She was born as a girl in a poor orthodox family in Mukkudal — a small South Indian village — where girl children were not celebrated and considered a liability to the family!
She was born to a couple who used to be beedi rollers, were uneducated and poor!
But nothing stopped her from chasing her dreams, from creating a life for herself — and all it took was a tiny moment of courage and an autobiography of Helen Keller — to realise that no one else, but she had the power of transforming her life.
A graduate in Business Administration, Ashweetha Shetty, 28, believes that she had always been rebellious and upfront when it came to her rights and freedom. “I think I had the privilege of working and creating a life for myself which not many of the women today are entitled,” claims Ashweetha who had to go through fire and water to become what she is today.
For someone like her who was far away from English, she somehow chanced upon a Tamil magazine talking about the Young India Fellowship. From creating an email id to borrowing a friend’s phone to fill the application, she did everything to fulfil her dreams — and spoke in English for the very first time in the telephonic interview. “When I got through that fellowship, I understood that I had something in me, that I was meant for something and gradually, I developed myself,” shares Ashweetha recalling her fellowship days.
After completing her fellowship, she worked for a year and went on to start the Bodhi Tree Foundation which works with rural youth and helps them in developing their life skills, soft skills and encourage them in dreaming big and aspire more.
I got this opportunity to listen to Ashweetha’s journey, her struggles, plans, and dreams. On the occasion of World Youth Skills Day, she tells us how she got a chance to rewrite her life tale and the possibilities for several others like her.
It’d have been tough for you to convince your parents to let you go to Delhi. What would you suggest to other girls/ women like you?
We live in a very patriarchal society — where women are confined to certain kinds of roles. It’s not that I stood ‘against something’. I understand we were conditioned like that — me, my parents, our families, the village.
In my case, I knew that I wanted education and financial freedom, but at the same time, I was unsure of my capabilities. Will I be able to do it? Do I have the skills, abilities? I had self-doubts. But the moment I got the scholarship, I took a stand for myself. I told my parents what I wanted to do. Of course, they didn’t say yes, and it was a constant struggle!
But I remember, after a point, I took a decision to take charge of my life — which I feel is a privilege — at least for people like me. You know, having worked with thousands of girls and women over six years, I think now I can really say that my life is an exception in many ways. I created a life for me, which is a privilege, but it is not fair. Why should we feel privileged for taking charge of our own lives?
I don’t think that there is any formula for success, but all I can ask young girls and women is to ‘believe in yourself’. Only you can change your life. I know this would be a constant challenge, but you shall never give up.
Did you ever feel like giving up? Or felt that marriage is the only option now!
Haha, several times! And I’m still living that phobia. But the beauty of teenage is that you are fearless, frank and rebellious. So if somebody tried to suppress me or keep me deprived of my rights, I got back on that person. At that time, I didn’t have an option — the only option was studying — I couldn’t have given up.
After I went to Delhi, there had been instances when I felt like giving up on everything but I couldn’t! I didn’t have a choice to go back. So whatever the circumstances were, I fought and went through it.
I know for a fact that if I did not go to Delhi to study, I would have been married today. And the fact that I’m still single at the age of 29 is a big shock and surprise for my family and village! Maybe I come from such a community.
How was your fellowship experience?
For a girl who lived her life in a village for 20 years, the fellowship was an amazing experience. Knowing that there are so many women like me — inexperienced, scared but determined — was wonderful. The people were amazing. The faculty was great. The whole environment was structured in a way that I felt strong and confident enough to do something with my life, that I can contribute to society and help others. It was a shift in mindset that happened to me. Being a woman, I could still contribute to so many things, and this boosted me up.
I grew up in a very patriarchal society and was conditioned to believe in patriarchy. Like I never questioned why my mother asked me to do household chores and not my brother. I did not know if this was the right thing to ask or not.
But my fellowship made me realise the importance of gender equality, feminism and self-reliance. These concepts were new for me, and I took my own time to learn these and expand my thought process, but it made me what I am today. I think the whole purpose of education is anyways that!
(Ashweetha encourages girls/ women to apply for fellowships if they want to explore the diversity in people and explore themselves. In a country where most of the things are decided based on entrance exams, fellowships help people in understanding who they are as a human being, what kind of value they have and what are the things that matter to them. It offers an environment, plenty of time and a curriculum to engage in activities you like to do.)
