In the Fall of 2014, my Introduction to Women’s Studies class (WGST 100) considered the troubling topic of violence against women, both in Canada and around the world. We explored gender violence through thought-provoking texts, discussions and movies. We also had a guest speaker: Sheila Johnston, founder of the Canadian Friends of the Calcutta Cathedral Relief Services Society (Cdn. Friends/CCRS), inspired my students with a moving presentation about the harsh realities that women in Kolkata face on an everyday basis, and especially about the danger to young women posed by sex trafficking.

With powerful words and stories, Sheila took us on an amazing journey to learn about the hope offered to these women by many organizations from around the world, including the one she founded. The Cdn. Friends/CCRS offers a Women’s Empowerment Program that helps women from the slums escape the cycle of violence through education and empowers them by teaching them a trade. This spoke to an important discussion we had in class concerning the power of education; as Malala Yousafzai has recently testified before the UN, “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”

Penny power

Ms. Johnson showed my students how a few Canadian dollars can buy a year’s worth of school supplies for an underprivileged child in Kolkata, thus keeping her in the education system and helping to protect her from sex trafficking.

After this presentation, the class felt moved to purchase textile products made by women involved in this program, and even more importantly, decided to organize a week-long Penny Drive Challenge to raise money for the women of the Kolkata slums. The students realized that, for the cost of purchasing one coffee or pop each day for a week, they could cover the cost of school supplies for many children for a year! Even collecting spare change from coat pockets really added up!

As one of my students e-mailed me after the talk:

“… When I saw how much this organization raises a year, it really struck me. The fact that they are already doing so much, with such a small amount of money (by Western standards) speaks volumes of how easy it would be for me to help. Taking this course is starting to make me realize that simply for the fact that I am a woman, have a job, and have complete and easy access to an education, already gives me a huge advantage over many other women in the world for not even close to the amount of struggle they endure daily …”

Another student was especially passionate about this project. After setting a goal to raise $100, she managed to collect a sum of $325.55. The class ended up with a total of $400 (almost 20,000 rupees)!

My students here took an active part in the ongoing struggle for gender equality, and some continue to do this by volunteering around town in different organizations. Inspired by Emma Watson’s famous statement, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” this course activity helped all of us to realize that it only takes one person to start making real collective change for a better world. As Gloria Steinem has said: “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”

Submitted by Dr. Efrat El-Hanany, Art History and Women’s & Gender Studies instructor