Priya Chelladurai is the School of Social Work’s first MSW student to complete an internship with an agency in India as part of her field work experience. Since the summer, Chelladurai, who will graduate in December, has been working in Delhi, India, with “Women and Girls Lead Global-India,” an initiative that focuses on the root causes of gender-based violence by addressing harmful gender stereotypes, ideas of masculinity and the harmful aspects of traditional gender roles.
Born in Madras, India, Chelladurai moved to North Carolina when she was 12 but returned often to India to spend time with her family. A 2010 graduate of N.C. State University, she holds a degree in international studies, with a concentration in South Asia and the Middle East. Long-term, Chelladurai plans to remain in India to continue her work against gender-based violence.
What drew you to the field of social work, and why did you decide to pursue an MSW degree?
I always imagined working around social justice or doing human rights work in India, but I never considered an MSW degree until I became involved with Kiran, Inc., a nonprofit in Raleigh that serves South Asian victims of domestic violence in North Carolina. My work with the organization taught me so much about domestic violence—the pattern of abuse and red flags— as well as the ability to steer through stressful situations and effectively work with our clients and partners. After learning that one of the directors for the agency had her MSW, I started researching programs in North Carolina. I loved working with clients and being involved in the advocacy and awareness work they were doing. At the same time, I knew that my passion alone was not enough if I wanted to be the best advocate that I could be. I knew that social work’s focus on direct service and macro work would teach me what I needed to know to offer a more holistic approach to the problems of domestic violence as well as equip me with the skills I needed to continue similar advocacy work in India.
Tell me about the group you’ve been working for, Women and Girls Lead Global. What’s the purpose of the organization, and what’s your role with the agency?
Women and Girls Lead Global is an initiative that was started by Independent Television Service (ITVS) in five countries: India, Kenya, Bangladesh, Peru and Jordan. ITVS funds and presents documentaries, and in India, we’re using these documentaries to address gender-based violence using the prism of men and masculinity as the main narrative. Over the last few months, I’ve been involved with the #ChangeTheStory campaign, which engages men and boys from four states all over India. Through documentary screenings and stories of change, we hope to inspire these young men to change their own stories of masculinity and those of the people around them.
How has working with the agency helped you to better understand the problem of gender-based violence and our ideas of masculinity?
All of my previous exposure to connecting masculinity and gender-based violence was around “how men can help women,” and how they should intervene and not be bystanders. Although these issues are important, this project has pushed me to explore the issue of gender-based violence more deeply by examining masculinity outside of the “how-can-men-help-women” narrative and specifically, at the negative effects of patriarchy on men and boys.
Also, I have become more aware of how I, as a woman, perpetuate so many stereotypes around this idea of masculinity. What is “manly” to me, and where are these ideas coming from? Previously, I had never connected my own stereotypes to gender-based violence. For example, as a 14- or 15-year-old visiting India, I often saw girls walking around holding hands, an image that was considered culturally normal. And yet, once when I saw boys holding hands walking through a mall, I remember asking my brother about it. Why did the teenage me question the level of affection that men show?
What I learned is that my own thoughts about men were not that different from society’s. We want them to be emotional but not too emotional; we want them to be affectionate but not too affectionate; romantic, but not too romantic…because these characteristics are not considered “manly.”
It is crucial that we not only focus on how men interact with women but also how they interact with each other. We say violence is about power and control, but where is that coming from and what have men been taught, not just about their relationships with women but with each other?
As part of my field placement, I’ve learned about the anxieties that men face because of the negative effects of the power and dominance that we expect from them. Patriarchy has instilled this ideal of masculinity that men are constantly trying to live up to, and that ideal can translate and manifest into the exertion of power, control, and dominance over every area of their lives, including with their friends, their emotions, their careers, and their families. When we begin to examine these truths, we begin to address the root causes of gender-based violence.
What responsibility do we all have in empowering and building up the self-esteem of girls?
We live in a culture that bombards girls with strict messages about who they should strive to be and how they should behave. Unfortunately, we ask girls to settle. We tell them not to strive for too much, teach them to undermine themselves and frame all of these messages as positive qualities that they should possess.
I encountered those same messages as a child growing up in India and in the United States. However, empowerment for me came in different forms, including through books, films, friends, and my parents. My parents repeatedly reassured me that I could do anything that I set my mind to and that nothing in my life was impossible. This reassurance was so important because the message I received from everywhere else, especially in India, was the exact opposite. Thus, I am so thankful to those who encouraged me to follow my own path.
However, our responsibility doesn’t stop with empowering girls and building their self-esteem. If we fail to speak out and act against the very structures, including laws, policies and traditions, that threaten their freedom as human beings, we fail to truly empower them to be who they want to be.
How can social workers help to educate others about the harm of gender-based violence?
Social workers often are witnesses to the bigger picture of gender-based violence because they know the people involved and they understand the effects that such violence has on their lives. Therefore, it is important for social workers to use every opportunity to speak out about the prevalence of gender-based violence, the myths behind the problem, the importance of aftercare, and the ways this violence can be prevented.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What do you ultimately hope to do after graduation?
My heart is in India. I want to be part of the movement against gender-based violence here—to be part of a revolution that demands justice and freedom for every woman and to speak of issues that I wish someone had spoken to me about.
I had the opportunity to hear Helen Zia, an author and women’s rights activist, speak about her work, and her words transformed the way I think about change in India. She said, “Name it, and change it.” That message has stayed with me for years.
At the same time, the dominant messages that I received during my childhood and later visits to India continue to stick with me as well. For example, I think about my grandma reading out loud from the newspaper about a woman who was murdered by her husband, an act that was usually explained away because the man was drunk, or jealous or suspicious that his wife had been involved in an affair. Newspapers often labeled these acts crimes of love or crimes of passion, Sexual harassment or sexual assault was often referred to as “eve-teasing.” Moreover, movies depicted men stalking women—men who were so possessive that these women were not allowed to talk to members of the opposite sex. These same men said things like “I can’t live without you or if you leave me, I’ll kill myself!” They called such proclamations love.
I also continue to think about every person I’ve known who has been a victim of child sexual abuse but was expected to remain silent. I think about all the times people told me, that “all you have to do is find a good, well-educated boy from a good family,” and how all the clients I had worked with thought they had done just that. And yet, here they were, calling a 24-hour domestic violence hotline. The lack of awareness, and dialogue with young people about healthy relationships and the silence around these issues is something that has to be addressed.
I know that change will not happen overnight. I know that we’re working against years and years of structural sexism. The issue in India is so overwhelming sometimes, but there is hope. There is a new generation of people who don’t want to live the same way, who refuse to keep quiet about the ways they’ve been violated and the crimes they’ve endured. In their courage, I see so much beauty and a reason to be a part of the solution.