Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter
Jasmine Bala is originally from Calcutta, India. She started school at Brown University in 2012, studying English and Business Economics. In India, she worked towards educating young girls against prostitution in the Sonagachi area of Bengal. Part of her campaign included spreading awareness through the written word. Her articles were translated into Hindi and Bangla and distributed among those who could read. Jasmine spent two years counseling young married girls who were victims of domestic violence. She worked under Rashmi Anand, an author of nine books, all of which deal with the issue of domestic violence. Jasmine is in the process of writing a book entitled “Destiny beyond Karma” that addresses the ordeals faced by a young girl fighting to seek legal help concerning domestic violence. At Brown University, she is the founder of the Wynn Project, an initiative that brings diversity to the runway, empowering women of all body types to develop positive body imagery. As a budding economist, she is interested in studying global emerging markets with a focus on South Asia.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Jasmine Bala: I grew up in Calcutta, India and attended a private, all-girls school. While in school, I started working at the New Delhi women’s cell. I was exposed to women who had faced severe hardship within their households and were struggling to make ends meet. One counseling session after another, I discovered my passion for helping people. I knew I wanted to reach out to women and girls who needed assistance. I am now a junior at Brown University and am continuing my efforts to empower women in whichever way that I can.
Women LEAD: You previously worked towards educating young girls against prostitution in Bengal. Can you tell us more about this experience?
Jasmine Bala: I lived within a one mile radius of a very popular red light district in Calcutta. On a day-to-day basis, I would see teenage girls standing on the road, waiting to be picked up for the night. I once approached a girl who was crying on the pavement of the road, who told me that she had initially taken to prostitution because it was easy source for making money. I had some experience with counseling during my time spent in the women’s cell, and used what I had learnt to find her legal help. She was able to quit the brothel and start working a full-time job. She recommended her friends from the brothel to meet with me. Initially, they were hesitant, but later complied. The more I spoke to these 13-16 year old girls, I found that they knew very little about their life prospects outside the four walls of the brothel. I was able to give each of them the individual time to explore other work options. In due course, they all found alternate jobs and the brothel struggled to keep its business alive.
Women LEAD: What to you think needs to change to end gender-based violence?
Jasmine Bala: First of all, I don’t believe that gender-based violence is the correct term to use. Violence against all female-identifying people is violence against humanity. Women are a big part of our population. They are mothers, daughters, wives and grandmothers. They are all-in-all an integral part of the human race. An act of violence doesn’t merely affect women, it effects the nurturing of their children, whether their children may be boys or girls. A violated woman causes imbalance in nature, which in turn will impact the male race. People need to understand that we’re interconnected as a race and there is no single-impact act of violence. That being said, violence is not solely directed to female-identifying people. Many male-identifying and trans-identifying people face violence in their lives and society needs to be more sensitive to violence inflicted on people of all genders. The violence can only end when we each recognize the prevalence of violence, both implicit and explicit. We need more people to stand up for this violence and take corrective action against the perpetrators.
Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Jasmine Bala: When I first started helping women, I did not know what the term empowerment meant. I was helping battered women because I realized the abundance that life had given me. I was blessed to have a family that loved me, friends who supported me, and an education in one of the elitest schools in the country. My background had made me a confident individual and I could share some of my strength with those in need of it. Since I was educated, I could use my education and connections to find these women legal help. My goal has never been to help these women and then move away once I see them settled in their lives. If we are to make an actual change in society, women need to learn to think and act for themselves. It is only when women act for themselves that they will be empowered. Seeing them in that position will only strengthen my confidence in myself, and my capabilities as a woman.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you in your life?
Jasmine Bala: My mother is the most important woman in my life. Not only has she birthed and nurtured me, she has also shaped me into the individual I am today. She set the bar high at a young age. She always said, “you’ve done really well, but remember that you could always do better.” While I was growing up, my mother would never tell me that I looked “gorgeous” or “beautiful.” She would always say “You look powerful” or “you’re acting like a strong woman should.” As a result, I learnt to value strength of character more than anything else. My upbringing was majorly focused on building strong moral virtues and a drive for success, thanks to my mother.She genuinely believed that there was nothing a boy could do that I couldn’t. I remember once wanting to compete in a race against the boys, before the coach explained to me that we had different levels of physical strength. Till date, I believe there is nothing a woman cannot achieve.
Women LEAD: Are there websites, books, or films that are inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?
Jasmine Bala: #readwomen2014 is a great tag to follow! It tells you the different books written by female authors in 2014, many of which are great books to read! Maya Angelou has always been my favorite. “The Color Purple” is my favorite book and film. “Bossypants” by Tina Fey is the most recent book I read and it’s really good too. With the upcoming blog world, I would recommend following as many blogs as you can to reach works written by female authors. HuffPost Women, Girls’ Globe and blackgirldangerous top my list of favorites.