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State Department scholar lectures on activism, breaking stigma

On Monday night, the Saint Mary’s College director of the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership, Emily Rose McManus, hosted Aanya Wig and her talk, “How To Break Stigma.”

Wig is a young alumna of the United States State Department program, Study of United States Institute for student leaders (SUSIs). Wig completed the SUSIs scholar program at Saint Mary’s College in 2021.

Wig is the founder of Girl Up Rise, a youth-led collective working toward a future where women have menstrual, financial and legal literacy and aid. In addition, Wig is a co-founder of COVID Fighters India and works for UNICEF’s Young People’s action team. Since beginning her humanitarian work, Wig has also given three TEDx talks.

Wig graduated from Lady Shri Ram College for Women with a degree in history and a minor in journalism. She reflected on her upbringing and the role of women.

“I grew up in a household with a single mother and a sister and for me, women were leaders at home, women were leaders in industries. They run households. They did everything right,” Wig said. “But while growing up, I realized that’s not how the world sees women. We’re often looked at as the second sex, or we’re often looked at as the alternative option.”

While in college, Wig started a social-entrepreneurship project called Aghaaz that taught underprivileged women skills such as stitching and sewing. Wig discussed the marginalization and poverty these women faced on a daily basis.

“We worked towards imparting these skills so that they could use waste cloth material and convert it into bags, into pencil boxes, into so many things,” she said. “And all the money that we would get from selling these products would go back to these women.”

While working with COVID Fighters India during the pandemic, Wig began Girl Up Rise as an online platform. She used Zoom for training sessions and workshops for women. These segments were aimed to teach women skills with the goal of empowerment. Eventually, Wig’s team grew to be more than 80 members across India.

“Let me tell you, we started when there was no pandemic and within a month of our starting up back in early 2020, the pandemic started. So a lot of the work that we did was actually online, which of course eventually moved offline, but the beginning was online,” Wig said.

Girl Up Rise now works alongside universities, colleges, think tanks and news journals around the world. The United Nations has also helped Girl Up Rise with its mission. With such a diverse network and team, Wig and Girl Up Rise have addressed the livelihoods of refugees, period poverty, menstrual health awareness, legal literacy, legal aid and financial literacy. 

To address these issues, Wig and Girl up Rise have taken action to break stigmas. One of these stigmas is toward refugees. To help refugees affected by the pandemic, Wig began a probe project with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

“We realized that this was a group of people who were extremely affected. Most of them lost their jobs if they had any, and they didn’t have access to resources,” she said. “And using our platform, using networks like Amazon, we started selling these masks so that these women could have an income.”

Wig also spoke about the lack of legal education for women in India, as well as the stigmas that conceal sexual harassment from the public eye.

“What we can do is trigger a conversation around it to make people realize that this is sexual harassment,” Wig said. “If anything happens to your dignity, I think it’s so important for us to realize that these women have a response channel, and there’s so much that we can do to support them.”

Wig went on to introduce her new phase of humanitarian work: HerHaq. Wig strives to continue the issues addressed by Girl Up Rise through HerHaq — in Hindi, “her right.”

“I want to reach out to more people,” Wig said. “I want to help and support as many women as we can. We’re finally a non-profit now, which means we’re so much more than just a chapter in college. We are so much more and we’re going to do so much more together, and we realize that it’s so important to have male allyship to break stigma so we opened our applications to all genders,” Wig said.

Wig spoke about her inspirations.

“All of these women who stay in the slum areas, who don’t have households, who stay on the streets. They’ve empowered me so much. And they’ve made me so grateful for the things that I have. And they’ve made me realize that you don’t need a lot to be strong,” she said.

You can contact Chloe Coddington at ccoddington01@saintmarys.edu.