We The Women: Meet the drivers of change

The Global Townhall hosted by Barkha Dutt was a melting pot of stories of grit

gallery-image Navya Naveli Nanda and Shweta Bachchan
gallery-image Meera Devi and Kavita Devi

In 2016, Khabar Lahariya, India’s only women-run newspaper took a bold leap—it shifted from print to the digital medium to deliver rural news. This trailblazing move by a bunch of women from the country’s hinterland was also the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary, Writing with Fire. But Meera Devi, bureau chief of Khabar Lahariya, who led the change along with editor Kavita Devi said that years ago she was told women can just look at computers, but not touch them—because if they did, the devices would be damaged.

Besides discussions on feminism, gender digital divide, sports, art, and business, the event witnessed some difficult conversations about sexual abuse, and the internal and external battles that follow.

She later attended a basic computer course, during which these women were introduced to the internet. “We felt like the internet gave us wings,” she told journalist Barkha Dutt during the Global Townhall of ‘We The Women’ event on March 6. Kavita Devi also shared her journey from being married off at the age of 12 to the constant fight she put up to be educated and for the right to make her own decisions.

This year’s edition of ‘We The Women’, hosted by Dutt on her digital platform, Mojo Story, featured conversations from an eclectic mix of speakers on the virtual stage. While Meera and Kavita spoke of how patriarchal gender norms limit women’s access to technology in rural areas, Dutt’s interaction with entrepreneur Navya Naveli Nanda threw light on a contrasting life in another side of India.

Gita Gopinath Gita Gopinath

Navya, actor Amitabh Bachchan’s granddaughter, said she understands her privilege and wants to use the same to address issues of women, help them find their own voice and chart their own paths. Navya, who appeared on the show with her mother, Shweta Bachchan, said she was very proud of her legacy, but wanted to create something of her own. Navya is the co-founder of Aara Health, a women’s health platform that focuses on feminine health in India. She also founded Project Naveli that deals with social and economic empowerment of women.

“Navya has taken her privilege and made it into something positive,” Shweta, who is also a writer, said. Empowerment starts from the home “where the mother’s voice is heard not just about what is on the menu, but about politics, or finances”, Shweta said, referring to growing up with strong women like her mother and grandmother.

Falguni Nayar Falguni Nayar

Besides discussions on feminism, gender digital divide, sports, art, and business, the event witnessed some difficult conversations about sexual abuse, and the internal and external battles that follow. For the first time, the survivor in the 2017 actress sexual assault case, opened up about her journey from always blaming herself to finding the strength to fight for justice. “There are so many times I desperately wanted to go back to the time before any of this happened. So that my life would be normal,” the actress said. “Every time I thought about it, I would go in a loop back to where I started and keep blaming myself.”

However, it was in 2020—when trial in the case started and she had to appear in court for 15 days—that she began to identify herself as a ’survivor’ and not a ‘victim’. “It was a whole different level of traumatic experience. When I came out of the court after the last hearing, that is when I realised I am a survivor. I am not just standing up for myself, but for the dignity of all the girls who will come after me,” she said. The actress, who was trolled and victim-shamed on social media, said that the idea of victims coming out in public and voicing their trauma should be normalised.

Barkha Dutt Barkha Dutt

Speaking of women and leadership amid the pandemic, Dutt pointed out that even though women comprised 70 per cent of the global health workforce, they held only 25 per cent of leadership roles in the health care sector. Ameera Shah, MD, Metropolis Labs, opened up about her struggle with self-esteem issues at the beginning of her journey. “As a woman, you are expected to be successful in too many roles—as a wife, as a mother. I couldn’t trust my own emotions and my own instincts. It was a big battle that I had to fight,” she said. Ameera was part of the panel of ‘Top Healthcare Leaders’ which also featured Dr Joan Benson, Shagun Sabarwal and Rama, an Asha worker.

Can a woman take the entrepreneurial plunge at 50? Of course, said Falguni Nayar, founder and CEO of Nykaa. “Age, gender or education are no bar to what you want to do. You can always learn,” she said. Falguni, who was an investment banker, spoke about her initial struggles with technology when she launched the beauty ecommerce brand 10 years ago. She said: “There are enough resources out there, you can always learn.”

Alia Bhatt Alia Bhatt

As a women-centric brand, Nykaa understands what women want, she said. “Women want beauty for themselves; they are not trying to use beauty products to impress either another man or woman. That is a very big insight that we brought to the table.”

From national themes, the discussion moved to international subjects and the impact of the Ukraine-Russia crisis with Gita Gopinath, first deputy managing director of the IMF, joining the session. The war will have severe consequences, she said, adding that they are still absorbing what the massive economic sanctions will do. One of the biggest dangers to the recovery of the global economy is that we are seeing the prices of commodities going through the roof again, she said. The economically weaker sections will be hit the most when these prices rise. “With respect to trade links with Ukraine and Russia, we expect to see countries in eastern Europe and central Asia taking bigger hits,” she added.

Ameera Shah Ameera Shah

The session moved to a lighter note with an interaction with actress Alia Bhatt, who is riding high on the success of her latest film, Gangubai Kathiawadi. On working with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, she said: “He is extremely profound and vocal. He won’t tell me what to do. But he will give me adjectives, scenarios. He will give me a thought process and I would absorb a lot of that.”

Alia said she was born in a household of honesty and that she wears her feelings on her sleeve. But as an actress, she is expected to maintain a decorum, she said, and a lot of emotions get bottled up. She talked about her weight-loss journey and struggle with body image issues. “It is about eating healthy, being fit, and all that. But stop micromanaging everything,” she said. At her chirpy best, Alia ended the conversation with a piece of advice: “Eat that fry if you want to.”