Throughout history, the central role of women in society has ensured the stability, progress and long-term development of nations. A nation is empowered only when women and girl children are equal partners as men. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, “Countries which do not respect women have never become great, nor can they ever become in future.” Women empowerment is a gateway to peace and development for a nation or society at macro level and family or organisation at micro level. There is progress only when there is gender parity and women are respected and treated as equal with men.

The Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) and the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT), premier educational institutions of global repute, from the beginning have created a space for equal representation of genders across the spectrum in everyday functioning. It has been my principle from the start that sees its manifestation in gender equity in the KIIT and KISS ecosystem. We have, by all means, created an equal pedestal for both men and women when it comes to accessibility, decision-making, co-creating a safe environment for staffs and students, zero tolerance to any form of gender-based violence, extending support to the victims of abuse to turn the barriers that women face upside down by its horns. Our in-house practice and adherence to the norms of a just society have made us voice the same in the community.

Besides the holistic empowerment of all at the KISS through a complete curricular, vocational and life skills education, sports, arts and cultural education, we have initiated various programmes for a sustainable change. Of the total student strength of the institute, girls account for about 60%. “If we educate a girl, we educate a family and a whole nation” has been the guiding light for the KISS right from the start. Girl children, besides core curricular education, are also encouraged to participate in sporting activities, life skills education (including reproductive and sexual health education), and various vocational education for economic empowerment.

KISS girls have been showing great merit in academics and extracurricular activities. They have participated in many national and international sports events and tournaments and brought great glories for the country, the State and the institute as well. They have been supporting their families and themselves under the institute’s “Earn-while-you-learn” scheme and thereby picking up many income-generating skills. With all these facilities, these tribal girls are going to be, in fact, are working as the much-needed social change agents in their respective communities and thereby fulfil a major global development goal of the United Nations.

Kalinga Fellowship, a brainchild of collaboration between KISS and Bridge Institute, Singapore is a novel and strategic initiative that KIIT and KISS undertook with an intent to create path-breaking solutions to the problems of sexual assault and promote gender justice. Having its seeds in Odisha at KIIT and KISS, thus named so, it had its first edition in KIIT and KISS. It brought key stakeholders like business, Government and civil society together to co-create several sustainable and actionable plans to bring about zero tolerance to sexual assaults on girls in Odisha which could then be replicated in other States. Representatives from 40 countries participated. The Kalinga Fellowship was established through a historic MoU signed by KISS with its co-signatories, Simon McKenzie, Bridge Partnership and Shashikumar Velath, Ashoka Innovators for The Public. The Kalinga Fellows, throughout the year, work as ambassadors of change by strategically contributing to the cause of zero tolerance to sexual assaults on women.

Another milestone and flagship campaign launched by KIIT and KISS in the year 2018, has become a household name in Odisha. Urban or rural, women in Odisha got involved in the Kanya Kiran programme that extends the same cause and works on similar lines by reaching out to the unreached in Odisha. The students, alumni and 3,000 staffs of KIIT and KISS reach out to the rural pockets, engage with the parents and guardians of students and their communities involving their leaders to spread awareness on zero tolerance to sexual violence and eliminating it. Kanya Kiran is a symbolic word that appropriately summarises the vision and mission behind the campaign. Girls (Kanya) are like the rays of the sun. They are the source of energy in a family unit. They are the seeds of prosperity and growth in a family.

The greatest aberration that exists today is that in spite of so much importance and glorification of girls and women in the talks and advocacies, they are unsafe. They live in constant silence because of the stigma associated with reporting. Sometimes, they just internalise and adjust with the situation adhering to the stereotype and ascribed norms. Sometimes, the lack of financial control makes them vulnerable to such evil activities, more so with the girls and women in poor strata of the society.

“To awaken the people, it is the women who must be awakened. Once she is on the move, the family moves, the village moves, the nation moves”. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

India as a nation is revered in a feminine form, i.e., the Bharat Mata; many important government posts are occupied by women; and educated women are pouring into the professional workforce with profound implications for national and multinational corporations. However ironically, these are accompanied by news about dowry killings, female infanticide, domestic violence against women, rape, illegal trafficking and prostitution and myriad others of the same ilk. Gender discrimination prevails in almost all areas, be it social, cultural, economic or educational. Gender equality facilitates empowerment of women. Since education begins at home, the upliftment of women would be accompanied by the development of the family, the society and, in turn, would lead towards a holistic development of the nation.

The girls and women who constitute half our population should be given their due and right to dignity. They should not be deprived of a safe environment. With the rising atrocities against women and girl child, and the growing need to make the community aware about their rights, such initiatives by KIIT and KISS, though drops in the ocean, are a movement towards making women lead and learn without fear.