Kalpana Jain: Empowering Voices

May 12, 2014
Kalpana Jain: Empowering Voices
At left, Kalpana Jain

For Kalpana Jain, it is all about the power of voice. An investigative journalist from India—and a former Harvard Nieman Fellow in global health reporting—Jain has devoted her working life to giving voice to the voiceless by delving into social issues too often ignored or dismissed.

"I grew up in Meerut, in Uttar Pradesh, one of the post–Indian independence generation, very idealistic, wanting to bring about change," she remembers. This was still very much Gandhi's India, and journalism was a perfect vehicle for the activist questioning of Jain's khadi-wearing generation.

"You went after the stories," she says, "and felt good about being able to change something in someone's life, even if it was just bringing out her voice."

For two decades, before leaving to pursue graduate studies (she holds a master's in public administration from Harvard Kennedy School and is now enrolled as an MTS student at HDS, with a focus on women, gender, sexuality, and religion), Jain worked at The Times of India as health editor.

"Newspapers were very political in their approach, and I wasn't even vaguely interested in covering politics," she says. "The way I saw the coverage of politics was through addressing social issues."

That is what she accomplished at the Times, introducing social coverage in the paper when nothing was being reported on such controversial topics as child labor, the state of the hospitals, or the collapse of public health institutions.

Then came HIV/AIDS and all the stigma and cultural prejudices it carried. At first, the newspaper's editors didn't want to touch it, and Jain recalls struggling to shift their thinking: "As a journalist, I saw a story that needed telling. I saw I could change things within my newspaper."

Still, she couldn't go after the honest, in-depth story she felt compelled to pursue, so she took a leave from the Times. Four months and 15,370 kilometers later, she had gotten to know women and men living with HIV, learning not only about their isolation, hunger, and physical and emotional trauma, but about their message of hope and fortitude, which she gave voice to in her 2002 book, Positive Lives: The Story of Ashok and Others with HIV.

While covering those stories that need telling—the tragedy of debt bondage in rural India, female feticide, and the situation of widows in India—Jain has come face-to-face with people's greatest vulnerabilities and debilitating poverty. She has also seen that, with just the slightest bit of support, even those most at risk can themselves bring about change.

While investigating debt bondage in a remote village in Rajasthan, Jain met Gyarsi Bai.

"She was the lowest of the lower castes, a tribal woman, on top of everything else," Jain explains. "She had not had any role models in her life to show her how to have a voice."

Empowered by support from a local NGO, Bai now is 'a force to be reckoned with in that village.' Once silenced by fear, she has become a voice for her community.

"The other women know they can look up to her, that they can find safety with her. She can, very diplomatically, find her way through situations and not put them at risk," Jain says. "She has exercised tremendous leadership abilities"—so much so, that Jain wrote up her story as a case study on empowerment and negotiation now taught at the Kennedy School.

Creating a case study such as that on Gyarsi Bai satisfies the perpetual journalist in Jain.

"It's very hard to bring out those voices, and yet it's so important. I do what I can do. Working on the stories that need to be told and bringing out the voices—it's a real challenge."

A challenge—and the stories take a toll. Jain needed time to gain some distance from her experiences, to work through them, and so she chose to return to learning. One of her courses at HDS, Michael D. Jackson's "Politics of Storytelling," has helped her grapple with ethical questions journalists face, such as: how do you involve yourself in people's stories and deal with the issue of suffering?

Jain also found herself deeply disturbed by the violence against women in India.

"I have seen it so closely and experienced it through the voices I have brought out in my stories." Before coming to Harvard, she says, "In my notion of what is secular, I had never really thought about how deeply religion impacts us all or the need to engage with it."

A course with Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz and later study with Parimal Patil, Professor of Indian Religion and Philosophy, made Jain aware of "how we grow up with those narratives embedded in our own story—how we experience the world and are called to action... I wanted to go deeper to understand gender and religion in its political context in India, for my future work."

Residence at the CSWR has been restorative and reinvigorating at this point in her career, offering a valuable balance between "close-knit," home-like comfort and contemplative, intellectual space in which to consider how best to continue the work of raising her voice.

"Everyone is very comfortable approaching each other, there is a certain informality—someone can knock on my door and ask, 'Do you have this?' I appreciate this. It takes me back to my own country where I've lived, the way I've been raised." At the same time, Jain notes, "you participate in the cultural fabric of this country and learn so much in so many other ways."

Jain credits the CSWR's weekly café for residents with initiating the open, collegial atmosphere.

"I think it helps that the Center brings us together on a weekly basis, in an organized way, where one person makes a presentation, and then everyone gets to know about his or her work. It's a great way to interact, to get to know each other, and to develop that feeling of community and bond."

—by Kathryn Dodgson

This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of CSWR Today.