Meet the People Extraordinaire – Ravi Karkara

Ravi Karkara is a trained social worker with commitment to advance human rights, participation, inclusion and gender equality, accountability and social justice. He serves as a Senior Adviser Strategic Partnership & Advocacy to the Assistant Secretary-General/Deputy Executive Director of UN Women. He has worked with several organizations on gender mainstreaming with a specific focus on children, youth, women successfully advocating the role of boys and men in gender equality from a life-cycle and gender transformative approach. He is also the recipient of prestigious NOVUS Award, that unites global shapers from around the world to tackle today’s grand challenges via actionable change. 

What did you want to be growing up? What inspired you to choose social work as a profession? Any particular memory or incident that sticks out?
I always tell people my story is not just my story. It’s ours, my twin sister and mine because there never was a time we didn’t know what is not to share among the two of us and what it is to not be equal. I was strongly influenced by my mother who fought stereotypes and gender prejudices. While she was growing up in Punjab, India, she wanted to study and got admitted to a nursing college. She convinced her mother that she didn’t want to get married at 18 and instead study further. They had very little money while she was growing up and her grandmother encouraged her education by giving her two gold bangles. Coming from a lower middle-class family she managed to secure a scholarship and become the first woman in her family to finish both BSc and MSc in Nursing. Thereafter she taught community health medicine. As kids we always accompanied our mother and we were sensitized to issues of  inequality and injustice.

She would always tell us that while you have many privileges, there are millions of Indians who don’t, specially women. Unfortunately, I lost my father when I was a teenager and that also taught me that life is very tough. At the same time, this incident, amongst many, empowered my mother. She retired as a secretary to the Indian Nursing Council and was recognized for her work by the Government of India.

I wanted to become a businessman. While schooling at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, I took up a course on Socially Useful Productive work which gave me the opportunity to work with underprivileged children. That sparked my interest in children and inequality. I studied economics at Jamia Millia University Amartya Sen’s book “Development as Freedom influenced me greatly. During the same time the Millennium Development Goals were being launched and there was a whole focus on the social development conference which took place 20 years ago. That made me take up a degree in social work. There were very few men studying social work at that time. It was a conscious decision on my part to look at issues of inequality, non-discrimination and social injustice. That’s how I was drawn into this work.

You are extremely passionate about the issue of Violence Against Women and gender equality with a specific focus on women, children and youth. Where does the motivation come from? Can you share some personal experiences/incidences from your life that fuels this passion?

While I was studying social work my first on-field experience was to work for a slum in Delhi’s Trilokpuri area for a YWCA project. I worked on a project dedicated to children and women’s self-help groups. That really set the scene for me to understand that the need is to not just eradicate poverty but also find solutions that are people-driven. The next year I spent working with people in the unorganized sector, such as construction youth workers on how we can organize them to negotiate minimum wages and improved work conditions etc. What was important in all of this was the need to organize people and fight for their rights.

Then came an interesting stage in my career. I was ready to graduate from college and being the topper, I had the opportunity to work as either a management trainee in the HR division of a posh multi national company for $250/month or take up a job for $65/month and work in the villages of India. I was confused. I remember asking my mother for advice. She said do what you think is right and what will make you happy.

At the Gender Training Institute, Centre for Social Research, New Delhi 1997

I spent more than two years working on the 73rd amendment of the panchayati raj (coming from the Beijing Conference)  where women were given leadership positions for the first time. I was given the opportunity to work with feminists and train them. During one of those trainings in Udaipur, towards the end a very important elderly woman leader called me and said  that it’s very nice what you are doing but I fail to understand why you are doing these trainings for us? And she pointed to a group of men smoking hookah, gambling and just chatting. She said don’t you think you need to work with those men? I was 21 years old and did not quite understand her point but a week later during a training in Patna I realized exactly what she meant. She brought in the question of changing the patriarchal system and hegemonies of masculinities, the need to work with boys and men on gender equality.

I remember talking to folks about this and they thought I was mad. They told me I was wasting resources. While we need to teach women and girls how to fight for their human rights, we also need to focus on boys and change their attitudes towards girls and women.

What are some of the challenges you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

People always ask me how I landed up at the UN and I tell them it was not planned. I always wanted to work with a purpose and that drives where I move and not the organization. The purpose has been very clear – to contribute to creating more equality and justice and acceptance of human rights in the world based on the principles of people’s participation, inclusion and accountability. I call it the PIA principle. Whatever I do has to focus on the human rights-based approach. One has to look at the root cause of the patriarchal system,  the inequality and the norms to bring about a change. 

