Women Need Role Models That Look Like Them: Dr Shruti Kapoor

Dr Shruti Kapoor on being named in Apolitical’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy for 2019, her advocacy work, how social media has been an enabler and more.

Kiran Manral
Jun 05, 2019 12:41 IST
shruti kapoor

The first time she sat on a plane was when she went to the US to do her Masters in Economics in 2000. It has been a long journey since for the young girl from Kanpur who was just named amongst the 100 most influential people in the world in global policy for 2019 by Apolitical last week.


Strangely enough, it was the horrific Delhi gangrape in a bus back in 2012 that Dr Shruti Kapoor found her calling. She was so terribly shaken by what had happened that she started Sayfty, an initiative to educate and empower young women and girls to deal with and tackle all kinds of violence that they might come across. Sayfty trains women and girls in self-defense, to use safety tools, teaches them the laws and legal rights they have. Her efforts have made her one of the strongest global voices in the space of women’s safety and gender issues. Apart from her recent inclusion in the Apolitical gender policy list of most influential people for 2019, the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2019 felicitated Dr. Kapoor as one of the 30 #WebWonderWomen who have been driving positive agenda of social change via social media. Richtopia named Dr. Kapoor as one of the top 100 leaders from multilateral organizations globally in 2018. In 2016, The White House nominated Dr. Kapoor as a change maker for The United State Of Women Summit 2016.

With a Ph.D. in Economics, work experience that includes stints at The World Bank and UN Women, as well as a Professor of Economics, she is an active member of the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development Working Group on Youth and Gender Equality Task Force. She also served on the core organizing committee of UN’s Youth Forum for the Commission on the Status of Women 2017.

She speaks with SheThePeople.TV on being named in Apolitical’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy for 2019, her advocacy work, how social media has been an enabler and more.


Congratulations on being named in the 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy for 2019. When you look back upon your journey in this space what are the achievements you are the proudest of, and what would you say are your learnings?

Thank you very much. I am thrilled and at the same time grateful for being on this very prestigious list. I remember seeing this list for the first time last year and secretly wishing I was on it. It had all my favorite people. And here I am today.

I like to celebrate all successes big or small. Seeing my name on this list is of course very special. Other notable moments include when I was felicitated by the Indian Ministry of Women & Child Development as one of the 30 #webwonderwomen. When I graduated from my Ph.D. program. When Sayfty successfully organized 16 self-defense workshops in 16 countries in 16 days. That took a lot of work and sleepless nights to accomplish!


I remember seeing this list for the first time last year and secretly wishing I was on it. It had all my favorite people. And here I am today.

Personally, for me every time I (or we at Sayfty) successfully finish a goal or task at hand, it feels like an achievement at that moment. Because if you think of it, there are so many things that can go wrong in a moment and so if you are able to achieve the goal you set out for yourself, I think it’s worth giving yourself a pat on the back and celebrating!

My biggest learning so far is there are no shortcuts in life. To achieve anything you set your mind on, you have to work hard, with patience and persistence without worrying too much about the outcome!


Moving to the USA in 2000 from Kanpur, how much of a culture shock did you have and how did you adapt to the new rules and social norms of the country you had moved to?

I had moved out of Kanpur in 1997 to go to Mumbai for college. That was the first time I experienced a culture shock. I was a small town girl with limited exposure. Had never been to a mall or gone clubbing. I grew up in a protected environment where I had to watch what I was wearing, how I was walking and talking. And now I was in a big city, all by myself, living in our college hostel with girls from all over the world who were much more aware, confident and exposed to that I was. The three years I spent in Mumbai groomed me into an informed, street-smart person who knew better.

I graduated from Sophia College in April of 2000 and flew to the US to pursue a Masters degree in August of that year. I clearly remember the night I took off from Delhi to land in Chicago. It was the first time I was sitting on an airplane. The first time I fastened my seat belt. Landing in the US at the age of 21 all by myself was quite something. It was a culture shock, but not a huge one thanks to my three years in Mumbai.


There were so many things that were different and new. Up until then, I had never owned a phone. We always used landlines to call. I got my first cell phone in graduate school. I learned how to use an ATM, work in a cafeteria, and earn my first income.

Luckily I was not alone. I had family in Milwaukee who helped me settle. Before college started I moved into my own apartment within a few days and had to learn how to cook my meals, ride the bus and get my own groceries.

I think the best way for a person to adjust to a new culture and country is as a student.


Being a part of a University, having classmates, making new friends made my transition easy. Through education, it’s easy to establish your identity and make a mark. My family and cousins were a big help. They introduced me to the food, the culture, and the rules.

There was no social media in the 2000s and I remember speaking with my parents once a week. It had only been a year or two since Hotmail started and my parents were not tech savvy. So it was not like we would talk and communicate daily. Everything was a gradual learning process. But the good thing was that there was no pressure to adopt anything, one was always free to do what they wanted and be who they were without many questions.

