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April 16, 2019 Tuesday 11:39:58 AM IST


Cover Story

As the saying goes, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, may that be a product, a service, a start-up or a non-profit organisation. The Pehia Foundation was born when such a necessity came across my life.

 The evolution of the necessity could be traced to the days of childhood. Children are like blank CDs. When they are born, they are eager to perceive, understand, learn and act. As an Artificial Intelligenceaficionado, I often compare children with Machine Learning models. Such models, in a wide, generalised sense, are a bit like individuals or even consciousness.The basic rule there is ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’. With good data as input, the output will have good content; if its garbage that you are feeding the model, the output will contain the same.

 Children resemblesuch models. The concepts of religion, sex or race are not known to them until others -including parents, friends and media - give them a picture of the world which they start believing in.

 In many families, while the boys are taught to accompany dad to the garage or to the farm, the little girls are asked to help out mother in the kitchen. The little boys are given mechanical toys such as cars and blocks, and are encouragedto break them and refix them. On the other hand, girls get dolls and kitchen sets, and are asked to take care of them. In the words of Reshma Saujani, American lawyer and entrepreneur, “we raise our boys to be brave, and our girls to be perfect”. The upbringing lays emphasis on boys to have prime logical sense while the girls are expected to have creativity. In other words, the enforced bias takes precedence over biological differences.

 Beginning of Pehia

Imagine a man sitting amidst a group of 50 women at a Kudumbashree meeting. He is likely to feel uncomfortable.It is the gender consciousness that generates an uneasy feeling of submissiveness, discomfort and vulnerability.It was a similar feeling that I had, being one among the very few women, at the technical meetups in and around Kochi.

Technical meetups, conferences and hackathons are extremely important spaces that fill in the gaps of the education that the traditional college education provides. Such programmes won’t take place in your college. It might be at another part of the town, maybe in another district or State altogether. How would an extremely eager student feel when she realises that what stands between her and this trove of knowledge, experience and opportunities is her gender? This is story of most code enthusiast girls in Kerala. The odd thing is that each of these girls feel that they are alone.

The International Centre for Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS) Women’s Hackathon held in August 2017 - that I and my friend Sreepriya attended after quite a tussle at home - brought meaning to the word ‘together’ after having been ‘alone’. It gave me a whole new sense to the word ‘hack’. The experience made me realise that being a female gave me an additional responsibility to hack my life out of gender gap before I could try on other hacks. I remember vividly the love and sense of belonging I felt, when at 9 pm one night at the ICFOSS office at Thejaswini Infopark,Thiruvananthapuram , I heard around 30 other girls narrate experiences and thoughts that echoed in me for years.I am not the only one, after all.

This feeling of togetherness that we felt was too good not to share. Hence, the formation of WOMENDEV, which was later renamed Pehia Foundation.

Starting the Foundation wasn’t easy. Thegender gap in the industry is evident; you see the restrictions imposed on women; but you wouldn’t understand its strength and effect until you are a victim of the system.

You don’t understand the power of gravity when you tend to see that all it does is making things fall down. You realise its power when you open your vision wide enough to see that the moon holds on to the earth due to the same gravity.You never know the power of things unless your perspective is wider.

The past and the present

Though initially started with the aim of helping more girls attend hackathon by travelling together, Pehia Foundation has grown today as one of the leading non-profit ventures working among the gender minorities in tech space.

Today, Pehia Foundation is a non-profit start-up, with a community of over 200 women who program all over Kerala, with branches in Kochi and Kozhikkode. We are one of the community partners of Kerala Startup Mission. We have been nominated for the AsianetSthree Shakthi Awards in 2018 and have been featured in the leading national papers and channels in India. We have conducted over 15 events, partnered with over 10 hackathons to ensure diversity, joined hands with more than 20 colleges to take sessions, conducted several rounds of online coding quizzes and Sunday Peer Learning Sessions. We have proudly made an impact in the lives of over 500 girls all over Kerala. We partnered with MarthomaNavodhaya Foundation in the beginning of this year to provide employability training to over 10 transgenders. A major event held in the past year was the Opportunity Hackathon conducted to help girls reach their next job or scholarship, as a part of which two girls were able to ace the Google WTM Scholarship and visit the Google Singapore Office. One of the recent events was partnering with KSUM, Google for Startups and Techstars, conducted TechstarsStartup Weekend Kochi women to promote women entrepreneurship. The wheels have started rolling to conduct a Google Cloud training in partnership with Google in the next few weeks. An Augmented Reality Camp is the next planned major event.

A passion for technology

All in all, as a group of college students who are really passionate about technology, coding specifically,we are trying to figure out how well to hack our social circumstances, so that we can follow our dreams, and our passions. We are trying to improve the lives of girls around us, while improving ours. Though started by just myself and Sreepriya, all of what PEHIA achieved in just under one year, is because we have an amazing team of college-going girls- Mufida, Vyshnavy, Anusree, Ann Philip, Niha, Sharon, Akshatha, Diya - to begin with. Ofcourse, much of the work wouldn't have been possible if it was not for the persistent support, guidance and motivation given by my parents and an amazing IT department at Rajagiri Engineering College. I thank God almighty for the strength and hope for the blessings and prayers of everyone for the tough journey ahead. 

Enfa Rose George

Student at Rajagiri School Of  Engineering & Technology

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