Interview – Ingrid Srinath

CRY India is a child rights organization, but in a country where an estimated one out of every 25 female foetuses is aborted – roughly 500,000 a year – and where Dalit children (children of the lowest caste) are denied access to amenities like education and healthcare and, in extreme cases, are raped and killed, tackling child rights inevitably involves tackling gender and caste issues too. Caroline Hartnell talked to Ingrid Srinath about the implications and challenges of this for CRY’s work.

Can you start by saying a little about gender and caste in India?

There’s deprivation, poverty and exclusion everywhere in the world to different degrees, but I think caste adds an extra level of complexity to everything you do in India. It’s particularly hard because it’s centuries old, it’s deeply ingrained, it’s associated with religion and therefore sensitive, it’s divisive as an issue, and it’s one that’s not popular with donors. Even with World Bank programmes where they’ve thrown really large sums of money at problems like education infrastructure – to build and equip the school, to hire and train the teachers – if the community won’t let some children come to school, then that investment is not fully used. Every level of the power structure, in the administration and the bureaucracy, the media and the corporate sector, is so upper-caste-dominated that decision-making, whether deliberately or not, is coloured by caste relations. I don’t think you can really grasp what it’s like. A Dalit activist I met said to me, ‘Can you imagine sitting in your home and watching the landlord come in whenever he felt like it and rape your mother?’ To me, that’s something you can’t begin to wrap your head around.

While I was in Maharashtra recently an eight year-old girl was raped and killed and the mother was beheaded because she tried to protect her. The second day I was there a Dalit man was beaten to death for allegedly stealing mangoes. And this in just 48 hours. It’s routine. If you grow up in those circumstances, you live in a state of terror, so the slightest threat is going to keep you away from school, or prevent you from enrolling in a programme or whatever.

How does this affect your work as a grantmaker?

It means that people see the world through a caste filter and they start to question the motivation of anybody trying to help who’s not of their caste. So the caste composition of our staff is important, because often it’s only people from those communities that can give us a real sense of what needs to be done. It also means that we are able to build better rapport with them. Those of us who aren’t Dalits have to work that much harder to establish our credibility.

The problem is particularly severe with the Dalits. The next layer is what we call OBCs – other backward classes – but they have not been as excluded as the Dalits and have been the main beneficiaries of whatever affirmative action programmes we’ve had since independence.

Where does gender come in?

Gender is a further complication. The problem with gender is that it’s personal. Once you’ve started to deal with the gender issue at work, you have to deal with it in your home as well, and there’s a reluctance to do that. It’s convenient for most men, I think, not to have to deal with it at all.

But it’s not only men: I came across a woman recently who had seven daughters and two sons. ‘None of my daughters are educated,’ she said, ‘but I want educated daughters-in-law for my sons.’ Educating your daughter is like watering your neighbour’s plant.

There’s also a lot of mythology around the issue. Dalits in particular will tell you their women are far more equal than Brahmin women because they go out, they work, they earn their own living. So then you have to say, yes, but who’s the one who cooks, who eats last, who’s less likely to get medical attention when she’s sick – and get them to grapple with the idea that they aren’t as egalitarian as they thought.

How do you deal with that?

By appealing to the idea of justice. If you’re for justice, then shouldn’t you be equally against all types of discrimination? Can you legitimately fight justice on this front if you’re a perpetrator of injustice on another? But it’s hard, because it’s so deeply ingrained in Indian society.

We’ve been talking about reserving seats in parliament for women for 20 years, and it’s been consistently derailed by the argument that there need to be subquotas for caste. Are you going to argue for or against that?

Caste is one of the most divisive issues, one of the most politicized issues in India, and in many ways it defines your identity even as a grantmaker. Let’s say, for example, that in the same village there’s a Dalit community and an upper-caste enclave where the women haven’t left their homes for 15 years and have no rights to speak of. You can’t work with both, because as soon as you work with one, the other will have nothing to do with you. You can’t prioritize gender discrimination of upper-class women over the complete exclusion and abject condition of the Dalit community. So you have to constantly make these choices.

And it’s not a popular issue. Donors are easily moved by things like child labour and healthcare. Caste is far more contentious because we’re all guilty at some level, if of nothing else then of tacit compliance with it, so it’s not something people want to talk about.