My biggest handicap was I did not know how to drive. And my late uncle played a huge role in teaching me how to drive. That was a big challenge for me because I had to depend on people to take me to places. Getting my driving license was like finding new freedom. Now looking back I feel my willingness to adopt and adapt quickly made my transition easy. I knew my roots and who I was as a person and that helped me stay grounded, grow and flourish!


Given your focus on gender and women’s safety, were there, even at that point, differences that you noticed in the way women were treated and expected to behave across the two cultures?

Absolutely. I found women and girls to be more aware and educated in the US compared to India. The role of men and women in American society was more equal compared to that in India (this is in the early 2000s). Most women I came across were working, financially independent and had a say in both professional and personal life.

Whereas in India most women I knew of in my hometown were homemakers and financially dependent. Very few worked and those that did were either teachers or doctors.

I never had to worry about what I was wearing in the US. No one cared. While I was always taught to be alert and look out for my safety, I was a single woman, traveling all over the country, living by myself and hardly ran into problems of safety. In India, we all know the story, as a girl once can never be too complacent and have to watch where we are going, what we are wearing, etc., especially in small towns.

In the US, my aunt who is a doctor would be working long hours and my late-uncle (a professor) played a bigger role in raising my cousins. In India, almost always, men were the breadwinners and the women of the house were responsible for the children and the day to day running of the household. Gender roles were very prominent and stereotypes existed in all walks of life.

Your area of education and practice was economics. What set you on the journey towards advocacy of women’s safety and gender rights, and how do you see the two intersecting?

From a very young age, I had a very strong sense of equal rights. I give credit to my parents for that. In our house, education was above all and I was always encouraged to study and pursue whatever I wanted. I grew up with a strong sense of equality and if ever I would see my brother getting an unfair advantage in anything because he was a boy, I would speak up (almost fight for my rights). My parents have never discriminated between my brother and me for the important things in life (of course I had restrictions on how I dressed and talked and when to be back home because we lived in a small town).

In our house, education was above all and I was always encouraged to study and pursue whatever I wanted. I grew up with a strong sense of equality.

I was a science student in high school and I did not want to become an engineer or doctor so I took up economics in college. After I finished my Masters in Economics from Marquette University I started consulting for The World Bank. That further sparked my interest in development work and I went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Economics. I have always been interested in issues plaguing developing countries, issues of poverty, health, nutrition, and education. And if you look at the data you will see that women are most affected by these developing issues. So directly or indirectly I have always worked on women’s issues. Because eventually, all policies in some way or the other talked about “women”. Whether it was educating the mother, to reduce poverty, to reduce infant mortality rates, or it was to increase female labor force participation so that the homes, community, economy would flourish. Everything eventually boiled down to women!

So when I started my work at Sayfty, advocating for women and girl’s safety, was a natural extension of both my personal and professional interests. It came so naturally to me.

You are based in New York but a lot of your social and advocacy work does happen in India. What are the challenges of working across continents in this space? How has social media and digital been an enabler?

There are many challenges in working across continents. First off I am not on the ground, which means it takes me doubly longer to collaborate, organize workshops, be visible in this space. I am faced with the challenge of “Out of sight out of mind” I have to keep reminding people that we work in India. To include us, invite us in the conversation, at events, in conferences, etc. It’s taken us a while to build a presence and we still have a long way to go.

I work with a team, which at this point in time is spread across the world. For example, we are currently building a Survivor Toolkit for India and we have a large team of 20 + people working on it from Mumbai, Delhi, Paris, Bogota, Seattle, New York, Austin, Melbourne, and so many other cities. That makes co-ordination a huge challenge. Managing different time zone, organizing virtual meetings, not being in the same room has its own set of challenges.

And so for us at Sayfty, social media has been a big boon. It has helped us bridge that gap that exists of being physically in the West while focusing our work in the East. Social media has amplified our voice and work by connecting us to institutions, people and communities working in the space of ending gender-based violence globally. For example, in 2017 we were able to collaborate with UN Women and organize 16 self-defense workshops in 16 countries over 16 days. Social media helped us connect with grassroots organizations, raise funds for these workshops and raise awareness.

Social media has amplified our voice and work by connecting us to institutions, people and communities working in the space of ending gender-based violence globally.

Our popular weekly Twitter chat, #sayftychat now has participants from more than 20 countries and voices from all over the world. It no longer matters that we are an Indian NGO. All I see is hundreds of people coming together to advocate and raise awareness on women’s issues each week, generating 15-20 million impressions on Twitter and leaving educated, informed and feeling as if they belong to a community making a difference. So social media for us has been a big driving force for the work we do.

