When Martha Farrell began giving literacy classes to Muslim women in Old Delhi in the early 1980s, the local clergy were critical. Why were married women leaving their homes and walking around for reasons that were unrelated to the home? This was an early lesson in the politics of gender. “Literacy seems apolitical,” said Farrell’s husband Dr. Rajesh Tandon, “But functional literacy is in fact empowerment, and that is when it becomes political.” He added, “She believed that literacy was learning to improve one’s life.”
This early experience with gender barriers that prevented women from learning to read had a profound impact on Farrell’s career. She went on to become a pioneer in adult education, women’s rights and gender equality.
Farrell was born in 1959 to a large Anglo-Indian family in Old Delhi. From a young age, her husband said, she exhibited unusual empathy. “As a youngster she volunteered at homes for the elderly, reading aloud to them and doing their grocery shopping,” he said.
In 1991 she and three colleagues founded Creative Learning for Change, with the goal of challenging gender stereotypes; under the auspices of the organization, she developed and provided training materials for teachers. She also designed gender training for the Indian Navy, which began recruiting women in 1993 but, said Dr. Tandon, “had no idea how to deal with them.”
In 1997 she became a leader of the adult education programs and a co-director at PRIA, the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, working alongside her husband, who had founded the organization in New Delhi in 1982. PRIA is today a global center for participatory research and training, which coordinates with thousands of NGOs to promote civil society initiatives.
It was at PRIA during the late 1990s that Farrell articulated her ideas on gender mainstreaming at organizations, a construct far ahead of its time across the world and especially in South Asia. According to Tandon, she saw that organizational work on gender equality and gender-based violence happened in communities. Based on this understanding, she wrote a protocol about sexual harassment in organizations and went on to work with women who had been elected to local municipalities, experimenting with women’s empowerment through learning about media relations and power structures.
In many ways aside from this, Farrell’s views and teaching on gender issues made her a pioneer. Ten years ago, while most still saw gender separation and female sequestration as the solution to sexual harassment, she insisted that the only way to combat the problem was by improving gender relations — and that in order to accomplish this, it was essential to work directly with men and boys. She further broadened this by linking concepts of gender equality and taking a holistic, cross-cultural systems lens on citizenship and civic participation, and training thousands of grassroots women leaders in local governance.
Her pioneering approach to teaching and mentoring was based not on the need to be first, but rather on the ability to listen with humility and a deeply held conviction that the purpose of a leader was to support and energize. Tandon defined their approach to leadership as follows: “Leaders who have empathy interact with the reality of other people’s lives. They seek to comprehend issues through lived experience, their own and that of others, and listen to another person’s experiences and emotions.” He added, “Martha never came out as the all-knowing mentor or leader. She was much more of a fellow traveler.”
In June 2015, Farrell was among 14 people killed in a Taliban attack on a guesthouse in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she had been leading a gender training workshop. She was 55 years old. Her death sent shock waves through the sector and left her colleagues bereft.
After her funeral, her husband found a collection of her books. In telling fashion, “they were all spiritual books,” he said. “None of them were about gender or NGOs.” This was another sign of her commitment to nurturing her relationships with colleagues, he said. “She said all along to people that they had to work together.”
Farrell’s work, deeply embedded and clearly evidenced in the constructs she set up, the relationships she fostered with colleagues and community members, and the thought leadership she forwarded, carries on through PRIA and the Martha Farrell Foundation. The Foundation has committed to a holistic mission of forwarding gender equality in various aspects of life in India, including sports, education, workplace issues, and invests in youth-led campaigns against gender based violence, using the hashtag #FeminisminEveryDayLife. To honor Farrell, the Foundation launch the Martha Farrell Award, to discover, recognise and honour mid-career individuals and committed institutions, which have made valuable contributions in the areas of women’s empowerment, gender equality or feminism in everyday life.