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On Engaging Young Girls in Politics with Kuviraa's Founder Shevika

Shevika M. is the founder of Kuviraa, a non-partisan initiative that aims to build political engagement and leadership in girls across India. Prior to this, Shevika managed Ashoka’s Changemaker Schools programme in South Asia and worked at the Directorate of Education in Delhi on capacity building for government teachers. Shevika serves as a consultant at the India Climate Collaborative and has earned a master’s in Public Policy from the University of Oxford as a Chevening Scholar. We talked to Shevika M. about the inspiration behind starting Kuviraa, her efforts to engage young women in politics, and key findings from Kuviraa's report highlighting gender disparities and the significant role of parental influence in adolescents' political engagement.


What led you to start Kuviraa?

I grew up in Mumbai. I didn’t really have access to conversations about politics. No one really spoke to me about politics. So I wish my journey towards political awareness had started much earlier in life. I wish when I was 16 or 17, someone had been speaking to me about politics. But it didn't happen. And at 18 of course, you vote. But I voted because that's what a good citizen does, But I don't think I had the knowledge or the tools to understand how to use my vote or how to hold representatives accountable. And I still think I am learning. But later, I ended  up having an opportunity where I worked with a government agency and saw that there were such few women around. And the women that were around were just so inspiring. So that made me think about what we can do to make girls and women more interested in politics. Even if they are at different levels: local, state or national. But how do you even start having those conversations with girls? How do you create spaces for them to ask questions or understand how this country works? How do you demystify politics to make it more accessible to girls and women like yourself? That's basically why I started Kuviraa.

 

Kuviraa released an incredibly insightful report titled 'Talk Politics to Me: Addressing the Gender Gap in Adolescents’ Political Interests and Engagement in India’. The report explored  the state of political interest and engagement in adolescents and young adults, particularly girls in India. Could you walk us through the main findings of your report? 


In the beginning, I do want to caveat out some information to keep in mind while looking at the findings. We surveyed around 600 people between the ages of 14 to 22, and they were mostly from 27 cities. Although our survey was both in English and Hindi, the respondents ended up being from mainly urban or English-speaking backgrounds. We also didn't have enough of a sample size for other genders.

 

Our key findings were as follows.

  • Across age groups, male respondents reported a higher interest and engagement in politics than female respondents. Almost double male respondents said that they were more interested in politics than females. Similar trends were observed for political engagement.

 

It was interesting to see how the responses were morphed across interests and engagement though. We broke it down for them what engagement means: whether you have shared something on social media, or whether you have participated in a demonstration or political rally. Maybe that's why it is large.

 

The other observation here that was interesting was that girls and women thought that there were less opportunities for them to be involved in politics. We asked them why they weren't engaged in politics, ranging from if they had homework or felt like they didn't have enough time. But this was interesting, because girls and women thought there were no opportunities for them to be involved in politics or perceived to feel so.

 

  • Gender disparities in politics increase with age. 


We think the cause of this is mainly just society. Gendered political socialization tells you that the way the media or society talks about politics is the way young people co-opt discourse. Young boys are encouraged to engage with politics while girls just aren't. Just because of the way society talks about it, girls grow up thinking that maybe there isn't a space for me to be involved in it. 

 

  • Boys' awareness of the root causes of gender disparities decreases the more they grow older. 


We asked them questions like if it's harder for women to become elected officials. At the age of 14, girls thought it was hard, but as they grew older, from 18-22, they agreed even more strongly with the statement. Whereas older boys didn't agree with the statement.

 

The most surprising finding however was the role of parents. We asked different questions to understand what influenced them in terms of interest or engagement in politics: their peers or maybe even social media. None of that had as much impact as parents did. If a parent speaks to their daughter about politics, the more likely it is that she thinks women can be successful at becoming elected officials. This also made me realize that we also need to engage with parents, and cannot just engage with young people.


How do parents talk to their children about politics, especially their daughters? How does this influence girls' involvement and confidence in political discussions?

