June 3, 2015

A Requiem for Martha

Not-so-random Reflections

Dr Martha Farrell, Director PRIA, was killed in a terrorist attack in Kabul on May 13, 2015; she was conducting a training programme on gender mainstreaming for Afghan practitioners.

While conducting the first ever participatory evaluation of an educational project in 1981, I met Martha at Abner Memorial School in Delhi. By asking simple questions about the methodology, she helped me elaborate, in practice, the participatory processes of data-collection and analysis required in any evaluation.

We met again two years later after PRIA was formally established, and the first Training of Trainers (TOT) programme was launched in July 1984. Martha was a ‘trainee’ in the first batch. During the first and second phase of TOT, she enquired how participatory learning methodology can explore gender issues. My fellow trainer (Late) Dr. Om Shrivastava and I agreed to explore this further with her, in advance of third phase of TOT.

In the process, we developed a personal friendship and love, which resulted in our marriage in 1987. She was then Joint Director of Ankur, an NGO working for women’s literacy and empowerment in Delhi. While PRIA (and I) continued to conduct TOTs (and other capacity building programmes) with some gender considerations, Martha actually practiced the participatory learning methodology in her work (amongst Muslim girls and women in Jama Masjid and poor women of the resettlement colony of Nand Nagri).

During the days when PRIA office was operating from Sainik Farms, Martha supported PRIA (and me) by looking after the informal organisation so integral in hosting international workshops, during 1986-89 period. She was expecting our first child—son Suheil—in 1988 when the construction of PRIA educational centre began on the land allotted at Tughlakabad Institutional Area. She ensured that construction happened within the quality, cost and time agreed upon, without official knowledge of any one in PRIA.

During the International Literacy Year conference in Bangkok in January 1990, Martha had her first international exposure amongst fellow literacy workers; her resolve to work for women’s literacy and empowerment after that became stronger. She left her full-time job at Ankur that year to look after my ailing father and our young son. But she was determined to pursue her avocation all along. During our sabbatical visit to Institute of Development Research in Boston and Highlander Centre in Tennessee in 1991, Martha learnt, respectively, the use of a laptop (Toshiba) and of informal conversations in workshops to put participants at ease.

Ever since, Martha supported PRIA to become a place of warm welcome and comfort for all staff and visitors, so that learning could take place in a caring and safe environment. It was much later that I understood the practical manifestations of Martha’s efforts in making PRIA a place where every new person felt welcome and at ease. Many of the warm messages for Martha have particularly acknowledged this contribution of her to our life and work at PRIA.

However, not many may understand the professional contributions of Martha to the development of PRIA. When PRIA launched its MIND Fellowship programme during 1994-96, to catalyse new grassroots initiatives in India, Martha anchored its knowledge and learning component, mostly operating from home (while looking after our second child—daughter Tariqa). The personal and professional network of Regional Support Organisations (RSOs) gained rootedness because of her efforts in convening and facilitating annual retreats during that period. She made sure that the male RSO leaders paid attention to gender issues, and that the MIND Fellows had a critical understanding of gender relations.

Martha formally joined PRIA in 1996, at the invitation of then Chair of the PRIA Board, (Late) Prem Chadha. She began her formal stint in PRIA by organising its knowledge resources into a systematic manner. She recognised the importance of a strong and technology-enabled project management system in PRIA by 1997, and set about building one. These two sets of systems became foundational as she began to undertake several practical steps to improve the work culture of PRIA (and its various partners). The essence of that work culture was valuing the knowledge of each staff and dignity of their work, irrespective of their roles and designations.

Martha’s crusade for gender mainstreaming in organisations began in 1998 when the Vishakha Guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment at workplaces were formulated by the Supreme Court of India. She ensured that PRIA developed a mechanism towards this end—a Board-mandated Committee on Gender Awareness and Mainstreaming in PRIA (CGAMP) was established. It was through her sustained efforts that the policy of ‘zero tolerance’ in this regard was enforced in all workshops, meetings and offices of PRIA and its close partners.

Till then, much of the focus of gender mainstreaming initiatives in development was around programmes and projects in the field. Martha began to champion, through her actions and writings, the focus on making gender mainstreaming an integral part of all organisations—business, government, civil society. She developed the methodology of participatory gender audits, which was applied to PRIA and all its partners by 2000. Her sustained efforts in preventing and addressing sexual harassment at workplaces culminated, in 2013, in her PhD and the first Indian book on this topic.

It was Martha’s practical approach towards integrating gender in everyday work and life that began to make inroads in all of PRIA’s programmes by early 2000. She added learning, literacy and political leadership to the training of elected women panchayat leaders. She ensured that organisations of the urban poor were creating spaces for women’s leadership. She demonstrated, through practical steps, how participatory methodologies can empower women and girls. It was her strong belief that boys and men have to change if women’s empowerment and gender equality has to be ensured.

Martha was instrumental in bringing focus on gender issues in the research and education programmes of a global network —Citizenship DRC. She included gender sensitive curriculum and pedagogy in the design of PRIA’s capacity-building programmes and open distance learning courses. In the past 2-3 months, she was aggressively working for gender mainstreaming in participatory research methodology and decentralised district planning approach of the government’s development schemes.

Martha has been the conscience of PRIA, both before and during her formal association with PRIA. She was fiercely loyal to PRIA, its values and resources. She regularly reminded us all to ‘walk the talk’ and practice those values in everyday work and life. She challenged and questioned me whenever she sensed a possible compromise to those values. She always acted to protect PRIA’s interests. With Martha around, I was confident that we will do no wrong, that the credibility of PRIA and its leadership will be protected and enhanced.

How do we sustain Martha’s intellect, conscience and loyalty in PRIA in the journey ahead?

Rajesh Tandon
Founder-President, PRIA, New Delhi