Dr. Medha Kotwal is the trustee and founder of Aalochana, Center for Documentation and Research on Women. A feminist NGO, this organization started its pioneering work in 1989 and since then has become one of the most significant resource centers in the western region of India.
V.P How did Aalochana begin?
Medha Kotwal (M.K): We were all activists from the women’s movement, participating in campaigns against dowry, rape, and so on. At that that time, there was hardly any information available on these issues. How do you ask for changes when you don’t have sufficient knowledge? There was a need to understand what women think, feel, and what their experiences are, for ourselves as well as for the women’s movement.
History has not covered ordinary women, the women who make society. We did not understand enough about the expectations and perceptions of women. So, Aalochana came into existence.
V.P What does Aalochana do?
M.K Aalochana primarily serves as a resource base on issues relating to women. It has collected newspaper articles in different languages, for the past 12-13 years. The database includes books, research material, posters, training manuals, and so on. We also have audio visuals, films, photo archives, and documentaries. The database is used by researchers, activists, lawyers, etc.
V.P What is the grassroot level work taken up by Aalochana?
M.K We are not purely academic, we try to reach a midway house between activism and theory, the empirical and theoretical. Our resource base is used to empower women. We use it to provide information to underprivileged women to make them aware of government schemes, laws, and their rights. We hold workshops in the community, and link up with other NGO’s who work at the grassroot level. We also have a mobile resource center, so that we can bring the information to the women.
With the passing of the Panchayat Raj Act, suddenly, one million women were given power in the country. We train women to take responsibility and increase their capacity to undertake their duties. Accountability is also very important. There is a perceivable difference in the women since the last three elections. Political parties have started approaching them and we help them with the criteria for selecting a party.
V.P What have you gained from your experience in this field?
M.K I am glad to have fulfilled the objectives which Aalochana set out to do. On a personal level, I am inspired by the thousands of women who are so brave and strong, fighting against all odds to empower themselves. It reminds me that women like us are privileged, and that we should appreciate what we have. There are little ways in which everybody can do, so that ultimately the status of all women ahs to change.
V.P What are the frustrations associated with your work?
M.K It can be very overwhelming sometimes; we just cannot do anything when other political forces intervene. We are fighting a patriarchal, bureaucratic structure. At times we suffer from lack of funds.
V.P When did you start identifying as a feminist, and decide to work in this field?
M.K I was always a feminist, even in childhood. As teenager I became aware that men were more privileged, and didn’t want to live life within that social structure. In the 70’s, the atmosphere was politically charged with the Naxalite Movement and the Emergency, with 1975 being the International Women’s Year. It was this invigorating environment which made me realize that I wanted to dedicate myself to this field. All changes in society are related to one other. It’s the small experiences which matter.
V.P What is your vision for society?
M.K I wish that Indian will be an equitable society, where we have social justice, and dispense with all hierarchies. It is an ongoing process, and we are slowly moving toward a just and equitable society where our voices are heard.
[Image courtesy: http://www.instablogsimages.com/images/2008/02/12/veiled-woman_5965.jpg]