As someone who works in the space of gender issues and who has a daughter, what are the nonnegotiables we should be telling our children both girls and boys, so that the next generation can grow up divested of much of the conditioning that holds girls back?

I think there are two things that I urge all parents to teach their children.

One, respect for all! No matter what your gender, as human beings we have to respect each other. Because when we respect each other, we will treat each other as equal.

So parents, stop this bullshit of “boys” are superior to girls. Because if we believe that, then somewhere through our actions (inactions), words and thought we will pass this prejudice down to our next generation and that’s damaging to all. So, be aware of every time you are biased towards your son or want to restrict your daughter and make a conscientious effort to practice equality at all times, everywhere.

Second is consent. Growing up, I did not know what consent meant. I didn’t grow up in a consent culture. In fact, there is no consent culture in Indian society. And we have to undo that! Unlearn that. Teach our children and ourselves that consent is key. No means no! Period. Give our children sex education because it matters.

We women feel unsure of our accomplishments and downplay our strengths. We have to start asking for what we need!

As a WoC working in the space of advocacy on the international platform, do you ever feel you come up against biases and sexism you have to take head on? How do you tackle these if you do?

Yes of course! I am no different. I’ve had my share of biases and sexism. Because I work in the space of advocacy, people often expect me to speak for free in conferences, colleges, and workshops. I remember this one time for a conference; I was asked to fill in for a keynote speaker who canceled last minute. His everything was paid for, travel expenses, hotel accommodation, etc. I, on the other hand, was told, we have run out of budget and so while we would love to have you as a keynote speaker we can’t pay for your travel or accommodation.

While the invitation was very prestigious, I put my foot down and made it clear I won’t take up the speaking engagement unless my travel and accommodation were taken care of. Within a few hours, they obliged.

This incident taught me to stand up for myself and ask for what I deserve because men do it all the time and are comfortable doing it. We women feel unsure of our accomplishments and downplay our strengths. We have to start asking for what we need!

It’s the only way we will put an end to these biases.

How important is it for young girls to see women in positions of influence in policymaking and advocacy and how must we build the spirit of advocacy in every young girl?

It’s extremely important that both young girls and boys see women in positions of influence in policymaking and advocacy. It sends the signal that our voices matter. People hear us! For young girls to see women CEOs leading large corporations, excelling in sports, running for office, behind that next scientific invention is crucial because it allows them to dream for bigger and better. Representation matters. We all need role models. Those that look like us and represent it. When we have role models, we look up to them; learn from them while charting our own path. You can’t be what you can’t see! When women are in important positions of influence they break the glass ceiling for the next generation. They empower themselves and others.

To build the spirit of advocacy in every young girl let’s allow her voice to be heard. By not stifling her voice and telling her to talk softly. By giving her every opportunity to express, and grow. We allow them to be the protagonists of their own stories and build their confidence to stand up for themselves and those around them.

Tell us something about the biggest challenges you have faced in the initiatives you have begun?

The two biggest challenges I face while doing the work we do at Sayfty includes

1. Changing mindsets: India being the patriarchal society that it is, it takes a long time (sometimes generations) to break the gender stereotypes, and change attitudes and mindsets of people towards women and girls. Do I have enough time to make a substantial difference? Will I be able to see a more gender equal world in my lifetime and not worry about my daughter facing street harassment, unequal opportunities, pay gap, glass ceilings, etc. When will we stop normalizing sexual harassment and have a zero-tolerance policy towards it?

2. Engaging more men and boys in the conversation. Ending gender-based violence is not just a women’s problem. It affects us all. How do we engage more men and boys in the conversation? How do we go beyond tokenism and work with more men and boys to find solutions to solvable problems like street harassment faced by women and girls on a daily basis? I don’t want men and boys to “help” us. I want them to be equal partners in addressing this pandemic called violence against women and girls those impacts one-third women worldwide.

And finally, how can we push for popular culture to incorporate more messages of gender equality and advocacy in their content given they are the strongest medium to get the message out, especially in India?

I think it’s time for the people to take up some responsibility too. If we want popular culture to incorporate more messages of gender equality and advocacy in their content then we have to stop consuming movies, songs, media, ads, messaging that degrades women, objectifies them and shows them in poor light. Let’s stop blindly sharing those sexist jokes on Whatsapp and dancing to “Munni badnam hui”. The next time you see an ad of a product that objectifies women, call it out, raise your voice on social media, write to the brand, ban its consumption. I think media whether its Bollywood movies, TV serials or songs are in some way a reflection of our society. They create that content because there is demand for that content. What does that say about us as a society?

The day we as a society change our attitude, start practicing gender equality through our actions and words, hold people and organizations accountable for what they are selling, promoting, putting out there, we will move a step closer to gender equality!

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