India is often criticised—and rightly so—as a deeply patriarchal society. But things are changing. Be it PM Modi’s widely hailed Beti Bachao Beti Padhao yojna or the recent decision by the Indian Parliament to give mums-to-be 26 weeks of paid maternity leave, the third longest in the world. All this is a result of several well-meaning women and men who have dedicated their lives to women empowerment in India. In a similar vein, and taking a cue from their sisters back home, Indian and Indian-origin women in New Zealand are also contributing, in their own ways, towards making the New Zealand society even better, either in terms of tackling social issues such as domestic violence or promoting multi-culturalism.
First up is Archna Tandon, Chairperson, Shakti, Christchurch, who has been a long-standing community leader in Christchurch. During Shakti’s commemoration of International Women’s Day in the Garden City, she expressed her concerns about the recent decision by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to stop funding Shakti Wellington Refuge. “We are not happy with MSD’s decision and were quite taken aback. This shows that the fight for women issues, especially those from migrant groups, still has a long way to go,” Ms Tandon said. Referring to the data from Shakti Wellington, which notes that it aided more than 350 women in 2016 with more than 200 referrals coming in from the police, she added, “Wellington needs its women refuge up and alive.”
Then is Navjot McCormack, the head of English language learning at Linwood College in Christchurch, who just organised the college’s first-ever multi-cultural event Festival of Nations, which had representation from 47 different nationalities. "This is social studies in action. [More than] 700 students are participating in the events spread across these two days. Our students come from diverse backgrounds and a lot from migrant and refugee families. This is our way of telling them that they belong here. I believe, as educators, our responsibility extends beyond imparting knowledge. We need to make sure that these new Kiwis attain full membership in the Kiwi life,” Ms McCormack noted. She has worked in media organisations in more than nine countries, speaks seven languages, and moved to Christchurch in 2005 with her Kiwi husband.
Then we have Kala Nand from Fiji, who, since 2008, has been taking free weekend Hindi classes in Christchurch. Held every Sunday from 1 pm, the classes are also about preserving the Indian culture, history, traditions, and language, by passing on the knowledge of the language to the younger generation who otherwise are accustomed to speaking English, she says. Ms Nand also organises Hindi Diwas every year in honour of what she calls “the most beautiful language—Hindi”.
Another Indian woman working in the community is Nimi Bedi, Sahaayta’s coordinator in Canterbury. Sahaayta is a community organisation based in Manukau, which works predominantly with South Asian migrant and refugee families providing them counselling services as well as social support.
“We have recently started a much needed once-a-month meeting-over-coffee club whose next gathering is on the coming Saturday, March 18. It’s a platform for South Asian women to come together and exchange life experiences and deliberate ideas for women empowerment,” she informed.
Finally, deep south in Dunedin is a young Indian lady from Calicut in Kerala, who for the past five years has been running the only Indian classical dance school in Otago—Natyaloka. Slowly growing to reach 35 students now, the school is the brainchild of Swaroopa Unni, an acclaimed dancer herself. “I teach Bharatnatyam and have plans to introduce Mohiniyattam in the near future as well. My goal is to make the classical dances of India relatable to the young generation here,” she added.