Hasina Kharbhih, Ashoka Fellow and Aspen ILI Fellow, Founder and Managing Director of Impulse Social Enterprises and Founder Chair of Board of Impulse NGO Network, has been working to provide sustainable livelihood in a safe environment for women and children for 30 years now. She has created the nationally and internationally acknowledged Impulse Model (formerly known as The Meghalaya Model) a holistic method to address human trafficking.
On the basis of the Impulse Model, she has created a platform that is focused on collective leadership and non-duplication of action, bringing together key stakeholders from both private and public sectors to work in collaboration where each one of them contributes their specific and complementary resources, expertise and commitment to the shared vision so as to combat human trafficking and strengthen each other’s work by incorporating some fundamental components. Through this form of collective leadership, she created a sustainable model that involves everyone working towards positive social impact.
Impulse Model has led to INGON receiving accolades such as the Japanese Award for Most Innovative Development Project category under its Global Development Awards and Medals Competition in 2012 from the Japanese Social Development Fund for the Government of Japan which has also supported the organisation to scale its work in Myanmar since 2013, Nepal and Bangladesh. She is a trainer, Motivational Speaker, Writer and Poet, and published many books, and articles.
In 2019 Hasina was listed in Celebrating ChangemakersHers, How Women Social Entrepreneur Lead and Innovate. Out of five thousand reviewed, four Innovation of Leadership were selected. Among the four, her leadership style was listed in the book as scaling deep, scaling up and scaling out.
Hasina Kharbhih has gained a multi-sector expertise, including leadership and Institutional Management, human rights, livelihood and rural development, anti-human trafficking, migration, gender based violence, child rights, HIV/AIDS education and intervention, substance abuse and adolescent health.
In conversation with Hasina Kharbhih, Social Entrepreneur a Global Icon whose Innovation Impulse Model got replicated in Four Countries with a safe space for sustainable development and livelihood in her Impulse Social Enterprises.
By Chivukula Bhavyashree
Tell us something about yourself.
I was born in the year 1971 in Shillong. As a young girl, I did my schooling in Saint Joseph School Shillong,Meghalaya till my High School. After completion of my board exams, I went to Lady Keane College for my Graduation . As a child, I was more inclined towards extra-curricular activities than to academics. I remember I would participate in all kinds of extra-curricular activities and enjoyed every bit of it. Today when I look back I think I put my heart and soul into different activities in school week and was an average student academically. Subsequently I did my post graduation in human resource development, later also received my Full bright School Scholarship, and studied at East West Centre Hawaii University .
Give us your opinion on this year UN (United Nations) March 08 International Women’s Day theme “I am generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights”
The theme this year is so interesting because my pursuit towards taking the issues on women’s right specially addressing women’s trafficking that no women should be enslaved is something I have believed very strongly over the past 27 years. I work towards it through Impulse Model to address the issue of women’s rights especially human trafficking. I think the theme this year is a reminder that women’s rights are equal at par with men’s rights, in terms of performance or leadership we are equivalent. The theme brings an understanding that women cannot be left behind and it should not be tokenism, it is about women being able to participate equally and equality among genders at the same level.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
Every year we observe International Women’s Day and it’s a celebration of reminding ourselves that we have come a long way in making a difference in the society. But to me, Women’s Day is everyday because that’s the way I am. I think the 8th of March, women gather together to give strength to one another for one solitary cause. Women issues are global and different countries recognize it, so we are in this together.
What does it mean to be a woman in the part of society that you live in today?
I would go back to how I was brought up by my parents. Firstly, I come from a matrilineal society where I grew up to see that both my brothers and sisters, we were treated equally by my parents and to me that was integral during or process of growth. Even today, I see both my brothers participating equally in household duties and work front with his wife and we carry those steps forward. As a woman being born in a matrilineal society in the state of Meghalaya, the girl child is always welcomed in the society and the equality of responsibility and opportunity has always been the same. I don’t see myself any different ever and that practice went along with me and it got expanded through the work that I am doing for all to belong to the same page. Being born in a Khasi family women participation in decision making too has its own set of challenges but every society and culture has their share of challenges.
What privileges or challenges do we stereotypically or generically face?
