Akhil Neelam is a public policy practitioner and a gender rights advocate, working towards making politics gender-equal. He has worked across foreign policy, governance, public education, gender, and policy communications.
A Mechanical Engineer turned Ashoka University Young India Fellow, Akhil has always been passionate about social equity and justice. In January 2020, Akhil co-founded Women For Politics, (WfP), an initiative that aims to have a free, fair and equal political representation and participation of women in South Asia. In June 2021, he left his government consulting job to move full time with WfP. He is currently working on setting up a think-tank on gender and politics in South Asia.
We were extremely intrigued and fascinated by Akhil’s career and journey as an Indian male advocate of gender equality in politics. In this interview, Akhil shared his dreams and goals within Women For Politics and beyond to create a gender-equal society.
Could you please share about your initiative ‘Women For Politics’?
Through Women for Politics (WfP), we are trying to bridge the gap in the discussion of women in South Asian politics. We do it through recognition of political leadership of women in the region, understanding men’s roles and analysing various aspects of women in politics.
At WfP, we are committed to replacing narratives that define South Asian women as victims in the global discourse.
Taking forward our work at WfP, we are now working on setting up a think-tank on gender and politics in South Asia. We are committed to bridging the research gap in the South Asian context and provide critical insights to many individuals and organisations working to achieve gender equality in politics across the region.
What motivated you to found “Women for Politics?”
Politics is always fascinating for me. But the politics I tracked had never been inclusive. Once politics becomes gender-inclusive, we can truly unleash the power of democracies, increase GDPs of nations and other developmental factors. I believe unless we have gender inclusivity in politics, we can never make gender-equitable policies.
While some of my own life experiences made me conscious of gender inequality, my colleague Ms Sugandha Parmar’s unwavering commitment to the cause further motivated me to join hands with her and work on this.
Gender equality and women’s rights are seen as women’s struggle for their own rights and freedom. In India, where misogyny, sexism and gender bias are normalized at every level of society, as a man, what motivated you to advocate for women’s rights and gender discrimination in politics?
In 2015 as part of Jagriti Yatra, I travelled around the country in a sleeper train coach for 15 days. I even went to the remotest places and somehow, I ended up observing people, cultures and traditions from a gender lens. I went to a few places where women were restricted in many ways in accessing public spaces, even to speak to us. I started comparing these situations to my growing up and the place I came from.
This understanding of gender grew when I pursued liberal arts education later. But it was when I started working with the government departments, I began to understand ground realities in a more nuanced way.
After working in the policy space for over 5 years and having worked in political, bureaucratic and non-profit circles, I believe that politics has the power to change the status quo. But the politics I see today is not inclusive. And this has a far more negative impact than we can imagine. And I met my colleague, Ms Sugandha to work together and contribute towards changing the situation or rather contributing to it.
Given my gender, I am constantly trying to educate myself about how I can approach my work on women’s agenda and gender equality. Sugandha has been my mentor and teacher.
You have interviewed notable Afghan Politician Fawzia Koofi and featured many women politicians from Afghanistan in the ‘Beyond Victims’ series. The present crisis in Afghanistan might significantly decline women’s and girls rights and Afghanistan. Many women politicians and activists in Afghanistan today are worried about their safety. What do you think about this situation?
It is very unfortunate, and I cannot imagine a non-state actor governing the country and reversing all the gains made by women in the last 2 decades.
I had a very short exchange of messages with Ms Fawzia Koofi and I am confident she and many like her will do whatever it takes to make sure these gains are sustained. At Women for Politics, we have engaged with non-profits, leaders and had a team member from Afghanistan who engaged with us in a critical project. I hope the world leaders go beyond their namesake statements and provide political support to women and other minorities in the country.
What are some of the accomplishments of “Women For Politics?”
The biggest accomplishment for us at WfP is to gather the support of many young professionals and students who today form the core strength of whatever we do. They have been volunteering their time and energies because they believe in the cause. And I think we are successful in making these young folks believe that it is an important cause to work for. Today, Women for Politics is what it is because of our volunteers who work tirelessly and selflessly for the cause of gender-inclusive politics.
Where do to see Women For Politics five years from now?
We are building a nonprofit think-tank called the Centre for Gender And Politics (CGAP). We see ourselves producing grounded research on gender and politics in South Asia that can be used to improve existing efforts of capacity building, awareness and advocacy for improved gender inclusion in political spaces. We wish to have our research accessible by using new forms of media and translating our work into as many South Asian languages as possible.