Up Close with a Teenage CEO

On New Year’s Eve, the city of Bangalore witnessed a ‘mass molestation’ of several women during the celebrations. The Bangalore Mirror reported a ‘crowd frenzy’ at midnight at the city’s Central Business District, and eyewitnesses reported seeing women being ‘pawed and groped’, and struggling to make their way to police officers standing nearby. In the days that followed, four FIRs were filed, but no further action was taken. Karnataka’s Home Minister G Parameshwara responded to the events by saying: "Unfortunately, what is happening is - as I said - in days like new year, Bengaluru's Brigade Road, Commercial Street, MG Road, a large number of youngsters gather. Youngsters who are almost like westerners, they try to copy the westerners not only in the mindset, but even the dressing”. India’s Samajwadi Party’s Abu Azmi was more direct in his victim-blaming, saying: “If there is petrol somewhere, there is bound to be fire. If there is sugar, ants are bound to come”.

In light of these events, I sit down with Govind Ramakrishnan, a sophomore at Trinity School in New York. While most students his age were doing homework and hanging out with their friends, Govind was in the process of setting up his own NGO, Youth Against Sexual Assault (or YASA), a non-profit New York-based organization that is dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault.  In this interview, Govind and I discuss the shocking events in Bangalore that rocked the nation.

 Govind Ramakrishnan, Founder and CEO of YASA.

Govind Ramakrishnan, Founder and CEO of YASA.

Tell us about YASA; what inspired you to start something like this?

Basically, the inspiration started when I went to India about three years ago. There were- I don’t want to say hundreds, because that might be hyperbole on my part- but several articles every day about women being sexually assaulted, or women dropping court cases because of backlash against them. And I remember thinking to myself, “That’s not okay”. When I went back to New York, kids used that kind of news against me, to make fun of who I was; as if that’s all that defines India or Indians. I started doing some more research, and I found out 90% of women in India experience some form of sexual assault during their lifetime, and I was horrified. I told my parents about what I’d read, and they told me I should start an NGO to help out; and that’s how YASA came about.

What was your reaction to the recent events in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve?

I thought it was absolutely disrespectful, horrendous behaviour on the part of the perpetrators. The justification for these actions was unspeakable, because things like this don’t just happen, and they shouldn’t be attributed to something that can’t really be controlled, like what people are wearing. I believe freedom of expression is incredibly important to society, and blaming victims for what they wear is absolutely ridiculous.

You mentioned the ‘justification’ for these events; did you expect the government to react in such a manner?

I really want to say no, but I have to say that I did. After 2012, they tried to fast-track these sexual assault cases, to get people to speak more about this issue, but that’s not enough. We all know that this is a huge problem in India, especially in Karnataka, where sexual assault cases have increased from 40,000 to 90,000 cases a year. Based on the government’s past history, like with the Nirbhaya case, I did expect them to not look the other way, exactly, but skirt the problem. And by blaming anyone or anything other than the perpetrators, the government is doing nothing to solve this issue.

The government does have some facilities available to sexual assault survivors, but these are far from adequate. What can YASA do to supplement these?

Our work attempts to address the problem from the roots itself. There are a few things we try to do; one of these is to try and prevent sexual assault by changing the mindset of would-be perpetrators from a younger age. We want to do that by trying to instill values in children through their primary education, and by using social media in order to make people more aware of what’s happening. I can tell you, nobody in my school knew what happened in Bangalore. It takes mountains upon mountains of articles and news coverage to get this sort of thing over here. So those are our two main platforms; we want to get parents to instill ideas of respect and equality from a young age to their children. We really see gender equality as the forefront of our foundation. If you’ve read Seema Jayachandran’s paper ‘The Roots of Gender Equality’, she basically correlates an economically productive society with one that has a high level of gender equality. So, getting past the media and grassroots education would be our two main focuses.

What is something you think the government can do to smooth the way for you?

Definitely change the laws regarding rape to make the punishment more stringent, for a start. The same goes for laws regarding dowry, and female foeticide/infanticide. But the problem goes deeper; it’s more about the current mindset than the laws. For example, in India, fathers are expected to take care of their sons extremely well, so that their sons can take care of them in turn, since there’s no proper pension system in India. So many fathers don’t want female children, since they expect daughters to marry and leave the family, and so not be able to take care of them. So changing the mindset is definitely the first step the government should be taking to solve this problem.

You’ve talked about the ‘mindset problem’; given that your NGO’s name is ‘Youth Against Sexual Assault’, what do you think the youth of India can do to change the mindset?

I touched on this briefly, but I believe if you attack this problem when people are in their 30s or 40s, its too late to change ingrained beliefs. So the youth of India’s role is pretty imperative here. Perpetrators of sexual assault didn’t just decide to commit it; they’re raised a certain way, to believe that men are superior, and women are little more than objects. For example, when I visited the Agastya Foundation, we asked if we could hold a few gender equality seminars, that focused on eradicating gender roles. And they refused; because they didn’t want the parents to get angry that they were teaching their kids to subvert those norms. That’s exactly why we want to target the youth, to try and teach them about gender equality when those beliefs aren’t so ingrained. I believe that change is from the bottom up. We’ve started a few campaigns, here in New York, and in India, that use social media as a distribution mechanism and talk about what’s happening. 60% of sexual assault survivors don’t talk to the police or report these crimes, because they don’t feel safe or comfortable to talk about what happened to them. The biggest thing the youth can do to change the mindset is to create a supportive environment for these survivors to safely talk about what they’ve experienced, without feeling judged in any way.

Tell us more about YASA’s campaign that talks about what we, as a generation can do.

Answer: At the start of the summer, we asked our supporters to send in videos of themselves answering the question “What can I do to promote gender equality?” in one or two sentences. And the answers have been really interesting, everyone has their own point of view. Kids from the US talked about college campuses, and kids in India talked about changing the way women and their role in society is viewed. A student from Harvard said that the media is the devil in this scenario; I posted an article on our website talking about ‘The 7 Most Sexist ads of 2016’, and it’s things like the ads mentioned in it, that degrade women, that contribute to this problem. We wanted to show that the youth are aware of what’s happening, and want change. Our main goal for this campaign is to reach 25,000 videos, and we hope to have many more videos come in!

To help this campaign, submit your own video (answering the question “what can I do to help gender equality?”) to Govind@yasanyc.com.

Interview by Shreya Kaushik