 

I spoke to a few parents on this issue a couple of years ago. Irrespective of the gender, what they say is that they would like to “shield” their child from the topic of politics. They don't want to have conversations about it. And some parents have said that it is because of how badly the media covers it. It's not necessary that they neglect their daughters on purpose, but a lot of girls I work with tell me that whenever there are family gatherings, the men would sit on one side and talk about politics. Women are not involved. Or my mother's opinion on politics is not taken as seriously. Or that there were many girls in their community, who even if they studied political science, thought that they did not know anything about politics. So one is not necessarily taking their opinions seriously. But also just we grow up with. Across socioeconomic groups, you will see men talking about politics. And if you grew up in an environment where men don't involve women, maybe there are not as many opportunities for you to engage in political conversation. This is all that may be happening. We don't yet have data on this, but this is what we have learned from the work we have done.

 

A lot of parents have asked us how we talk to children about politics in an unbiased way. Some of them told me that they talk about politics through a  social-justice lens: so from the lens of caste and socio-economic issues. These are mostly families that are mainly upper-middle-class from urban areas. We do notice that anyone we have worked with from rural areas are more in touch with politics, along with their children. There is a greater apathy in urban or urban middle-class children that is not there in rural areas, which is also reflected in the voter turn-out and the way India has voted.  A lot of the communities we work with in urban areas have the privilege to not care about politics. There are more layers in urban areas. So it's different depending on who you are talking to.

 

 What would you say to parents who genuinely believe that their children aren’t ready yet to tackle political issues, and that politics is ‘adult talk’?


They are getting exposed to it anyway. They are seeing it on YouTube, the news or even social media. So it is better that you have a conversation with them about it rather than having them listen to sources that are not vetted. It is also important to create a safe space. It is complex, it is getting polarized but a lot of people have questions. They don't necessarily understand why things are the way they are, who do you go to if you have issues, or even having a space to discuss this with someone who is as passionate as you are. So just creating an avenue to have those conversations is very important. Schools don't want to do it - they are okay with talking about policy, but not politics, because they think politics is too polarizing. So parents need to have those conversations, can just be about local issues or governance. And that is super important.

 

How does Kuviraa attempt to create a safe space for young girls to discuss politics? 


Our programs are online. We come in and set norms from the beginning. That you may disagree with someone or have different experiences, but you have to be respectful to everyone. You are supposed to also work in groups. We are also trying to work very hard on the alumni community. All these girls who have gone through our programs have similar values: equity, secularism, respect and trust. This goes across cohorts. Most participants also come from a strong gender-equity and social-justice lens. We have seen that they have created bonds outside of the program. Some of our alumni just voted for the first time, and sent me messages saying that this was the most exciting moment of their life. Things like that make me very happy and hopeful for India's future.


How does Kuviraa attempt to achieve intersectionality in its program, and what impact has this had on the discussions you see in the cohort? 


We now have a more diverse group. In the second and third batch, we have reached girls from multiple Tier-2 cities like Udaipur or Bhatinda. We have had girls who come through NGOs. There is a fair split now. Majority of our girls also come in with full scholarships. We are still trying to be more diverse, but there has been a shift towards different socioeconomic groups, religions and regions as well. There is a difference in the conversations, especially with their experiences with local politics. It definitely adds on more layers to the discussions girls have been having.


In one of Kuviraa’s recent blog posts, you mentioned that even though the women’s reservation bill was finally passed in the Lok Sabha, parties are still doing little to platform women politicians. Why is it that the women’s reservation bill took so long to pass in the Lok Sabha? Right now, when women do get places within political parties, are they sufficiently heard? Are they given enough resources and standing within parties to influence policy directions meaningfully?

 

They have been trying to pass the Women's Reservation Bill for 27 years now, and there has always been an issue of political consensus. A lot of parties debated how to also accommodate women from SC, ST, and OBC backgrounds as well. And a lot of critics said it was not as intersectional. But after a lot of debates, it got passed. Political parties struggle with inertia when it comes to women representation. There are structural issues there, such as women not being given party tickets. Women also do not have as many resources, or even the same networks as incumbent male politicians. Also, it is harder for women to be out all day especially with the caregiving responsibilities placed on them. There are logistical issues as well. Parties are being slow with implementing any action.


What message would you give to young girls who are hesitant to engage in politics, whether due to a discouraging environment or self-doubt about their ability to succeed?

  

Start with conversations about politics and understand how our democracy works. Question the status quo and remember that things don't have to stay the same. Ask questions, seek different perspectives, and read up more. Something as simple as regularly reading the newspaper or watching Sansad TV can make a significant difference.


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