How Ritikaa Khunnah Creates Empowering Spaces For Youth Beyond Textbooks

Ritikaa Khunnah
Ritikaa Khunnah’s reflective journey enabled her to further her purpose of fostering change in society. As someone who has had over 20 years of experience in the development sector, she has worked across sectors towards causes including gender equality and youth development. Khunnah joined the organisation ‘Pravah’ in 2008 and since then has empowered many lives right from grassroots to urban areas.

In an interview with SheThePeople, Ritikaa Khunnah discusses her organisation’s development-led endeavour towards societal transformation, how empowering youth at the grassroots can foster change, and why women’s leadership can help bridge inequalities at workplaces.

What led you to join the organisation Pravah?

I think the intent to join Pravah was really what the organisation’s is. I did a reflective journey for myself in terms of what my aspiration was and, for me, it was that I wanted to work with young people, therefore, I searched for an organisation that was nurturing young people people and building capacities in them, and I found Pravah. 

For an initiative of magnitude as this one, with a population as massive as ours, What were the challenges you encountered when you started considering this Pravah is not an ordinary organisation, the purpose being much more significant and it involves youth?

I think some of the initial challenges were that many of the supporters support issue-based organisations. For example, if you’re working on gender-based issues, education or livelihood, they understand that much more and it matches with their thematic focus as well. So, the challenge is, therefore, to convince other stakeholders or supporters that whatever issues they may be working with, their focus can remain, whilst embedding a youth development focus within the issue itself. 

All stakeholders must realise that it’s not just the social action that gets fulfilled but it’s also the self-transformation of young people that goes along with the social transformation. But then you need to first change their personalities, right? Because they’re also diverse. That’s the other challenge, to help young people see through their transformation.

How can the education system contribute collectively to making this possible going above and beyond mere academic excellence and scores and helping the youth at the grassroots level to generate curiosity about the world around them?

Over the years, we have reached out to in-school and out-of-school adolescents, youth in colleges, young social entrepreneurs, educators, youth facilitators and youth development organisations to create a nurturing ecosystem for youth-centric development where young people can thrive. 

The first, I would say, is to generate curiosity to ask good questions or the right questions which are often viewed as ‘questioning’ by people who hold the power. We’d think the education system inculcates this curiosity, but it really doesn’t. The education system currently is more geared towards root mechanisms like mugging up information for exams. It’s not necessarily facilitating young people to ask questions, to be curious. But often this investment isn’t prioritised when the teacher-student ratio is quite skewed. 

“So, if we support young people in asking the right questions, we would build leaders rather than followers through our education system. Curiosity also develops through exposure. It is important for schools and colleges to offer opportunities like visits, camps and internships for young people to experience a different context that can tickle their curiosity.” 

India’s youth present a massive potential towards contributing to the sustainable development of the country. Therefore voices of young people need to be incorporated and amplified when programmes are being designed for them. What major projects have you undertaken when it comes to amplifying the voices of youth?

All the programmes we do with young people have an aspect of developing the self and connecting to the society around them.  Implementing all the learning through action in the ‘real world’ is a core component of our leadership-building design for youth.

“Young people who go through leadership journeys of this sort form their own opinions and stances and shift their perspectives and worldview which then needs avenues to be amplified and expressed.”

Through our efforts, we co-create campaigns with youth where they can co-design activities that enable them to use platforms effectively to express themselves. For eg, presently we have a campaign running called Chota Muh Khari Baat; often when young people express they are mocked by being told Chota Muh Badi Baat ( speaking way beyond your years of experience ) however this spin to the often heard comment on young people expressing their opinions offers different avenues for the youth. Young people across states – UP, MP, Telangana, Rajasthan and Delhi NCR have been doing several grassroots campaign activities as well as online hulchul on social media through night walks, nukkad nataks, Twitter space chats and lives, open mics; finding ways to engage stakeholders, friends and families, as well as public engagement that invites intergenerational dialogues and a chance for youth to break barriers in expressing themselves.

We have also been building capacities of young people through storytelling workshops, preparation to take the stage, visibility and campaign tools that they can use to organise themselves and share their stories with the world. There is an effort by Pravah to handhold them and mentor them so that they feel safe and empowered in this process of amplifying their voices. We also connect them to networks and partners across the ecosystem where they go in as panellists and share their experiences.

From when you started as someone leading an organisation and helming various projects at a massive scale like yours, what factor can you recall that has impacted your growth?

I think my whole understanding of gender, and gender analysis helped me come into the development sector. So, once I finished my post-graduation, that’s when I did a gender analysis of my life. In that sense, until that time I grew up in a joint family.

“I thought I lived a perfect life in terms of no bias. It was much later when I really looked back and realised that there was so much discrimination around me which I did not recognise because I didn’t have that perspective.”

And for me, that was very powerful and very hurtful as well because I felt my whole world crashed. But that then changed me forever in terms of wanting to be in the development sector. And, therefore, in the first eight years of my development sector life, I worked on gender issues, violence against women, children, and sexual abuse. And then eight years later is when then I made another sense of reflection on what I wanted to do. And that’s when the youth development sector emerged for me. 

As a leader and mentors in the field, how can we empower more women in leadership positions?

See, I think the more opportunities we give to young girls, the more they’ll find their way as leaders. I think that there is still a lack of opportunities concerning this. We are still living in a patriarchal world, whatever we say. If you look at the research, the gender stereotypes are as today as they were earlier. 

We may say that we are developing but it’s very deep-rooted. So, it’s hard on all of us, and, therefore, a lot more opportunities, exposure opportunities for girls will help them see the world in a different light. And the second is to also then invest in building the capacities of young women and adolescent girls so that they’re able to negotiate and push, especially around decision-making and how they can make informed decisions in their lives and be able to negotiate that with the older stakeholders. I believe most institutions rarely practise diversity and that needs to change concerning offering equal opportunities in workplaces

What experience have you encountered concerning the mental healthcare and development of the youth especially during and post-pandemic?

I would say mental health and well-being are very critical themes that all need to work on. But after the pandemic, I think it’s more so. Also that there are very less professionals currently. Pravah is co-designing a programme with Mindpiper and ComMutiny, on mental health and well-being with young start-ups and youth leaders.

If you were to advise parents or families on how they can raise kids where they can have overall development rather than just mastering one, what would your advice be? 

As a parent of a teenager myself, I think the first piece of advice to parents would be that we all need to first work on ourselves. We forget that we have to be lifelong learners ourselves. So, I think, this whole thing of ‘I know it all’ as a parent and the taboo around going for counselling or necessary expertise, needs to change. In that sense, I think we need to, as parents, expand our worldview of really accessing some of the things that are happening around us and be open to changing our attitude and our mindset. I think that’s how we can raise better children. 

Suggested reading: 213 Specially-Abled Staff And Counting: How Alina Alam’s Mitti Cafe Pushes For Inclusivity