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TEDxHousesOfParliament

Meera Vijayann: Find your voice against gender violence

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This talk begins with a personal story of sexual violence that may be difficult to listen to. But that's the point, says citizen journalist Meera Vijayann: Speaking out on tough, taboo topics is the spark for change. Vijayann uses digital media to speak honestly about her experience of gender violence in her home country of India -- and calls on others to speak out too.

- Citizen journalist
By using citizen journalism platforms, Meera Vijayann explores creative ways that young women can participate in politics and community matters. Full bio

Talking about empowerment is odd,
00:12
because when we talk about empowerment,
00:15
what affects us most are the stories.
00:17
So I want to begin with an everyday story.
00:20
What is it really like to be a young woman in India?
00:24
Now, I've spent the last 27 years of my life
00:28
in India, lived in three small towns,
00:30
two major cities,
00:33
and I've had several experiences.
00:34
When I was seven,
00:38
a private tutor who used to come home
00:39
to teach me mathematics molested me.
00:41
He would put his hand up my skirt.
00:46
He put his hand up my skirt and told me
00:52
he knew how to make me feel good.
00:55
At 17, a boy from my high school
00:59
circulated an email
01:03
detailing all the sexually aggressive things
01:04
he could do to me
01:06
because I didn't pay attention to him.
01:09
At 19, I helped a friend
01:13
whose parents had forcefully
married her to an older man
01:17
escape an abusive marriage.
01:20
At 21, when my friend and I were walking
01:24
down the road one afternoon,
01:26
a man pulled down his pants
01:30
and masturbated in front of us.
01:32
We called people for help, and nobody came.
01:35
At 25, when I was walking home one evening,
01:39
two men on a motorcycle attacked me.
01:44
I spent two nights in the hospital
01:47
recovering from trauma and injuries.
01:49
So throughout my life, I've seen women —
01:53
family, friends, colleagues —
01:58
live through these experiences,
02:00
and they seldom talk about it.
02:02
So in simple words, life in India is not easy.
02:06
But today I'm not going to talk to you about this fear.
02:10
I'm going to talk to you about an interesting path
02:14
of learning that this fear took me on.
02:16
So, what happened one night in December 2012
02:20
changed my life.
02:23
So a young girl, a 23-year-old student,
02:25
boarded a bus in Delhi with her male friend.
02:29
There were six men on the bus, young men
02:33
who you might encounter every day in India,
02:36
and the chilling account of what followed
02:39
was played over and over again
02:41
in the Indian and international media.
02:43
This girl was raped repeatedly,
02:46
forcefully penetrated with a blunt rod,
02:49
beaten, bitten, and left to die.
02:52
Her friend was gagged, attacked,
02:55
and knocked unconscious.
02:58
She died on the 29th of December.
03:01
And at a time when most of us here
03:05
were preparing to welcome the new year,
03:07
India plunged into darkness.
03:10
For the first time in our history,
03:13
men and women in Indian cities
03:16
woke up to the horrific truth
03:18
about the true state of women in the country.
03:21
Now, like many other young women,
03:24
I was absolutely terrified.
03:26
I couldn't believe that something like this
03:29
could happen in a national capital.
03:30
I was angry and I was frustrated,
03:33
but most of all, I felt utterly, completely helpless.
03:36
But really, what do you do, right?
03:40
Some write blogs, some ignore it,
03:42
some join protests.
03:44
I did all of it. In fact, that was what everyone was doing
03:46
two years ago.
03:48
So the media was filled with stories about
03:50
all the horrific deeds
03:53
that Indian men are capable of.
03:55
They were compared to animals,
03:57
sexually repressed beasts.
03:58
In fact, so alien and unthinkable was this event
04:00
in an Indian mind
04:04
that the response from the Indian media,
04:05
public and politicians proved one point:
04:08
No one knew what to do.
04:12
And no one wanted to be responsible for it.
04:14
In fact, these were a few insensitive comments
04:16
which were made in the media
04:19
by prominent people
04:20
in response to sexual violence
against women in general.
04:22
So the first one is made by a member of parliament,
04:26
the second one is made by a spiritual leader,
04:29
and the third one was actually
the defendants' lawyer
04:33
when the girl was fighting for her life
04:35
and she passed away.
04:37
Now, as a woman watching this day after day,
04:40
I was tired.
04:44
So as a writer and gender activist,
04:46
I have written extensively on women,
04:47
but this time, I realized it was different,
04:51
because a part of me realized
