Fighting Gender Inequality via Dialogue: Swarna Rajagopalan

By Avilasha Sarmah in Editor's Pick 09/07/2019

Feminist thinker, scholar and social worker, Swarna Rajagopalan talks about the importance of conversation in addressing gender inequality. It is through stories that we can find the ‘missing women’ in the mainstream, she says. “Stories are extremely important because stories are who we are.


In her organization, the Prajyna Trust, they indulge in conversations over tea with the notion of uncovering these very stories. This is very impactful, as Swarna explains, because only dialogue has the capacity to capture the truth unlike laws. In our approach towards gender equality and gender violence, we tend to be very law-focused, says Swarna. The laws exist, yet it is our choice to label our situations as injustice and violence, and most importantly our willingness to seek help needs to change. No law or CCTV can change what a conversation can – because in our lives there may be people, especially men who are mostly unaware of the problem.  This is thus the ultimate unit of social change. “The grassroots are not always somewhere else. The grass-root is you and me.”


But as is the case, we hardly take time to understand and listen. Especially gender is one such neglected space. Even today we fail to notice the women in our homes, let alone the women in policy-making. That is why we still have a problem choosing women as our representatives. This stems from the very process of not identifying the role of women in history. She mentions the Indian Freedom Struggle for instance: “How many women walked in Dandi, or dropped off their bangles in collection boxes?”


Thus storytelling is completely critical. “The story you tell is the person you are and the person you want to become,” says Swarna. The moment you hear somebody’s story they are rather extraordinary, she adds.


Crafting a Think Tank in an Unconventional Manner:


In her 30 year long career, Swarna herself has had been associated with universities, the women’s movement, NGOs, and think tanks. “There was something that was needed that was a little bit more than all of these, and there were issues that were not complete,” she says. Most NGO’s do not really do research and documentation, working with the grassroots they barely have the energy to document their work. Also there are advocacy organizations that lack the bandwidth to connect with others of its type. So with the Prajnya Trust she sought to fill this existing gap around broadly defined issues of peace, justice and security.


Swarna explains how the Prajnya Trust, although formally known as the Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, is not a conventional think tank. “We’re a little bit of many things, we are a little bit NGO, little bit of think tank, little bit of school; pretty much occupying sort of a hybrid space in the middle of what everybody does, and we sit over there and do what we think needs to be done.”



Calling Prajnya an “old fashioned social organization,” Swarna explains that they don’t have a plan for revenue generation unlike a social enterprise and works mainly with individual donations. Hence their resource pool expands some years, and shrinks in others. “The good thing is that if you continue to do good work regardless, and you are honest and transparent with your funding, then people will give what they can give.” In fact, when the donors come back to give whatever they can, even if it lacks consistency, that’s true success. She exclaims. The challenge is that it does feel like the pool is shrinking, but again mostly people in social organization does not think from a business aspect, mostly it comes from a place of “I have to do this and I have to do it now.” Once one starts, money comes, perhaps inconsistently, it comes when it comes, giving space for what needs to be done. “You are always surprised by how cheaply it is possible to do things.”


Prajnya Trust’s network is hyper-local, they are connected in partnerships with local organizations, where they conduct workshops and programs. “Unfortunately the realities of non-profit funding, make it impossible for people to network with open hearts, because we are competing for the same shrinking pool of money.” But again it is imperative that organizations work together, she stresses, “solidarity is critical.” We are each other’s back-up, especially in the scenario of shrinking civil society spaces, she says. She explains, how if somebody faces a crisis, other organizations would be there to voice them instead. “Also the work we do is massive. No one organization, or one person can do it. Each of us at any point can take a little piece of it and say today I can do this. Ultimately, the goal is for gender equality to strive, not the individual success of a social organization.”


She says that in a socially oriented career, one cannot calibrate success and progress in comparison with the corporate sector, because even the most well-funded NGOs, will not pay those salaries. There are young volunteers in her organization who come mainly for the experience. People can come and volunteer in their free time while engaging in other full time jobs. The idea is to balance it this way rather than choosing only a definitive outlook.


“The success of your day is determined by somebody else having a light-bulb moment, or somebody else figuring out a solution to their everyday life. It is not your own acquisitions or awards.”


Why We Are Still Talking About Gender Inequality:


“The bottom-line of a feminist commitment to any topic or a gender lens commitment to any topic is the commitment to look at that topic from everybody’s perspective. And where there are entranced inequalities, topple them with your work.”


Being a political analyst and a writer whose work revolves around Gender and Security Studies in International Relations, Swarna observes the lack of women in public space which begins with Security. “The initial impetus for looking at women in security was really looking for women in security.” Where are the women in security studies? Where are the women in policy-making? She questions, referring to the gendered realities of security. Whether it is men, women or non-binary people, all have a different means of access to survival and resilience resources. The bottom-line commitment, Swarna explains, is looking at how everybody is affected by a situation but that everyone has different needs and we have to acknowledge that. This begins with awareness. As part of Prajnya when they organize college workshops, they do a lot of gender violence awareness and start a dialogue on policy among the students.


“There have been changes because people have been fighting for this for long,” says Swarna addressing the long drawn struggle for gender equality. There are significant developments like gender-budgeting and gender-audits. But again change is lacking in the realm of “gender justice in policy-making”. She says that political parties in their manifestos still treat women largely as bodies that needs to be protected by men.


Although we use the word empowerment rather freely, there is no understanding of women as human beings with aspirations.




The need is to recognize and understand patriarchy. It might be difficult at first but once we begin seeing it, it appears everywhere. Then it becomes clear what is that singular piece that will make a big difference. “In India patriarchy is aided by some very able and determined friends like caste, class inequality,” says Swarna. She explains that within every location there is some agency. “Across class, caste, gender, typically we are raising young girls with very little confidence.” The pressure that they have with the world around them is quite enormous. To be able to encourage them to dream and aspire, or dress and how they want to be, or have a voice, that is the need.







Currently curating a creative team for Feministaa! Apart from that I am a wanderer who loves to write. Places call out to me and I enjoy making poetry out of moments. Do check out my book – “When the Cuckoo Called”.


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