In many cultures, we women are brought up in a certain way to conduct ourselves every step of our lives. That is conditioning and that conditioning is not erasing even from the present day society. After so much awareness, education and global expansion, we have moved from one step to another yet prone to conditioning. Women have engaged themselves in so many productive work but they still restrain themselves under a very uniform conditioning. If we look at the present day context, there are many talented women who have had the privilege to have one of the best education, best exposure but when we look at the sector that I am in, we don’t find women leading. Many of them, once married or settled, get conditioned back to play different roles wherein they’d stop progressing personally, in their career or move forward in building themselves and rather just choose a life their husband might want or their families might expect. They choose uniform roles that women should play so it is functioning till today. I have worked with women across many different sectors but I am amazed that these are progressive young women who have so much of skill set and exposure but would rather take a step backward and decide to move along with their husband. It means they kill their aspirations and growth and it is existent till today.
Which women are you inspired by in your local community and globe?
I think I grew up in a simple way. I admired my grandmother very much. She might not be famous but I was inspired by her all throughout. She was independent, strong, entrepreneurial, even after my grandfather passed away, she remained strong and raised a family. I think the village she and my grandfather came from had everyone look up to her as a woman who inspired them to be economically self-sufficient. As I grew up, I have seen my mother involved in business, independent and strong. They inspired me to be independent. Growing up, I have met diverse women from different countries in different sectors, who have been able to break the glass ceiling. Whenever I look at Oprah Winfrey show, she is one woman who has been a motivator to a lot of women. The environmentalist Jane Goodall Animal Right Activist, she has pursued a journey so rare for women to pursue in the wildlife sector of working with chimpanzee and then today she made a difference in the climate change movement that people look up to her. Women in different spaces have inspired me for the choices they have made in life and to believe that the little things I have been doing is possible. I would say Iman Bibars Vice President Ashoka Arab World has been quite an inspiration. She made me look beyond my own boundaries of the northeast and go global, take me to her sphere and say if you can do what you are doing in South East Asia this, you can do more and made me believe that women power has a lot of strength. Iman Bibars is more like a mentor to me; she is very dynamic in the Arab world. I could go on naming a few but I would say it started with my grandmother.
What are the women’s themes that still need greater awareness in your opinion?
One important part is that when we talk about equal opportunities, we must also practice equal opportunities. People need to have that awareness. Equal opportunities doesn’t mean that you have it when one is single, one should continue it even when one is settled down and have children because that is what equal opportunities mean. That awareness is very important looking at the declining factor of woman participants in the leadership roles in different level, who just seem to settle down, choose to work from home or compromise on their career for their family. This requires more awareness. Also, I have heard women saying, “I could do it because my husband allowed me to do it” but I don’t think the word “allowed” should be a term for women empowerment. It means your capability as an individual self is not being respected. That has to change.
What taboos related to the theme of women do you wish were eliminated?
The acceptance of single women doing well for themselves and not wanting to settle down is still a taboo in our society. That taboo should be erased in this generation. It is not necessary that every woman should settle down or every young woman should get married when they reach a certain age. But, it’s interesting to see in different cultures, especially northeast where it is known to be progressive in many ways when it comes to women participation and engagement, the pressure women continue to undergo for settling down after reaching a certain age is prevalent. Even in my workplace, I can see women dealing with it. If a 30-35 year old woman isn’t married and chooses to live alone, even in today’s age, she is being pushed to a corner wherein people assume that there is something wrong with her. I think that has to change, there needs to be awareness on this context. It’s not that single women are depressed, in fact they rather do better and the liberty of settling down should not be pushed by society or peers. I believe very strongly that it needs to change.
Which men do you find inspiring that are doing their part for the women community?
My late father, inspired me as a growing up child, as he never interfered with my mother’s choices and decision ,that remains to be a strength to me. I have met wonderful men in my life who have been treating women at par in my work space and it is encouraging. Mr JefferyD.Brown, Oscar Winning Producer and Director of the Film Sold a film on human trafficking, who is also my Mentor is one of them. It is nice to see men treating women as equal in terms of capabilities and skill set. When I see men who treat women in the same page, I feel a sense of admiration and respect for them. They don’t have to be men who have grown up to be global figures. There are men who have made differences with their opinions on women and their rights and liberties but I think it is very important in a simpler way in every community for men to respect women the way they would respect another man.
