Interview with Gurleen Khandpur – Founder FREE

With a smile on her face, and a free spirited gait, Gurleen walks through the restaurant assured, congenial and geared up to do something worthwhile. With a question in her mind, and a desire in her heart, she treaded an uneven yet beautiful path. Gurleen Khandpur, a 21 year old, came fresh out of Fergusson College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and thought of doing exactly what she wanted to do, without compromising for a 9 to 5 job, without doing a formal course in a reputed institute and most importantly, without exiling to a foreign land where, as many told her, the issues she wanted to deal with would be truly appreciated and accepted. She set up FREE, an NGO to work on issues specifically related to gender and sexuality, almost one and half years ago. With supportive friends, with people raising questions on how this can not exactly be a full fledged “career” and with a brave and inspired heart, she is now on her way of creating a change in helping people think about themselves and people surrounding them in a better manner.

FREE essentially deals with issues like child sexual abuse, gender bias at work, peer pressure which leads to drug abuse and heinous crimes like date rape, a bad body image which turns into young girls facing the traumas of anorexia and bulimia and various other issues. But the scope of FREE is wider, it is about helping people build a stronger self identity; to respect and love themselves and the world better.

Her experiences are rich with the most definitive one being her interaction with the transgender and homosexuals of Budhwar Peth, a red light area in Pune. She quotes an incident when one of the sex workers complimented her on her earrings; she had received the same compliment that morning from one of her college friends. “We are, after all, different only on a superficial plain. We are all humans and we like and enjoy the same things.” she says.

Gurleen is enthusiastic and enticed about the future ventures FREE is going to organize and is happy the way her plan of action is shaping up.

VP: What inspired you to start FREE?

Gurleen: It was basically a question and an opportunity. The question was, if there was a certain thing you would change in the world, what would that be? And also if you have the courage to take a stand and do something about it. I was constantly talking to people, the issue hurled in my mind all the time. I asked myself, can I take it up and make a difference? I figured out I could. I picked this issue over the myriad problems like literacy, poverty that we are facing and I narrowed down on the evils like child sexual abuse, peer pressure, domestic violence, and the works since these issues are so much related to everything we do but they still go so unnoticed!

VP: What is the essence of FREE?

Gurleen:This question can be answered in two ways. The essence for the people working in it or associated with it is that they can identify a place for love, care and support; a place where they can go beyond preconceived ideas relating to sex abuse, gender roles. They can get out of their comfort zones here, very comfortably! They can find a place which is more empathetic to people’s differences and is very accepting of their dissimilarities. FREE, as an organization in terms of the change it wants to make, desires to “undefine” sexuality as a concept and as a result, it wants to help people look at themselves with more love and respect and in turn, look at others with greater care and respect.

VP: How was the process of coming right out of college and starting an NGO all by yourself? What were the challenges?

Gurleen:As you put it, it was challenging, yet very fulfilling. The journey was incredible and will be, for years to come. The first conflict was to come to terms with the things I was never used to seeing in my daily life. I am from a defense background; I have led a very sheltered life. But coming out and confronting wife beaters, rapists, transgender, prostitutes was definitely tough. There were times when I worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I would interact with them, talk to them, they had become a part of my daily schedule. But by the end of it, I would be exhausted, harrowed. I had to overcome my absorption in this world and then the conflict that arose when I came out to the visible, “normal” world. Now when I work, I also take some time off for myself, my friends and do the things every youngster does. This has helped me work better; I can interact with the transgender, the abuse victims dealing with the worst things and still believe that this is a great world, full of possibilities and hope.

Then, it was dealing with the stigma attached with working on sexuality and also that of working as a so called “social worker”. Social work should not just be associated with charity. The intellectuals, learned, the well read who get into this profession should be paid just like people in all the mainstream professions are.
On a personal level, living alone and dealing with managing money and spending it wisely was a challenge. This was the time I found out what supporting yourself meant. Many a times, I wanted to buy that pretty dress on the mannequin but I told myself to spend the same money in the upcoming workshop.

VP: What have the past activities of FREE been and what is it currently doing?

Gurleen:We formally started working in January 2008 and our first activity was a parent’s workshop to talk about sexuality, sexual abuse. We also held a peace march to showcase defiance against any kind of abuse and towards having a healthy sexuality in Pune on 30th march 2008. We held a training camp on sexuality for all age groups. We called in a doctor from Bangalore to train us on various facets of sexuality and discussed the problems related to sexuality we all face today on various levels. We had an interactive session with HIV positive children in the past year. We keep interacting with the homosexuals, transgender, prostitutes from “Budhwar Peth”, a red light area in Pune.
Currently, we are going to a lot of schools all around Pune to land contracts with them to talk and train children from the 9th to the 12th standard. We also plan to set up “FreeCell”, an activity group on various campuses. In it, we plan to have activity based sessions every 2 weeks and also gather students as interns for the organization. We have almost received confirmations from Fergusson College and Symbiosis.
FREE also plans to launch a research project in July to establish the needs and wants of people and institutions in terms of gender sexuality and to discuss the misconceptions and apprehensions about it. We are looking for volunteers right now.

VP: What are the biggest problems the youth is facing today in terms on the line of work you have selected?

Gurleen:One of the prime troubles is a lack of awareness concerning issues relating to sexuality, gender discrimination, relationships. There is absolutely no valid information available. There is also a great trouble of isolation. The people who have been abused think they are the only one. Due to what they have gone through, they rank themselves as someone who is weird, who is not normal. But they don’t realize that they are not alone. There is a huge stigma attached to coming out clean and speaking up on these issues. Even though we are individually secular and liberal, we don’t talk about it openly due to the fear of being questioned and singled out. It is very easy to be ignorant, very easy to sit back and let things happen. But today, we need to step out of our comfort zones, question the dogmas and not be scared to have a different point of view.

VP: We all know that teenagers today are indulging in unsafe sex on a regular basis. Parents are oblivious and there is no comprehensive platform to give information about it. What do you think needs to be done on that front?

Gurleen:Firstly, teachers need to start teaching what the textbooks contain. The 9th standard CBSE textbook has a full fledged chapter on reproduction which needs to be taught in class and not to be put off for homework or self study. But there is a certain kind of attitude needed to teach sexuality in an unbiased manner which only a teacher who is liberal can have. Facts need to be stated as facts and should not be colored with personal notions and views of the teacher. It’s better if we have teachers specifically trained to educate students about issues pertaining to sexuality. The Union Government has definitely tried to introduce sex education in the system but there has been a lot of opposition. The Adolescent Education Program was started in New Delhi and the Union Government had asked the State Governments to incorporate it but since education is a state handled sector, the State can very well oppose such reforms. Andhra Pradesh was one of the states which took it up but Maharashtra and Rajasthan were one of the many states which did not.
This means that a lot of people want to bring in this reform. So why not create a free enterprise or a sort of parallel education system through which sex education can be imparted to students as well as parents. I also think internet should be used as a valid source of information for students.

VP: What can the youth do on their level to tackle the problems of sexual abuse?

Gurleen:The first thing they can do is look within themselves. You need to question yourself no matter how secular you think you are since there is always a beyond. You need to think about the things you are not okay with, be rational about them and go deeper.

Secondly, they need to keep their eyes and ears open, talk to people and try to find information about the things they have doubts on.
Thirdly, in any casual conversation, let it slip amongst your friends and let them know that you are not going to judge them on anything that they have been through in the past or might go through in the future. You should also arm yourself with contacts of people and organizations that can be of any help to them in case they go through any kind of abuse.

Sakhi Deshpande