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Women’s representation in Parliament may still lag behind, but increasingly, individuals are having an impact through autonomous initiatives that bypass mainstream government or influence it from the outside. If you see a problem that isn’t addressed by politicians, here are five ways to get into public life and start making some changes.

Overlook the numbers

It can be depressing, looking at the numbers, to see how little progress Indian women seem to have made in mainstream politics over the last 30 years. Despite a handful of power players at the top, the Sonias and Mamatas and Jayas and Mayawatis, only 11.7% of the 15th Lok Sabha members are women, compared with 8.5% in 1985.

The situation further down the ranks at the panchayat level looks a little better, since the Union government passed an enabling law in 2011 for 50% reservation (some states are yet to pass it), but it’s hard to know how many of these women are running as proxy candidates for their husbands. The numbers may not tell the whole story.

Kavita Krishnan, member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), editor of its monthly publication Liberation, and secretary of the All India Progressive Women Association, says individual efforts are an important part of the move towards a more inclusive government. “It’s not just a fight for better governance, the boundaries of what we do are the state and global economic order," says the Delhi-based women’s rights activist.

Krishnan was an outspoken critic of the Delhi government’s response to the December gang rape of a student on a public bus, and received rape threats herself on a live Web chat hosted by the Web portal Rediff as a result. She is used to the criticism that often comes with speaking out. Her interest in women’s rights campaigning sprung from her student days in Mumbai, she says, where she was an activist in the All India Students’ Association.

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Activist Kavita Krishnan in Delhi. Photo: Rituparna Banerjee/Mint

Get involved:Kavita Krishnan tweets at @kavita_krishnan.

Start now and be flexible about your goals

The same attitude inspired 22-year-old Deepa Kumar from Mumbai who, this year, founded her own independent, for-profit governance organization called GrassRoute India. Kumar graduated from the Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament fellowship—an initiative of PRS Legislative Research—that pairs researchers with MPs across India for a year at a time. The organization tracks the functioning of Parliament.

Working for an MP, Kumar says, she realized that there are plenty of women researchers and managers at the lower levels within politics, if not further up the chain. On completing her year, rather than joining a think tank as many of her colleagues had done, Kumar decided she wanted to start her own initiative. GrassRoute aims to be a bridge between constituents and their politicians, by organizing town hall meetings, Google Hangouts and Twitter discussions that connect citizens with their representatives. It is in the process of developing its own app.

Kumar and her five-member team, who work from Mumbai without an office, contact politicians and try to enhance their relationships with their electorates and vice-versa. “Right now it’s a big divide," she says, “I saw the general apathy that existed—people not knowing who their MPs are. But I knew given that this is election year, it would be easier to get politicians to agree to speak to people across social platforms." GrassRoute has hosted four events since July, and will host 10 more in the next three months, including a Twitter chat with Milind Deora, minister of state for shipping, communications and information technology.

Kumar says she intends to enter mainstream policy making later, “I would be more than happy to float my own political party tomorrow," she says. “Women question the safety of being involved in politics, given the places you have to travel and the people you will have to meet. A lot of friends I speak to say, ‘Oh I would do anything to stay away from it’." But that’s changing, she says. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy but it’s definitely going to be easier."

Get involved:To participate in a debate or to contact your local MP, send a direct message (DM) to @_GrassRoute.

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A volunteer participant in Blank Noise’s ‘Action Hero’ Game. Photo courtesy: Blank Noise

It doesn’t matter if you didn’t set out to be a politician, or study politics. Women from all kinds of fields are starting to have an impact on issues of governance. Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise, an online social initiative, began her public life in an art class at her Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, in Bangalore 10 years ago. “Everyone was experiencing street harassment and dismissing it as teasing, I wanted to understand how art can be confrontational and inspired by feminist tracts. I got all the girl students in college in one room, and found there were only negative connotations associated with the idea of ‘public space’."

Of the 60 students, nine joined Patheja in her effort to reclaim public spaces for women as places to simply hang out, without having to explain their presence. Ten years later, alongside a blog space and a Twitter feed, Blank Noise has started a series of participatory “Action Hero" games that work like an individual or group flash mob. Participants sign up to roam about on their own in the city, taking regular instructions from Blank Noise via text message (with rules like “Don’t cross your arms", “Look people in the eye", and “Strike up a conversation with a stranger") and learning to feel comfortable on the streets.