What woman’s themes are impacting you most greatly in your life?
I believe that women should support women, which till date remains one of the most challenging spaces that I have seen. At times, women are pulling each other down in many spheres. It is very discouraging. I have worked with many wonderful women in my life like Nana Watanabe Founder Chairperson Ashoka Japan, Haeyoung Lee Country Representative Ashoka Korea Iman Bibar Vice President Ashoka Egypt, I have worked with Edit Schlaffer Founder Executive Director Women Without Borders, and it is enriching to be in the company of women who support each other, encourage each other and there are no boundaries to that. That is an important aspect that I have learnt and I think in my small way I have come back to the northeast and do the same. It is possible but it is just about creating more positive spaces where you don’t look at the other woman as your competitor, you look at the other woman as one of your own to grow together.
Whose work do you admire in relation to women’s rights and equality?
Every woman has her own distinct style of working and addressing women’s rights. When it comes to addressing Women’s rights movement, I don’t have anyone in particular. But I really believe that when one addresses, involves, engages and enables the system to address women’s rights and equality I admire it highly. It is because the larger population can be addressed and benefited from acts which involve the system. Changing the system and making it inclusive to address critical issues requires a lot of courage and I admire it highly.
What role or impact would you like to play in relation to women’s rights and equality?
When it comes to women’s rights, strengthening women’s economic condition is a way to provide the women’s rights movement a choice. That is what exactly Impulse Social Enterprises is doing. When we talk about women’s economic we are not just talking about women in the cities or urban setting, we are talking about women in the rural setting and at every level. Because, when you give them the power to make decision, to make choices and the power to strengthen the huge communities, it also in turn reduces violence. The other part I would like to make a change is reducing the demand of women in slavery, stopping human trafficking, ensuring women’s economic so that they don’t become vulnerable in the hands of demand.
If you could pick a woman from any culture to talk to, which culture would you pick?
Interestingly, I feel the word culture should not be there. There are no boundaries that divide women. Women from all cultures should be the same by which I mean people cut across globe face similar problems, similar challenges, so I would not pick any specific culture. But if I look at women’s rights movement that has become forefront strength to the world, Sweden as a country has taken this context very strongly. I think countries should start envisioning spaces of progress where women are in the forefront. The Prime Minister of New Zealand is a woman or Finland for instance has more women in Political leadership, they might be young but great role models to the world. They have the strength of leadership in making better changes and taking better decisions. I think I would prefer a culture that is more progressive.
If you could put on a parade for International Women’s Day, which woman would you put on the main float?
I would choose the women artisans that I work with in the corners of the villages of the northeast under Impulse Empower. Someone like Rekha Doley who is our master Artisan from Assam, I would like to put her on the main float. I believe that, if women like here were not there, my whole existence towards women’s right, women’s economic livelihood would not exist. Although they might not be there in the forefront but I am here today because of women like here in the ground. Women like her in the ground inspire and mobilize others in bringing forward equality through the economic platform. So, I would choose to keep her in the main float and every other woman like her deserves to be on the main float.
At what point in your life were you first aware that not everybody was from where you are from?
It took me almost 15-17 years when I started realizing that the space that I was involved in terms of crime against women and addressing issues like the coal mining in Meghalaya was not easy. It was more like a woman challenging the system which is a male dominated space. I thought everybody can challenge the system, do what I was doing and later realised that it is not easy for everybody. It takes time for everybody to take that footstep but I am glad to see a lot coming into this sphere. When I started early, I never realised that stepping into my shoe, challenging male dominance, crime, system cannot be done, I rather thought everyone can do it but it took me 15-17 years to realise that it is not an easy space. It takes times, inspiration and space. But, I hope to see more people engaging in it because there is no domain male or female to me today but a domain that is equal.
Any message for the youth/ society?
I would say the youth today should have more resilience in whatever they take up. The youth today has all the space, opportunities and connect but they must also realise that with the opportunity to position themselves, comes responsibility. Every action taken should have a thought process and then developing the inner strength to take up whatever is close to your heart.