Did you feel discriminated at any point in time?
Many a time! I remember when I reached Delhi, I couldn’t speak a single sentence of English. I was coming from a rural area, and my parents were poor, so everything about me was off — right from the dress I wore to the way I carried myself. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t looking at me in that way, well, maybe they were. But the point is that I came from a background that automatically made me different from them.
But, the same background separated me from others.
Fellowships are beautiful, and they are created in a way that not everyone is good at everything. Some may excel in mathematics while others in philosophy or art; they appreciate each others’ skills. So when people talked about rural India, I was the face. I had something to contribute there. So my weakness became my strength, and it really helped me to push myself.
Do you have any regrets?
I think I am delighted with the way I decided to lead my life and start Bodhi Tree Foundation even though I had no idea of how to run an NGO. I lacked at some places, some skills and some segments, and that did affect the functioning of my organisation. But I think it got better over time and I am glad that I did this.
How was your journey at Bodhi Tree Foundation?
I think I’ve always been an optimistic person. When I started Bodhi Tree Foundation, I thought it was easy to inculcate skills into young people; it was easy to motivate them. But it took me quite some time to understand that it takes a lot in creating a young person’s journey, and I appreciate it.
Initially, I was so determined and focused on helping as many young students or women as possible, but today I know what needs to be done to work in a real and tangible way.
When a girl didn’t talk much, I thought it’s her attitude, but I realised later that it could be the environment she is coming from or the past she had or relationships she shared. She wasn’t at fault at all. Today, I have a deeper appreciation for the kind of troubles they had.
Bodhi Tree Foundation mould me into a more empathetic and understanding human being!
(Ashweetha is afraid that the current situation and the lockdown may worsen the life of a lot of young girls and women. The digital platforms are not really sustainable in hardcore rural villages. Girls are not entitled to the privilege of owning a phone. There are a lot of stereotypes attached to it even. However her foundation is trying its best to do mentorship programs with the outsiders, but yes it’s not easy as more female students will drop out of schools/ colleges now and the final year students might not get a job.)
What do you think of the reservation system?
I absolutely support the reservation system because we see the economic perspective but fail to see the caste perspective. If you belong to a Scheduled Caste, you will be treated differently, even if you are the richest person in the village.
I believe reservation is a simple act of undoing injustices we have let out to our people. I’m not sure how many of us realise, but in a way, reservation really helps people to come up. 90% of our children come from SC & ST caste and belong to parents who are sanitation workers and are not educated from the beginning. We don’t see it, but the situation is even worse in villages.
(Ashweetha recently stepped down as the founder of Bodhi Tree Foundation and now is a part of the board and exploring whatever comes next to her.)
Why did you leave Bodhi Tree Foundation?
I felt that the current team is really capable of doing things, and it would be great to have someone who can develop it as a local community-based organisation.
Also, I feel it’s time to explore something else. When I started this foundation, I was 22. I really didn’t think much about my life choices and started it out of passion and a determination to build an equal gender society. I dedicated as much time as possible and didn’t do anything else in the last six years.
So I felt it was the right time to hand it over to someone who can keep everything at the place and lead the same way we envisioned.
I love the work I do, and I think if you give me a lifetime, I would still do whatever I did for this foundation — would help lots and lots of young people.
So, what did you plan for the future?
I know that I am really interested in gender equality, so I will definitely explore ways to support more girls and women. I think the thing that really bothers me today is the lack of representation of women in any field. We don’t have enough women! I don’t know if I will take up a job or not, but I will always volunteer for organisations working for this cause — pushing more women into leadership roles.
What would be your message to society?
Well, let’s try to create a better world for all the people and especially for our women. We try to justify the oppression that happens to women, and I think we as a society failed in many ways by justifying that oppression. The people who are oppressed don’t even realise that they are oppressed, they are so conditioned to it.
Girls are not celebrated, they are looked at as a liability, but if you give them equal opportunity, they will be able to shine as much as men. Equal opportunity is what I wish for.
Ashweetha is a gold medallist through her Bachelors in Business Administration, an Ashoka alum, a rural social worker and a Ted speaker. She was the only rural graduate selected in her batch of fellowship.
World Youth Skills Day is an opportunity for young people, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions, and public and private sector stakeholders to acknowledge and celebrate the importance of equipping young people with skills for employment, decent work and entrepreneurship.