Blank Noise is entirely volunteer-based, the events take place in cities all over the country and can vary from three participants to 100 on the street, but online it can involve thousands, according to Patheja. “We say, be unapologetic, relax and pledge to occupy space."

Get involved:If you want to participate in the Blank Noise event as an ‘Action Hero’, register at Blog.blanknoise.org.

Virtual space is public too

Increasingly, women are making their voices heard through social media, whether it be on blogs like Nisha Susan’s The Ladies Finger or through Twitter, which likes to call itself the Internet’s equivalent of the classical Roman Forum. Internationally, online crowd-sourced forums like EverydaySexism are encouraging women to participate in creating a global narrative about experiences of sexual harassment. Anyone can write in with their own take on the issue.

When writer and journalist Nilanjana Roy started the crowd-sourced Twitter feed, @Genderlogindia, in January, she thought it would be a platform for discussions about the issue of the day: violence against women and rape.

But it ended up being much more. As it grew, Roy let go of the reins and engaged different curators on a weekly basis who could talk about any issue they wanted. “The Twitter feed came up by accident," Roy says. “Everybody was concerned not just about rape and sexual violence but a lot of other issues. I was genuinely curious about what other men and women thought about gender in India." Since its foundation, the feed has amassed nearly 3,000 followers and has had around 45 guest curators, Roy says.

As a result of its many curatorial voices, Genderlog tends to be serious, irreverent, jocular and reflective by turn. “Twitter is suited to this kind of thing, it’s like community radio," says Roy. “There are all of these studies about ‘the Indian woman,’ or ‘the UK woman’ or ‘the American’—there is no such thing! There is a range of issues that reflect us, but it’s not all serious. Sometimes people surprise me with what they want to focus on, discussions on popular culture frequently end up in places that we didn’t expect." Out of the 45-odd curators, Roy estimates that 10-15 have been men. “A lot of people came off the feed, suggested themselves," she says.

Get involved: If you’d like to be a guest curator of @Genderlogindia, send a DM to the account. Also check out: Everydaysexism.com and Theladiesfinger.com.

Identify the gaps and start to mend them

Some of the most successful political actions start from a microcosm. Throughout rural India the voices of women’s collectives fighting for local causes have found echoes at national and international levels, says Krishnan. Women members of Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, an organization fighting the multinational steel company Posco in Jagatsinghpur, Odisha, or the anti-nuclear campaigners at Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, may have started out with local causes, but the results of their activism have a wider effect.

“The forces they are taking on are truly global," Krishnan says. “At some level now they will be engaging with policy on nuclear power. If the old structure is still in place, and even if these (female panchayat leaders) are still pawns or proxies, their appearance has created new anxieties for men. How do they hold on to their own interests?"

Whether you begin with a hyper-local cause like harassment on the Delhi Metro—as did Please Mend the Gap, a group of activists who, in 2011, petitioned Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit for a safer city Metro—or take on the state villager by villager—as Sampat Pal Devi’s Gulabi Gang, a group of village women fighting for social justice, has done in Uttar Pradesh, the problems that seem closest to home are often the most scalable.

Amba Salelkar works for the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy started by lawyer Rahul Cherian, as a social network platform for people with disabilities. The group looks at upcoming legislation from the perspective of the disabled and presses for inclusive measures.

Salelkar was working as a litigator in Mumbai in criminal law and domestic violence cases but had an interest in mental health issues. She joined Cherian, who died in February, to focus on mental health policy work and moved to Chennai last year.

The group works with individuals and groups and anyone can write in to suggest areas of interest or volunteer, Salelkar says. “In today’s age of social networking, it’s pretty easy if people want to be part of making a difference in governance," she says. “A lot of the time, government bodies will call us to congratulate us, often it hasn’t even occurred to them that it is an issue."

Get involved: Mail to contact@inclusiveplanet.co.in or tweet at Amba @MumbaiCentral.

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