Meeting with UN Secretary General & Minister of Youth Sri Lanka on Colombo Declaration and UN Youth Skills Day, New York 2014

It’s been a very interesting journey. I’ve been a facilitator and a trainer, an activist on the streets, a negotiator on writing resolutions that have made some strong impact. The big moments in my career I would say were:

Working on the Let’s Talk Men project for South Asia which was a conversation in four countries in 1999-2000. We looked at how men in South Asia need to change. And how women look at masculinity.

At Save the Children, Sweden. I had the challenge of setting up the entire regional office from scratch on a budget of just $10,000. I left with a diverse team of 15 staff members and a million dollar budget.

I alway had a strong participatory perspective, so child participation in early years was very critical. When I was working for the UNICEF, getting young people to sit with the world leaders and hearing what children’s solutions to the world problems were was a big challenge that I accomplished.

One of the pioneering works of UN-HABITAT that I worked on is Youth-21, which promotes youth engagement in UN institutions. One of the reasons I moved to youth agenda was because a lot of children who grew up in the late 90s had very sound child rights. But the minute they turned 18, they no longer could identify with these rights and there were no youth rights guidelines yet. That gave me an unique opportunity to work with the UN-HABITAT on Youth space. Ban Ki-moon became the first secretary general to give priority to youth and create the first youth volunteer program. So these are some important milestones.

Release of Toolkit on Youth Participation in SDG Implementation, New York 2016

Currently, one of the biggest challenges is how do we make sure that we are responding to the youth responsibilities? We are in the process today to launch the Youth and Gender Equality Strategy called the LEAPS framework which is about leadership of women in all spheres. So while we are doing very exciting work, the biggest challenge working for the UN Women are the limited resources and a huge global mandate. 

You are a feminist. What does that word mean to you? Why has the word “feminism” acquired a negative connotation? Your thoughts.

I am a feminist and a humanist. I am obsessed with human rights of every single person no matter how they identify themselves as. Human rights of women is so critical to the discussion. You cannot look at the world with one eye closed. Feminism needs to be embraced in it’s complete dimension. Feminism contributes to the whole ideology of humanism. I am very optimistic. Things are changing now, specially with the young and adolescent girls who are coming out with some amazing ideas. The best example I would like to cite is the HarassMap by women in Cairo.

Having a daughter is the best thing that happened to me. Ever since she was born, I’ve decided to not travel for work. I want to spend as much time as I can with her. Recently someone told me that taking care of my daughter was my wife’s job and I should stop being such a feminist. Fatherhood is not a job, it’s a joy. It’s not being a feminist, it’s being a humanist.

India being a patriarchal society, a majority of men grow up with a sense of entitlement. In your opinion how can we change men’s (specially the youth’s) attitude towards women?

We have to look at it from a social transformation perspective and consider all actors – men, women, boys, girls and people who identify themselves as other genders. First we need to look at this from a life-cycle perspective. You have to look at the change in early-childhood development practices. You need to make sure that parental care is about both mothers and fathers. Plenty of studies have been done in South Asia which show that most of the parental policies were geared towards the mother and the father had no idea. Change the conversation that fathers are not only protectors and providers but can also be nurturers and caregivers.

Working with boys in the 7-12 age-group is important because that’s when they are watching and learning about the ecosystem that is discriminatory. It’s not only discriminatory against women but also against different religions. And then adolescence, when puberty hits and the whole reproductive right changes is important because then you see the relationship between gender, equality and sexuality. A topic very less talked about and that’s critical for understanding the relationship of men and boys respecting women and girl’s bodies and their spaces.

Keynote address at Cornell University, New York 2015

Then you look at youth and ask why youth? Because 1.8 billion people are youth. That’s why we need to work with this generation which is almost 900 million young men. The recent MyWorld Survey of 10 million people has almost 7 million young people. What is horrifying to learn is that when you ask women to prioritize gender equality, they would put it at 4-5-6 out of 16. Whereas boys prioritize equality between men and women at 14-15-16 out of 16. That’s just not India or Africa. It includes the USA, Europe etc. It’s a global phenomenon where young men who are growing up think that women and girls are inferior and that’s why we have the wage inequality here.

And of course there are middle-aged men like me need to change because we are sitting in the patriarchal domain of finance, power, media etc. and we can influence these places. And often what is not talked about is the role of grandfathers who are older patriarchs and who can change and learn from their mistakes and reinforce the need to work with boys and girls.

One strategy is to look at men and boys but I also think it’s critical to develop self-esteem of adolescent girl and older women. Girls need to learn that they are not just passive beings. They are equal and have the same right as any other person. Assertiveness is important for empowerment.

