On January 21, 2017, history was made when women from all over the globe gathered in their respective cities to march for women’s rights and equality. Although the march was partially ignited by President Donald Trump’s actions and comments towards women, that didn’t stop Americans’ northern neighbours from participating and raising awareness of women’s issues taking place right in our own backyard.
In fact, in Toronto, 60,000 people gathered together and marched down University Avenue. With signs reading “Girls just wanna have fundamental human rights,” and “Teach your daughters to worry less about fitting into glass slippers and more about shattering glass ceilings,” the day brought together women, men and children from all walks of life to show that their voices mattered.
One of the leaders behind this historic day was Kavita Dogra. Kavita has devoted her career to fighting the good fight through founding We Talk Women and co-chairing the Women’s March on Washington: Toronto march committee. We Talk Women is an organization dedicated to providing a platform where citizens can engage in conversation to help break the silence that surrounds women’s rights injustices. To say Kavita is a women’s rights advocate is an understatement – she’s a bona fide powerhouse who is changing the world and amplifying the voices and lived experiences of women and girls who are not being heard.
As we prepare for National Women’s Equality Day on August 26th, we talked to Kavita about what equality means to her, what keeps her inspired and how she got 60,000 people to rise and conquer.
ACE: Tell us about your experiences growing up as a woman near New Delhi. How does it compare to your experiences as a woman in Canada?
Kavita Dogra: “I was a little girl when I lived in India, and I spent my formative years there. Like most children, I focused on playing in the park, school, my family and my friends, but I was exposed to poverty and inequality. I didn’t have the capacity at that age to truly understand or question what I was seeing – and it impacted me in ways that I only recognized as an adult. In some ways, Canada is very different and in other ways, it really isn’t. Sexism, poverty, inequality, violence against women are all things that exist here they just aren’t as in your face as they may be in India. I’m inspired by feminist work and activists in India as well as in Canada. And although their tactics and their specific issues may be different, the dream of equality unites us all.”
ACE: Tell us about We Talk Women. What motivated you to start this organization?
KD: “I was motivated to start We Talk Women based on the lack of conversation and passion about advancing equality and women’s rights that existed within my own networks. It felt like people had become complacent and accepted things as they were. We Talk Women predates the mainstream popularity of feminism and the #MeToo movement, so at first it was tough to get people out to events and engage online about issues like human trafficking, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, domestic violence, etc., but my goals were always humble. If in the end, I had informed and inspired just a handful of people to take action, I was content. That is still the case.”
ACE: What inspired you to do work within women’s equality and women's rights and why?
KD: “On my 10th birthday, I had an awesome bunny cake made by the new bakery in town; I had a party and was surrounded by family and friends. Nujood had no birthday celebration; she was forced into marriage, experienced sexual and physical violence and was seeking a divorce by that age. Why did I get a party and Nujood got violence? This inequality enrages and encourages me to advocate for girls’ and women’s rights because in the end we all have the same rights, but not all of us get to exercise them. I consider it my duty as a human being to advance equality so that all of us can experience the joy that I did on my birthday. We should all have the same opportunities and privilege to pursue the life we dream of.”
ACE: What advice do you have for women who want to get involved but don’t know where to start?
KD: “Do some research and support existing activists and organizations in your area who are working within this sphere. In Toronto, there are countless options and a variety of ways to get involved. Raise awareness, use social media for good, talk to people in your life about the issues you’re passionate about, attend events, march, rally and do your part. You don’t have to take on the burdens of ending domestic violence on your own. Take a step, learn, support, donate. Do what you can.”
ACE: What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
KD: “I think their biggest challenge will be combatting violence against women and girls online. The internet has empowered many and that’s good news and bad news. Abuse and violence being perpetrated online is different because people can be anonymous and experience no consequences for their actions. Things are getting better, but social media has the power to give voice and silence, and as it stands, it can be a vile and unsafe space for many. Changing that will take time, and it will be reliant on the elimination of violence against women and girls offline. Though I’m hopeful that one day this may become a reality, I’m painfully aware of how far away we are from it.”
ACE: What are you doing to keep growing as a leader?
KD: “I have leaders that I look up to, and I am constantly trying to learn from them. I also try to get myself involved in various organizations, committees and events to grow as a person, to grow my knowledge and to practice my public speaking so that when I have the opportunity to lead, I am comfortable doing so. It’s an ever-evolving process, and I don’t anticipate an end to the learning.”
ACE: Which women inspire you and why?
KD: “The list is endless but I’ll name a few. Zainab Salbi, Jessica Valenti, Julia Lalonde, Cindy Blackstock, Debbie Douglas, Mona Elthaway and the women in my family! Their passion, grit, wit, intelligence, strength, humility and commitment to making this world a better, more just place never cease to inspire me. They all approach their work and lives in a different way, and they may have different areas of justice that they focus on, but I admire all of them and learn from them constantly.”
ACE: How did you get involved in the Women’s March on Washington: Toronto?
KD: “I found a Facebook event page, contacted the organizers and said I’d be happy to help. They were happy to have me on board because I had some experience organizing events. I called to book Queen’s Park, and I was told another woman had called to do so, and I was asked if I wanted to speak to her. That’s how I met Deb and together we co-chaired the committee that organized the march.”
ACE: What surprised you most about the women’s march in Toronto?
KD: “Honestly, our ability to pull off an organized and well attended march in such a short time having no prior experience working with each other. I didn’t know anyone who was on the committee that first year, but we were all committed to putting together a rally and march that would bring people together in a positive way. It was a beautiful day. One I’ll never forget.”
ACE: What does equality mean to you and what do you think are the most fundamental steps to achieving it?
KD: “To me, gender equality means access to exercising your rights and having opportunities to pursue your education, career and life aspirations. When there is no implication on your success, however you choose to define that, based on gender identity we’ve been successful. But gender equality cannot be achieved in isolation; we need equality on all fronts, and we must pursue the advancement of equality through an intersectional lens. The first step is recognizing that those intersections impact access to justice, and that there is no one way or one solution that will work for all women and girls. Engaging and educating everyone, especially men to see that equality benefits all of us and doesn’t disproportionately advantage one over the other is also key. And, another step is recognizing that equality will continue to elude us unless we breakdown the patriarchal way our society is organized. I think that provides us a good start.”
ACE: What is your proudest accomplishment to date?
KD: “Standing in front of 60,000 people and getting them to cheer and chant along with you is high on the list. The march is certainly an event I’m proud to have helped organize, but in the end, there isn’t any one big thing. I’m proud that through We Talk Women I’ve managed to inform and inspire a few people over the years. I’m proud that people feel comfortable and safe coming to me and disclosing violence that they have experienced; that I’ve become a resource for survivors or people trying to support survivors. I’m very proud that I pitched and ran a program at a local women’s shelter through which I used to take women out for walks to connect them with nature and help them enjoy a few moments of peace. I met women through those walks whose stories I’ll never forget. I have been the recipient of a few medals/awards and that level of recognition is wonderful. In the end, I aspire to live a life that will be filled with big and small moments like these.”
ACE: If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
KD: “Let the loudest voice in your head be your voice not the voice of anyone else.”