So it’s not feasible to tackle both caste and gender in one community?

It’s possible to do gender and caste within one caste group, but as soon as I’m working with the Dalit community, the local Maratas or the local Brahmins will have nothing to do with me.

But even working within one caste group, there are problems. If you start to raise gender within the Dalit community, you divide it and you lose that critical mass that you had when you were only addressing caste.

Could you say a bit more about having staff from different castes at CRY?

As we’ve got deeper into these issues, we have also had to diversify the profile of people we hire, so that we get a more authentic picture of what the community really wants and believes. Having Dalits working for us has helped a lot of us see things differently, it’s made us far more sensitive to the issue and far more activist on the issue. It’s helped us engage with communities and groups that we couldn’t possibly have had relationships with earlier because they now trust us. And I hope also we are designing better interventions, because they are driven by the people who know.

How many of your staff are women?

About 50 per cent but not uniformly across functions. There are many more women in fundraising than there are in grantmaking, partly because of the travel requirements. Fewer women seem to be willing to do that 20-25 days a month out in remote rural areas and many, of course, are less able to.

What’s the effect of having mainly male grantmakers working on gender issues?

It’s a constraint. It means, I believe, that we don’t give gender as much weight in our programming as we should. One thing that helps is that senior management at CRY is predominantly women, so all these men are eventually reporting to women. In a sense that allows you to influence their priorities.

But it does make a difference to the face-to-face contact?

If you’re a male programme officer supporting a women’s group, you have to work harder at building a rapport, at being sensitive to the issues and really getting to grips with them.

And you can’t recruit more women?

Unfortunately not. Women give up their careers because they’ve had babies, and that keeps depleting the number, it’s like filling a bottomless bucket. And it’s not just a matter of spending 20 days at a time away from your family, we’re also talking about travelling in remote tribal or rural communities in circumstances that can be unsafe, where violence is a way of life. And if you’re stirring people up against powerful groups, you could be a target, and a woman would be that much more vulnerable to that sort of thing.

Have programme officers been subject to violence?

Threatened, yes, but nobody’s been physically injured. Because we’re so well-known and enjoy this widespread support, it makes us less vulnerable to threats. People think twice about taking on an organization that enjoys so much public support and so much public credibility.

But for other grantmakers in a similar situation it might be more difficult?

Well, we know that everyone from government bodies to criminal mafias have intimidated other NGOs, though I don’t know of any other grantmakers that have been intimidated. As soon as you start to do something which really affects the power structure – such as dealing with communalism, especially where there are political parties actively supporting a communal agenda, or dealing with land rights, or gender or caste issues – you’re taking on powerful people. But isn’t that what it’s about?

Are there many women leading large NGOs or grantmaking organizations in India?

I’m not aware of another grantmaking organization that’s run by women. There are certainly lots of NGOs that are run by women, as is true I think of any low-paid occupation! For a lot of middle class people, if the chief wage earner is male and they’ve obtained a reasonable standard of living, the woman can do something a bit more meaningful. A number of corporate women, for example, have made that choice, because it doesn’t mean giving up the main source of income in the family.

Do you have any women Dalit grantmakers?


And do they have any difficulties in approaching people and being taken seriously?

No. But as soon as you’re a grantmaker or even an NGO, you’re already different and unique, so they’re no longer relating to you in quite the same way as they might relate to a woman who lives in that community. So in a way, their status as grantmaker overrides their gender or caste. It’s a bit like being a judge or a doctor – it suddenly de-genderizes you in some way. Just the fact that you have more education, that you have a full-time career – these are rare things in those communities, so you’re already at a higher level.

Just to sum up, what are the problems for grantmakers in India presented by these two facets of gender and caste?

I think one is that the sensitivity around the two issues makes it difficult to raise money for them or to find enough qualified people to administer those grants. And you have to be continuously second-guessing – am I letting this colour my perceptions? What are my own caste biases, my own gender biases? The second is that you lay yourself open to threats and make yourself unpopular generally.

Also, there is a tendency to go where the donor money is – children, education, disability – the more ‘charity’ issues. Gender and caste issues are harder to deal with, and it’s harder to measure and to show impact. So there is a tendency to stay with the easier issues because that’s where the donor money is, and it’s easier to accomplish something – not that I’m saying that feeding programmes or non-formal education aren’t necessary. The corporate sector, particularly the IT corporate foundations, are increasingly important donors and they look for scalability and replicability. Their growing influence in the sector is skewing where money is going.

