I was born in Bangalore, and grew up between my grandparents' home in Bangalore and with my mum, dad and brother in Chennai. I grew up with stars in my eyes, hoping to do medicine in the hope of "helping people", until I realised that I could do that with development, too. I studied Law in Chennai, mostly out of the fact that my father is a lawyer and if I failed in a career in development, I could still fall back on my father's practice. Once I left law school, I began working - I tried my hand out at the corporate sector and at litigation - they were all wonderful people doing some great work, but something about the system had me running out, kicking and screaming. It got me thinking that many cases that sat warming the benches in the judiciary could have been addressed had the people involved been aware of their rights at the inception. That led me to start volunteering with the UN Online Volunteering System and a couple of organizations in Chennai.
To put money in the bank (because it did, at that age, irk me that my peers were earning and I wanted to save the world without a pie to my credit), began freelancing with a bunch of local publications and a bunch of legal journals and publishing initiatives. With time, I gained some understanding of the way things worked, and realised that one of the most common narratives in the journey remained tied to the gender quotient. If I worked with communities on awareness on their Right to Public Health, I noticed that women were kept out of it. If I worked with communities on their right to clean water, I noticed that women had little to no access. Similarly, for food, education, health care, infrastructure, jobs and what have you. That was when it hit me: there's so much sitting on one domino: gender inequality. If we knocked it, this enormously global burden of inequality could just, just be knocked out. You can see that I imported an idealistic mindset into my adulthood - I was an idealist as a child, I used to dream of a world where we would all sing songs together and eat muffins (food of choice then, haha!) and just be together without fighting. I try to hold onto that little girl's ideas even today.
In all honesty, you could say that the idea of The Red Elephant Foundation was in the making, but didn't quite catalyse into the form and shape until June 2013.
But the story, though, begins on the night of December 17, 2012. On December 15, 2012, I had turned 25. On December 16, 2012, the gang-rape in Delhi, as most people know, took place. On December 17, 2012, I was at the US Consulate General at Chennai, receiving an award for my work with a US-based NGO called Delta Women, which worked for the rights of women in the US and in Nigeria, and the right to education for children in Nigeria. When I received the award, I truly felt like a hypocrite - because here I was, receiving an award when there was so much more left to be done, and when a girl was battling for her life because we as a community sacrificed her at the altar of patriarchy, misogyny, toxic and hegemonic masculinity, and inaction on part of a civilian populace that should have been vigilant. I went to bed that night, thinking of how much we had allowed to pass in the name of "We are like this only".
It was on the same day that I had come to face a dissociated past, where I had completely blocked out my own memories of facing abuse as a child. I decided to do what I could on my own, and started by telling my story. Six months later, I looked back to see how telling my story had made a difference: one, parents and to-be parents began to be vigilant about the vulnerability of their children and began to work with their children to have open conversations towards staying safe; two, I realised that I began to feel better and my own personal comfort levels felt like they were higher because I had owned my narrative instead of dissociation and my journey to heal began, and finally, that people were beginning to talk, openly, and get issues that were otherwise covert, out into the open. The vision was to change the landscape through storytelling - but by about a year, we realised that we had reached a plateau. Great, people were talking.
But what about the solutions? We then decided to get down to doing sound research (legal and policy) that we now use to suggest and inform change, AND, we also work with the youth and their parents through workshops, to shift mindsets through interactive and educational workshops to make them internalize gender equality as the norm. Then came a time in the journey when we realised that try as we might, the shift could only provide massive ripple effects in the future. But in the present, there is a desperate need to address the state of violence against women. One aspect of this has been to help women get out of a violent environment and get help. This led us to work on developing a tech tool (available now as a website -gbvhelpmap.crowdmap.com, and soon to become an app), that maps organisations across 197 countries (right now, out of these only Syria and North Korea remain information blackholes for obvious reasons), providing medical, legal, resource (food, shelter, clothing, crisis response), education and employment, police and medical services and consular establishments (this alone will be added this week) so that women can access them, get help, and stay safe.
And somewhere in the process of putting that together, it was apparent that only a few women would access the platform on acomputer, and a mobile version of the web app didn't render well.I looked everywhere. Someone recommended an app called Fiverr. Whoever I asked, wanted me to shell out more than I could afford. A few coders came forward to volunteer their services, but however well-meaning, time was of essence and they didn’t have enough to spare. A corporate house agreed to get on board, but like a relationship where the partners lapse into silence and walk their ways one fine day, that bond splintered.
This time, the challenge was intense, different and a whole lot more abstract than it was before. Websites and blogs come from templates, and you can learn to modify things on the fly without worrying too much since the base code is already built. But a mobile app is a whole different ball game – especially if you don’t have a foundation in coding, or a copious understanding of coding in entirety. I wanted to this so badly, and I was willing to do anything it took – even learn coding from scratch. With time not in my favour, I turned to a brilliant course on Coursera called “CODAPPS: Mobile Coding for Entrepreneurs.” It made me cry, it drove me furiously mad, because I just wasn’t getting it. I’m always analytical and cause-effect in my thinking, and being one to work with emotions, situations and real people, I didn’t speak machine.
And still, I persisted.
The frustration was real, and my determination to cross the path was even more so. I went back to the conversation I had in that classroom. Fourteen year old Kirthi was (stop calculating my age!) given a message that day, one that she can recall and use even today: art. The answer was in art. I am an incredibly visual person, and what I can’t visualize is difficult for me to relate to. When I realized that coding from scratch was not going to get me there as quickly, that I was terribly rough around the edges, and that while I decided I wouldcode, I could also rely on what they call “SDK” in the coding world – i.e., software development kits. I learned about them on the course. These blocks of pre-coded technology help you rely on several functionalities to put the choicest features together to build your app. It was smooth sailing, easy to understand and also gave me theflexibility to visualize things as I built it.
I persist, every day. I fight, and I make my own path when there is none. I want a future of solutions, and I want to be some of those solutions. I am one woman, with one laptop, and one, big, audacious dream: a dream to build a future free of violence.