From raising awareness to taking action. What are the 3 things we the people can do to reduce VAW & achieve gender equality in our lives?

One, we must voice discussions on gender inequality through both traditional and progressive media. The radio is still very powerful and so is Twitter.

Two, it’s critical to learn from actions at the community level. Whether it’s a students initiative, a youth volunteer initiative or women’s group initiative. Learn from them.

Three, we must influence policy discussion. Put pressure through social media to change policies. We have seen that both online and offline mobilization is critical.

Last and my most favorite is – ensuring that we are doing this from a principle of strength to strength and working and collaborating rather than competing. Partnership is so critical. We are building this mass and we are all in this together.

My advice is, start where you are. You need to tell yourself that “I will be a more fair and just person”. That has to be a conscious mantra every morning. I will treat my partner, family members, friends equally. I will first be the ambassador of my own eco-system before I ask anyone else to change. Speak to your relatives who treat their boys and girls differently. Are you telling your neighbor that he cannot beat his children or wife? Are you taking and holding your politician to account if he/she is not investing adequately in women and girls and creating a protective sphere? Are you unfollowing some media tycoons on social media who continue to objectify women and girls as commodities rather than right holders?

What is your idea of an empowered person?

An empowered person has to be selfless. A person who does not have an ego. One who is ready to become invisible and dedicate oneself selflessly to the work he/she is passionate about.

Sayfty’s mission is to Educate, Equip and Empower women so that they can protect themselves against violence. What is your message for our readers related to women’s personal safety and the issue of violence against women?

Safety education has to be taught to both girls and boys as early as possible. The concept of what is a good touch, what is a bad touch should be taught very early on. It’s too late to talk about these concepts in your adolescence and youth

One needs to bring in the understanding of safety as its link to empowerment. If I have a right to be safe I have a responsibility to make sure others around me are also safe. Teach the necessary life skills while linking it to my right to voice. If something is not going right, I have the right to voice it.

About RAVI

Ravi Karkara is Senior Advisor on Strategic Partnerships and Advocacy to the Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director, UN Women.

With over 20 years of experience, Ravi is an acknowledged expert in various development related fields. He has been driving innovation and advocacy as well as building strategic partnerships in the areas of human rights, participation, inclusion and gender equality, accountability, and social justice. Recently, Ravi developed a partnership between UN Women and the City of New York and organized a unique gender equality march with over 20,000 participants from the UN Headquarters to Times Square. Ravi has built UN Women’s Strategy on Youth and Gender Equality and established and co-ordinates the Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality for the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth and Development.

He developed and led the youth outreach of the UN Secretary General‘s MyWorld Survey to deliver votes from more than 6 million youth from 193 nations.  Ravi has been the recipient of the prestigious NOVUS Award – that unites global leaders from around the world to tackle today’s big challenges via actionable change. He has also been appointed as honorary Global Ambassador by the prestigious Junior Chamber International.

Inspired by the outcomes of the Beijing Conference in 1995, Ravi is a feminist and has been advocating for gender equality and girls/women’s empowerment throughout his career. He has worked on programs for strengthening women’s political participation in local governance and economic empowerment in South Asia and also served as a pioneering Male Trainer for gender sensitization at the Centre for Social Research’s Gender Equality Training Institute, India. He has been a founding member of the Men-Engage Alliance and was instrumental in forming their South Asian network. As Save the Children’s Sweden Regional Program Manager Ravi worked to mainstream gender and action to end violence against women and children in South Asia and promoted cross-regional programmatic collaboration. He also served on Save the Children’s Global Gender Task Force.

Ravi’s publications have been fundamental in forming policy at the United Nations in youth-related areas. Representative publications include: “Youth 21: Building the Architecture of Youth Engagement in the UN System, which contributed to the creation of the United Nations Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth. In addition, he has been the co-chair of World We Want 2015 — the largest UN & civil society post-2015 data-curation-visualization big data platform to further engage global populations on Sustainable Development Goals with over 1,000,000 perspectives on sustainable development goals harvested.

Additionally, Ravi has worked with other UN agencies and governments. He served as Global Advisor on Youth with UN-HABITAT and has represented UN-HABITAT as the co-chair of the UN Interagency Network on Youth Development. Ravi also served as the Global Strategic Advisor on Partnership with the UN Millennium Campaign. He served as the Global Advisor to the World Conference on Youth in Sri Lanka and contributed to the establishment of the 1st UN Youth Skills Day.  He has also worked for UNICEF at HQ and the Regional office for South Asia on child and adolescent participation, gender equality and child protection. He also served as Child and Adolescent Participation Advisor to the UN Study on ending Violence against Children in Geneva. He has written more than 80 publications.