04:53
I was a part of that young woman too,
04:55
and I decided I wanted to change this.
04:57
So I did something spontaneous, hasty.
04:59
I logged on to a citizen journalism platform
05:03
called iReport,
05:06
and I recorded a video talking about
05:07
what the scene was like in Bangalore.
05:10
I talked about how I felt,
05:12
I talked about the ground realities,
05:14
and I talked about the frustrations of living in India.
05:15
In a few hours, the blog was shared widely,
05:21
and comments and thoughts poured in
05:24
from across the world.
05:26
In that moment, a few things occurred to me.
05:28
One, technology was always at hand
05:32
for many young women like me.
05:35
Two, like me, most young women
05:38
hardly use it to express their views.
05:42
Three, I realized for the first time
05:45
that my voice mattered.
05:49
So in the months that followed,
05:52
I covered a trail of events in Bangalore
05:55
which had no space in the mainstream news.
05:57
In Cubbon Park, which is a big park in Bangalore,
06:01
I gathered with over 100 others
06:04
when groups of young men came forward
06:05
to wear skirts to prove that clothing
06:07
does not invite rape.
06:09
When I reported about these events,
06:13
I felt I had charge, I felt like I had a channel
06:15
to release all the emotions I had inside me.
06:18
I attended the town hall march
06:22
when students held up signs saying
06:24
"Kill them, hang them."
06:26
"You wouldn't do this to your mothers or sisters."
06:28
I went to a candlelight vigil
06:32
where citizens gathered together
06:34
to talk about the issue of sexual violence openly,
06:36
and I recorded a lot of blogs
06:40
in response to how worrying the situation was
06:42
in India at that point.
06:44
["I am born with sisters and cousin who now live in cities and abroad but they never talk to me or complain about their daily difficulties like you say"]
06:46
Now, the reactions confused me.
06:47
While supportive comments poured
in from across the world,
06:49
as did vicious ones.
06:52
So some called me a hypocrite.
06:54
Some called me a victim, a rape apologist.
06:55
Some even said I had a political motive.
06:58
But this one comment kind of describes
07:01
what we are discussing here today.
07:03
But I was soon to learn that this was not all.
07:08
As empowered as I felt
07:11
with the new liberty that this
07:13
citizen journalism channel gave me,
07:14
I found myself in an unfamiliar situation.
07:17
So sometime last August, I logged onto Facebook
07:20
and I was looking through my news feed,
07:23
and I noticed there was a link
07:25
that was being shared by my friends.
07:27
I clicked on the link; it led me back
07:28
to a report uploaded by an American girl
07:31
called Michaela Cross.
07:35
The report was titled,
07:37
"India: The story you never wanted to hear."
07:38
And in this report, she recounted her firsthand
07:41
account of facing sexual harassment in India.
07:45
She wrote, "There is no way to prepare for the eyes,
07:48
the eyes that every day stared
07:52
with such entitlement at my body,
07:54
with no change of expression
07:57
whether I met their gaze or not.
07:59
Walking to the fruit seller's or the tailor's,
08:02
I got stares so sharp
08:05
that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece."
08:07
She called India a traveler's
heaven and a woman's hell.
08:10
She said she was stalked, groped,
08:14
and masturbated at.
08:16
Now, late that evening, the report went viral.
08:18
It was on news channels across the world.
08:20
Everyone was discussing it.
08:24
It had over a million views,
08:25
a thousand comments and shares,
08:27
and I found myself witnessing
08:28
a very similar thing.
08:30
The media was caught in this vicious cycle
08:33
of opinion and outburst
08:36
and no outcome whatsoever.
08:38
So that night, as I sat wondering
08:41
how I should respond,
08:44
I found myself filled with doubt.
08:45
You see, as a writer, I approached this issue
08:47
as an observer,
08:51
as an Indian, I felt embarrassment and disbelief,
08:53
and as an activist, I looked
at it as a defender of rights,
08:57
but as a citizen journalist,
09:02
I suddenly felt very vulnerable.
09:04
I mean, here she was, a young woman
09:07
who was using a channel to talk about
09:10
her experience just as I was,
09:11
and yet I felt unsettled.
09:13
You see, no one ever tells you
09:16
that true empowerment comes from giving yourself
09:18
the permission to think and act.
09:21
Empowerment is often made to sound as if
09:23
it's an ideal, it's a wonderful outcome.
09:26
When we talk about empowerment, we often
09:29
talk about giving people access to materials,
09:31
giving them access to tools.
09:34
But the thing is, empowerment is an emotion.
09:37
It's a feeling.
09:39
The first step to empowerment
09:41
is to give yourself the authority,
09:43
the key to independent will,
09:46
