing [that we do well] is actualizing the statement ‘Information is Power.’ We network at a lot of different levels. We send out information about what is going on and how to contact people depending on what other NGOs and individuals are interested in.
We have tried very, very hard to involve young people. We make them work the gamut, and they have to take responsibility for their programs. They work under a “senior” person for some of the programs, but we give them independent control on some projects.
We are very clear that no one should look on the organization as his or her permanent place of residence; at some point the senior management must move on. It is very easy for an organization to be identified with certain people and we want to move away from that. We will leave; so someone else has to take on the mantle of the organization.
The skills that organizations need
One of the major problems that most organizations face is the paucity of people who are able to write articles and effective opinion pieces. It would be great if we could get people who enjoy writing and who would write articles for public consumption. In that way we can do more advocacy and public education campaigns.
Organizations also need people who can make linkages between issues. If it is RH (reproductive health), we will just do RH, and we won’t know what is going on with microcredit. These things are linked together, and people need to link them together. We need to find people who are interested in making connections between the world at large and the issues that we work on. For instance, how does globalization affect our work on sexuality? What is the link between poverty and HIV/AIDS?
CREA’s leadership trainings and political participation
In India, women’s leadership and political participation always seem to get linked together, and that’s not our emphasis. Political participation has become a buzzword in India because of the 73rd amendment (passed in 1993, it created a one third quota for women in local government bodies). We feel that it’s great that a number of organizations and the government are working on ensuring women’s political participation.
We at CREA are more concerned about the women who have entered the social development and human rights fields and are grappling with issues and don’t know how to deal with them. We think it is critical that networks are formed so that the women working within institutions can get their ideas challenged by meeting other organizations and individuals. We want to figure out a way by which we can put out information for women, get them to think, and enable them to make their choices.
The way we conceptualize leadership is that leadership is a process by which women evaluate their personal experiences, and then look at how they can articulate, access, and demand their rights. It has to be an individual process leading to collective social action. In whatever forms you want to take it in.
We don’t just see leadership as heading an organization or a movement. I think that each one of us creates our own leadership patterns. And finally at the end of the day, if we help to change any one person’s life, I think that is a beginning.
We have been trying to encourage people to question or challenge their own ideas--to figure out their own path. Our goal is to increase the numbers of such people who will question and challenge the ideas that are prevalent in their fields of work and to find a way forward.”
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