UC Berkeley ‘Tell Her Story’ contest honors South Asian women

Stephanie Li/Staff

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Deepa Pawar, a human rights activist and nonprofit founder from Maharashtra, India, was announced Sunday as the winner of the first “Tell Her Story” contest, which was sponsored by the UC Berkeley Institute for South Asia Studies.

The contest, which opened last August, culminated in Sunday’s awards ceremony, where the three finalists shared their stories to a room of about 80. Participants submitted stories to Tell Her Story through images, videos and descriptions of women or groups of women from South Asia who have effected change. According to Umair Khan, a founder of two Silicon Valley startups who initiated the contest, they received hundreds of submissions.

Five activists — including campus professor of South and Southeast Asian studies and sociology Raka Ray — selected the three finalists. Pawar spent five days in Berkeley with the two other contest finalists, Aarti Naik and Naween Mangi, attending panels and contest receptions, meeting contest sponsors and visiting campus classrooms and professors.

“The women, two women from India, and one from Pakistan, are simply incredible –– beyond my imagination,” Ray said in an email. “I hope that this contest can translate into even more recognition of them and of the immense value of their work.”

In addition to the trip, finalists each received $1,000 prizes, and Pawar received an additional $5,000, according to the institute’s website.

Pawar grew up in a tribal community in Maharashtra and became the first woman from her community to earn a master’s degree. Seeing stark gender inequality in her community, Pawar said she was inspired to enact change. In 2016 she founded Anubhuti, a nonprofit composed of young people that promotes democracy and gender justice in India.

“Women and girls in my community have a precarious existence. … This tribe is still searching for its identity and dignity in a caste-divided society in India,”  Pawar said at the ceremony, as she moved between Hindi and English. “We believe in developing sociopolitical leadership in youth so they can fight their own fights.”

Naik grew up in a slum of Mumbai, India, and she founded Sakhi for Girls Education, a nonprofit that she started by bringing five girls from her community into her home, where she taught them basic literacy and numeracy skills as well as life skills such as money management. With no staff or funding, she grew the organization, and in the span of 10 years, she has worked with more than 500 girls.

Mangi founded the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust Fund in the village of Khairo Dero in Pakistan. The nonprofit has spearheaded development efforts in more than 30 villages by engaging and training community members to improve education, health care and infrastructure in communities.

“People think of this work as extremely difficult and something that they almost can’t approach, and that’s not true,” Mangi said. “The journey you’re on is the ultimate reward. At least expose yourselves to these places, to this type of poverty, to these types of circumstances, and then decide whether you can be a part of changing that.”

Tell Her Story was born at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, according to Khan, who attended the march with his daughter. Khan said the speakers at the march pushed them to consider the stories of women all over the world that would likely never come to light. A few months later, Khan reached out to the Institute of South Asian Studies, which became the primary sponsor of Tell Her Story.

“It’s one thing to get a couple of paragraphs and a few images on Facebook, …  but when you meet these amazing women, it’s a whole different level,” Khan said. “They make us want to be better versions of ourselves.”

Contact Olivia Nouriani at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @olivianouriani.

A previous image accompanying this article that depicted Aarti Naik may have implied that she was the contest winner. In fact, Deepa Pawar was the winner.