and for women everywhere,
09:48
no matter who we are or where we come from,
09:50
that is the most difficult step.
09:52
We fear the sound of our own voice,
09:56
for it means admission, but it is this that gives us
09:58
the power to change our environment.
10:01
Now in this situation where I was faced
10:04
with so many different kinds of realities,
10:06
I was unsure how to judge,
10:09
because I didn't know what it would mean for me.
10:10
I feared to judge because I
didn't know what it would be
10:13
if I didn't support the same view as this girl.
10:16
I didn't know what it would mean for me
10:20
if I was challenging someone else's truth.
10:21
But yet, it was simple.
10:26
I had to make a decision:
10:27
Should I speak up or should I stay quiet?
10:29
So after a lot of thought,
10:32
I recorded a video blog in response,
10:34
and I told Michaela, well,
10:37
there are different sides to India,
10:39
and I also tried to explain
10:41
that things would be okay
10:47
and I expressed my regret for what she had faced.
10:49
And a few days later, I was invited to talk
10:52
on air with her,
10:54
and for the first time, I reached out to this girl
10:56
who I had never met, who was so far away,
11:00
but yet I felt so close to.
11:02
Since this report came to light,
11:05
more young people than ever
11:08
were discussing sexual harassment on the campus,
11:10
and the university that Michaela belonged to
11:14
gave her the assistance she needed.
11:16
The university even took measures
11:20
to train its students to equip them
11:22
with the skills that they need
11:25
to confront challenges such as harassment,
11:26
and for the first the time, I felt I wasn't alone.
11:30
You see, if there's anything that I've learned
11:34
as an active citizen journalist
11:36
over the past few years,
11:39
it is our dire lack as a society to actively find
11:42
avenues where our voices can be heard.
11:46
We don't realize that when we are standing up,
11:49
we are not just standing up as individuals,
11:53
we are standing up for our communities,
11:55
our friends, our peers.
11:58
Most of us say that women are denied their rights,
12:00
but the truth is, oftentimes,
12:03
women deny themselves these rights.
12:06
In a recent survey in India,
12:09
95 percent of the women who work in I.T.,
12:12
aviation, hospitality and call centers,
12:16
said they didn't feel safe returning home alone
12:20
after work in the late hours or in the evening.
12:22
In Bangalore, where I come from,
12:26
this number is 85 percent.
12:27
In rural areas in India,
12:30
if anything is to go by the recent
12:32
gang rapes in Badaun and acid attacks in Odisha
12:35
and Aligarh are supposed to go by,
12:38
we need to act really soon.
12:40
Don't get me wrong,
12:43
the challenges that women will face
12:45
in telling their stories is real,
12:48
but we need to start pursuing
12:51
and trying to identify mediums
12:53
to participate in our system
12:56
and not just pursue the media blindly.
12:57
Today, more women than ever
13:02
are standing up and questioning
13:05
the government in India,
13:06
and this is a result of that courage.
13:08
There is a sixfold increase in women
13:11
reporting harassment,
13:14
and the government passed
13:15
the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act in 2013
13:17
to protect women against sexual assault.
13:20
As I end this talk,
13:23
I just want to say
13:25
that I know a lot of us in this room have our secrets,
13:28
but let us speak up.
13:33
Let us fight the shame and talk about it.
13:35
It could be a platform, a community,
13:38
your loved one, whoever or whatever you choose,
13:41
but let us speak up.
13:45
The truth is, the end to this problem
13:47
begins with us.
13:50
Thank you.
13:52
(Applause)
13:54

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About the speaker:

Meera Vijayann - Citizen journalist
By using citizen journalism platforms, Meera Vijayann explores creative ways that young women can participate in politics and community matters.

Why you should listen

Meera Vijayann began using digital media to tackle sexual violence in the aftermath of a tragic Delhi rape-and-murder case. In 2013, she won the CNN IBN Citizen Journalist Award for her reporting in the aftermath of the Delhi rape case. Her articles and blogs have appeared in the Guardian, CNN, Forbes, Open Democracy, IBN LIVE, The New Indian Express and other major media outlets.

Vijayann spoke as part of the TEDxChange session at TEDxHousesofParliament, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She is a Change Manager at Ashoka India, and as an elected member of the inaugural class of +SocialGood connectors, she facilitates dialogue between entrepreneurs, innovators and institutions to tackle global issues around gender rights and sexual violence.

More profile about the speaker
Meera Vijayann | Speaker | TED.com