Volunteering for gender equality: a summer in Chennai



By Daniela and Alessandra De Luca



That morning, we woke up in our Indian flat and made the decision to stop waiting. We decided to go and seize our chances. We ran all over Chennai, from schools to colleges, from principals to professors. We waited for what felt like an eternity for meetings that only lasted twenty minutes. “Good Morning, we would like to propose a free workshop on women’s empowerment and gender equality for your students”. Those words were met unanimously with one condition only: our work had to be pre-approved and written in a wat that was age-appropriate. Other than that, they said, “you have free rein.


Our flat was in Thacker Street, in the middle of the sprawling metropolis that is Chennai. We ran from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and eventually managed to set up five workshops in five different schools over the course of five days alone. They were the first steps in what was to become a very long sequence of workshops scheduled over the course of our stay. But how did we end up there, you ask?


Let’s go back to the start of our story. At the start of the summer of 2016 we left Rome Fiumicino bound for India. We went as volunteers with AIESEC for the GLOBAL GOALS awareness (www.aiesec.org, www.globalgoals.org). Our project focused on the 5th global goal, which was the scheme “Gender Equality”. Despite some inevitable complications, we were unwilling to pass up such an opportunity (risk and uncertainty are, after all, universal). We will always be grateful to AIESEC, for their support, resources, and the possibility they offered us to connect with like-minded individuals. They helped our project become a reality.




The inevitable logistical obstacles saw us running from one end of the city to another. But it was this running that allowed us to engage with the reality of our host country first hand. This was a reality composed of great open-mindedness and an acceptance of positive challenges. We came across teachers, men and women, who collaborated with us and encouraged their children to do the same. Principals (of all genders) who welcomed us with encouragement served with a side order of chai. These meetings allowed us to see the differences between each school and college. Some students had the freedom to study and grow up together regardless their religion, gender and racial diversity. Other institutions were gender-segregated. Each new place would present its own set of challenges. In some cases boys would sit on one side and girls on another. Whilst this was not always easy to overcome, we found these differences were largely offset by the extremely cooperational attitude of our hosts.


Our workshop focused on themes such as self-defence techniques and simulations of unsafe contexts. We wrote keywords suggested by students on the board and draw pictures based on the meaning of the words. Having not received any formal teacher training we were well aware of our personal limitations. But we were determined to learn and grow. In sharing our thoughts, opinions and experiences with our students they become an important part of our learning experience.


Perhaps the most striking learning experience came in the answer of a 7 or 8 year old student. When she was asked:“What does Women’s Empowerment mean to you?”, she replied that:“Women means girls, and empowerment means we respect women”. She taught us our most valuable lesson.


In each and every workshop we tried our best to make students understand why women’s equality affected (and implicated) all genders, and that women rights are human rights, and need to be protected as such.




To formal teaching we prefer mutual sharing, because only by sharing experiences and examples you might hope to build a model to be replicated.

“Why do you need to go to India to have a volunteering experience?”. This is a question we found ourselves coming up against a lot. We got quite used to hear people claiming that “Italy needs volunteers too”. Were we volunteering in India simply because it seemed like a cool thing to do, they asked?


We couldn’t help but wonder if there was a slightly more sinister resistance to international cooperation hidden behind those questions. National identity is an indisputable right, but we must make sure that it does not allow us to become closed off to the possibilities for growth and personal development that can come from embracing our statuses as global citizens.


Location was not important for us. What mattered was ensuring that tools were made available to help institutions raise awareness of physical and psychological violence and women’s empowerment. Our approach aimed to emphasise inter-cultural awareness, tolerance and mutual understanding.


Despite some initial misgivings, we found the process surprisingly easy. India is subject to its fair share of negative stereotypes (What about the bureaucracy, one could wonder?) but the openness and cooperation we were shown were overwhelming.
Our experience is of course just one of the many examples of how consent-based education touching on the themes of violence and empowerment are beginning to take shape across the world. In India, in particular, awareness programs on these issues are spreading thanks to the efforts of brave and resilient local educators and social entrepreneurs. In Italy, even though present, unfortunately these initiatives still seem to be an exception.


So, why India? Because we are not simply Italians and Europeans, we are citizens of the world and we feel it is our duty to fight to ensure that our home becomes a safer, more welcoming and more human place.


In a country that has been heavily criticised for its commitment to women’s rights, two women found their freedom. What freedom? The simplest: the one of feeling in the right place at the right moment, doing what feels right, by being the right you. India gave us the greatest of gifts: happiness.




To find out more, watch the video of our experience!






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