So even if the sector’s growing, the amount going to caste and gender issues might stay the same?

Yes, if you talk to the Dalit Foundation, which was actually set up by the Ford Foundation to deal with this issue, their biggest problem is fundraising. It’s not a nice, warm, fuzzy issue. And the Dalit community itself doesn’t have a lot of money.

Does that leave them dependent on external donors?

Yes it does, by and large. One of the advantages for us as a child rights organization is that we’re front-ending these issues for children, which makes them easier to sell, so we can then direct money to Dalit communities.

What’s the impact of that money on women and on the Dalit communities?

If children are to achieve their rights, then we’ve got to look at the root causes of what’s preventing that from happening, and if the root causes are gender bias, caste bias, livelihood issues, then those are what we’re going to have to address.

Were these the issues that moved CRY from child welfare to child rights?

It’s been a gradual process. From founding the first street shelter for street children in Bombay in 1979, we very quickly figured that you have to involve the parents if you’re going to make any lasting impression – then that you need local government involved as well. We also realized that as an indigenous grantmaker we had certain advantages. We could work with smaller, more nascent organizations because we had our feet on the ground so to speak. We could deal with sensitive issues that international NGOs might be shy of because they were too political. So we decided our focus should be to work with the smallest and most remote organizations and those working with the most difficult issues because we could, and many others couldn’t. And as we grew in reach and knowledge, we realized we could put all this together to start to do policy advocacy.

Child Rights and You (CRY)
Started in 1979, the Indian child rights organization CRY (Child Rights and You) believes that every child is entitled to basic rights of survival, protection, development and participation. It now partners almost 200 child development projects across India. In its 25th year CRY initiated a citizen’s movement to restore the rights of children. Today its symbol, the pinwheel called the ‘Free-a-Child Chakri’, represents freedom for all India’s children. Ingrid Srinath had over 11 years of experience in the advertising industry before joining CRY in 1998 as Regional Manager, Mumbai. She then became Director of Resource Mobilization in 1999 and CEO in 2004.

For more information
Contact Ingrid Srinath at or see

Comment Indira Jena

First, I want to correct Ingrid. There is an all women’s grantmaking body – my organization, Nirnaya, which makes grants to marginalized communities of women all over India.

I also feel from our limited experience that, while there are local donors who know their money is going to the oppressed, very few are prepared to think about the politics of caste and gender. This will not change in the near future. There is also another aspect that we ought to recognize and be honest with ourselves – it’s difficult for us in the social change scenario to accept dalits as equals.

I differ, too, with Ingrid’s view about employing women staff. As she says, NGO staff at community organizing level are mostly women working for low salaries. But they have their babies or their miscarriages, and carry on with their work. It is possible for organizations to make adjustments for women who lack family support to help them carry on. We have had great success with young women. Those who have left have done so because they felt they had learned enough from Nirnaya, not because of motherhood issues.

Finally, I would say that while the dalit problem is still severe, the dalit movement and dalit women’s movement have made small but significant strides and that is the positive side that makes us go ahead with our work.

Indira Jena is Founder and Director of Nirnaya. Email

Comment Martin Macwan

Currently, the empowerment of women is a favoured issue among funders. But what is often overlooked is that the genesis of discrimination based on gender is rooted in the ideology of the caste system. As a result, we have many projects and many more institutions addressing everything except the very roots of caste and gender discrimination.

For funding agencies or voluntary organizations alike, a closer look at their board, executive and staff composition in the form of a diversity table, with an added indicator for caste, would paint a picture that many would not like to speak about. The often-heard complaints of discrimination based on caste by some staff members towards the families of other staff members is scarcely even newsworthy.

Are these complaints? No. These are some critical questions that need to be addressed when public funds as well as policies are involved. At the Dalit Foundation we hold that without women’s leadership no social movement, including the Dalit movement, can be effective. This is not an ideological position in conformity with populist identity politics, it is arrived at from long-standing experience that protest and struggle against an unjust social order is always effective when it embodies the personal experience of those discriminated against.

Martin Macwan is Founding Trustee of the Dalit Foundation. Email

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