Growing up in 10 states across India, Richa Dhanju saw "immense disparity amongst people and between men and women." But it wasn't until she was pursuing an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Lady Sri Ram College for Women in New Delhi that she started examining these differences.
"Women's secondary status and role in the patriarchal Indian society left me thinking about possibilities of academically understanding the interconnection between the politics, economics and culture of a society," says Dhanju, who will graduate today with a master's degree from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.
Richa Dhanju (left, rear) plays with a group of schoolchildren on her way to visit the remote village of Kung Elek in Kyrgyzstan. "Richa really pushes herself to understand people from their perspective," says Peter Hovmand, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work. "... She has a way of drawing that perspective out through her stories and writing on the conversations she has had with people."
Dhanju previously earned a master's degree in social welfare administration at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
Before she continued her education in the United States, Dhanju got some grass-roots experience working with Parivartan, an Indian people's movement focusing on issues of transparency and accountability in government.
"We were working in almost all the resettlement colonies and slums of Delhi," she says, "in order to ensure that the government would be held accountable to its common people — the poorest people who weren't receiving the basic necessities that were supposed to be provided by the state 'on paper' but were missing in actuality.
"We were instrumental in shaking up the state from its slumber.
"After a year, I felt the need to go beyond India. I decided to study in the U.S. to gain a more global perspective on issues that impact women."
During her first year at the School of Social Work, Dhanju dove into her academic concentrations: social and economic development.
"From the moment that I arrived at the school, I felt like I was able to explore my true interests and understand the nuances of development in India within the larger international context," she says.
George Warren Brown School of Social Work
"The student body and teachers at the School of Social Work create a positive learning environment where you can see how each country and its development is so interlinked with the rest of the world."
"Richa really pushes herself to understand people from their perspective," says Peter Hovmand, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work. "She asks deep questions about how we understand words like 'empowerment' or 'feminism' across a variety of contexts.
"She also challenges us to see people from their perspective, and she has a way of drawing that perspective out through her stories and writing on the conversations she has had with people."
Dhanju considers Hovmand one of the strongest influences on her studies and future career.
"He has helped me to understand how one can bridge the gap between academia and reality beyond the book," she says.
"He has been extremely encouraging with new ideas for research and work."
She also is grateful for the guidance and encouragement of Li-Mei Chen, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work, and Gautam Yadama, Ph.D., associate professor and director of International Programs at the School of Social Work.
Dhanju knew that she would spend much of her program's second year in an international practicum on women's issues.
"Having lived and studied in India and the U.S., I was eager to explore new nation-states that are struggling with social and economic imbalances," she says.
With the help of Chen, Dhanju found projects with the Central Asia Alliance for Water, based in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and the International Secretariat for Water, based in Ferghana, Uzbekistan.
She spent most of her time in these villages, but she also met with student groups and debate clubs and attended traditional festivities. "Each day brought new and different experiences," Dhanju says.
"While talking about women's status and role in the Kyrgyz/Uzbek society, I was amazed to learn that there were no words in the local language that could capture the meaning of 'feminism,' 'empowerment,' 'intellectual independence' and the like. It was fascinating for me to hear from several women how it was the first time in their lives that they were being asked about themselves as individuals and as women."
After graduation, Dhanju plans to work in the United States and then India for a few years before returning to the States to pursue a doctorate in sociocultural anthropology.
"My time here has further strengthened my desire to return to India with the skills to be active as an agent of social and economic change at the grass roots," she says, "and as an academician who practices what she learns from the text and who demands theory be as practical as it can be."