District 3232 recently saw an exciting celebration of 20 of its women presidents being felicitated for their leadership role during the year. Of the 103 clubs in the district, 20 were led by women this year. “They are the gems of our district. For any organisation to be successful, we must acknowledge the efforts of women and leverage their highest potential to ensure more women follow their example and come out of their shells,” said DG R Srinivasan. The Women Leadership Summit, held on May 6, celebrated the fact that 30 years ago, on May 4, 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled that Rotary clubs should not exclude women from membership on the basis of gender. From quirky audio-visual introductions of the presidents to well-moderated sessions, and a few donations, the evening was filled with entertainment and action.
Meanwhile, outside the auditorium, six children, dressed in black and white, were fervently practising their steps, to a thaalam (hand beat) sans music. Said one of the girls, “We are going to tell everyone we are HIV positive through our performance.” They were representing Project Hope, a joint project of the 20 clubs to provide rehabilitation opportunities for HIV victims.
I thank Rotary for helping me work on my confidence and determination.
– Hemalatha Kesavan
Film artist Kasturi Shankar, moderating a session titled Women of substance, said that a woman with an unshakable sense of self-worth and one who stands by her convictions is a woman of substance. Women, much more than men, can give a positive direction to an entire generation, but unfortunately Indian women are yet to discover their worth.
Instead of boring sit-down meetings, we meet over a game of badminton or go swimming or do an aqua-yoga.
– Apoorva Prasad
RC Madras NextGen
“A woman of power and positive influence is a woman of substance,” said Usha Kumar, President of RC Madras Midtown. Anita David, President, RC Madras North, urged women to “raise your voice when you are not comfortable and tell people when they are wrong. More importantly, teach your sons to respect women so that the world need not see any more Nirbhayas.” Rajashree Thandy, President of RC Chennai Kilpauk, related how her son had referred to her as his role model in his school essay at the age of six, and continues to hold her in that position even today at 21!
Referring to the diversity of women in the hall, Kasturi said, “Rotary is bringing together women from various backgrounds to network and do good. So, don’t stop with this one year; go and inspire women out there and show them what they are capable of. It is part of your duty.”
In a lively discussion on the various roles donned by women, Kasturi asked the men in the hall: “Do you think it is unfair that your wife has usurped the role of a primary caregiver?” Jay Shetty, spouse of PDG Rekha Shetty, quickly responded that the men in general do not feel any insecurity as long as the child grows with a healthy mind and body. His question: “What about your role as mother-in-law?” led to another animated discussion.
Teach your sons to respect women so that the world need not see any more Nirbhayas.
– Anita David
RC Madras North
Kasturi ended the session with a challenging poser to the audience: “Are we as a society willing to accept the tough choices women make when they choose to divorce, be single moms… do we have the readiness to acknowledge and support such women?”
Lakshmi Ramakrishnan, a social activist, launched a documentary made on Project Hope — a rehab programme of these 20 clubs for HIV patients. It enumerated the Rotarians’ efforts to support such children with training in vocational skills and basic literacy.
We must inspire wives of Rotarians to join Rotary. Most of them are not willing to bring their Anns to Rotary activities.
– Anita Paramasivan
RC Chennai K K Nagar
“They are willing to come out in the open and accept their condition. But are we ready to accept them?” asked Lakshmi. The response by the Rotarians was overwhelmingly positive. B S Purushotaman, President of RC Madras East and Anshul Agarwal, President of RC Chennai Galaxy, instantly announced their support for the cause. This was followed by a mime by the children at the end of which they unmasked their faces and articulated their aspirations. Sivabala, the President of RC Chennai Meeraki, concluded the segment telling the assembly, “These children do not want your sympathy, all they need is your empathy. They want love which we can offer in abundance.”
A ramp walk and dance by Annets formed part of the entertainment section.
Pictures by Kiran Zehra
Our chat with few presidents to understand how they managed their year and the challenges they faced yielded an interesting insight. For Anita Paramasivan (RC Chennai KK Nagar) the Sezhian project is close to her heart. “We gave six powerlooms, worth ₹7 lakh, in Kadaladi, a village near Kanchipuram.” Other projects included giving free spectacles and facilitating cataract surgeries for 4,500 people in the locality; the Kamadhenu project, through which the club provided microfinance and job opportunities to the underprivileged. “I felt happiest when it helped set up a tea shop for a widow, providing her a monthly earning of ₹15,000.”
Anita, a radiologist, initiated breast cancer awareness among the Anns in various clubs. “Many women become anxious once they detect a lump in their breast fearing cancer. But it need not be so. I want to break that myth through my profession,” she said.
Her take on how to improve women’s membership: “We must inspire wives of Rotarians to join Rotary. Most of them are not willing to bring their Anns to Rotary activities. This year I insisted on more family participation.” Anita (50) got married at 18 and with excellent support from her family, did medicine. “Professionally, I am a doctor till 4.30 pm and after that it is Rotary,” she smiles.
Sharada Sundaram (RC Chennai Spotlight — an all-women’s club) says, “We are a bunch of 30 women; we do service and have a lot of fun too spiced with ‘popcorn fellowships’, watching movies, dramas, like any other kitty-party group, but with a purpose.” Her first project was Yatra, where four women drove across the districts of Tamil Nadu, promoting awareness for planting native trees “that will withstand the ravages of cyclones like the recent Vardha. A taste of the hospitality of Rotarians in other places opened a treasure chest of what Rotary actually is. The bonding and fellowship and the pride of being a Rotarian was the best take-home,” she says.
Anita David is the first woman president of the 49-year-old RC Madras North and the only woman member of the club. “I have inducted three women members.” So, did she face any challenges being in a male-dominated club? “No, it was a pleasure working in the club. Every member was cooperative extending support. The moment I suggest some project, money pours in and all the members pitch in to volunteer,” she said. Under her leadership, the club donated personality development books to the inmates of the Puzhal prison and also organised a RYLA for them. She is director of a freight forwarding company and her husband, a past president of RC Chennai Renaissance, takes care of her work during her presidential year.
Rajashree Thandy (RC Kilpauk) is a senior director in a software firm. The club has 33 members with 7 women. Her views on why women do not join Rotary: “There is a myth that Rotary is so much work and money. But I feel that it is about making a choice as to how much you need to donate and how you want to contribute. You need not give up your family or career. It is about striking a balance between Rotary and other things.” Smart classes, hearing aids and audiometric kits donated to three schools for the hearing impaired is a project close to her heart. “We want to take it to all the seven schools in Chennai,” she smiled.
Apoorva Prasad (RC Madras Nextgen) is a HR consultant. “We are a lively 55-member team with diverse opinions and ideas. Arriving at one decision takes very long.” She has inducted 10 new members. Her major project was renovation of the girls’ toilet in a school for the hearing impaired using district grants. The other project was a diaper-drive for mentally challenged children and a multi-specialty medical camp for fishermen and their families on the outskirts of Chennai. “Instead of boring sit-down meetings, we meet over a game of badminton or go swimming or do an aqua-yoga,” said Apoorva.
Bhavani Subramanian is the charter president of RC Chennai Infinity which has 33 members. She was inspired by Rotary’s polio eradication programme.
“We go outside and fix the world and come home and fix our child’s broken toy too. Women leaders face certain challenges that men may not. But at the end of the day all these challenges only make us stronger. I thank Rotary for helping me work on my confidence and determination,” said Hemalatha Kesavan, RC Meenambakkam.
For Malathi Gururajan, President, RC Adambakkam, “The one thing I learnt was that women shouldn’t shy away from opportunities that allow them to move forward. It could be a job or a role that demands a lot, we should be open to challenges.”