Inspiring Inclusion, Empowerment, and Equity: JKYog’s IWD 2024

International Women's Day (IWD) is more than just a day to celebrate the occasion and remember the key message. IWD is a global movement for equity and empowerment of women. The 2024 theme Inspiring Inclusion accentuates the importance of diversity, equity, and empowerment of women in all aspects of society. It calls for a plan of action to challenge stereotypes, break the ice ceiling, and create an environment where all women are valued and respected for who they are and all the different ways in which they contribute to society.  

As we commemorate the significance of this day, let us delve into the insights gathered from JKYog's inspiring IWD celebration on March 23, 2024. Held virtually, the event attracted thousands of participants from all over the globe to celebrate the accomplishments of the awardees. 

  • Smt. Rathna Reddy – Humanitarian Ambassador Award 
  • Dr. Madhavi Reddy – Changing Lives Award  
  • Dr. Sejal Mehta – Woman of Distinction Award 
  • Ms. Debjani Biswas – Positive Impact Award 
  • Ms. Avani Modi Sarkar – Women in Business Award 
  • Ms. Nawaz Merchant - Arts & Culture Award for Creative Writing 
  • Ms. Sujata Gautam – Environmentalist Award (Rising Star) 

From enlightening messages and thought-provoking life experiences of exemplary trailblazing awardees to a highly uplifting keynote address by JKYog Founder, Swami Mukundananda, each event reflected the essence of this year's IWD theme to the fullest.

In keeping with the theme of Inspiring Inclusion, many JKYog members worldwide actively participated by sharing their video messages on what inclusion meant to them.

Some significant themes emerged from the day’s events that make us pause, humbly reflect on our own lives, and garner ourselves into action for the betterment of the self and the community. 

What Inspiring Inclusion Means 

There is more to Inspiring Inclusion than a literal definition or the dictionary meaning. Explaining JKYog’s deepest values that typify inclusiveness, Swamiji beautifully described the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which is about understanding the sacredness of all creation. If we believe that all living beings are connected to the One Supreme Source who manifests infinite universes, then we will develop a healthy sense of respect for all life rather than negativity or discrimination toward any. This belief is the primary purpose that JKYog celebrates IWD each year. 

Quoting Swamiji’s belief of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, Dr. Sejal Mehta stated that while everyone is different externally, under the skin, they are the same. She added that this belief allows people to forgive, forget, and remain united despite inherent diversity.

For Dr. Madhavi Reddy, inspiring inclusion is about helping others break the mold in which society has put them by mentoring, listening, and supporting them in whatever way they need. For Ms. Avani Modi Sarkar, it was about recognizing and honoring the uniqueness of those different from oneself.

For Ms. Nawaz Merchant, inspiring inclusion was captured in how she helps youth transform their lives. Outside of her writing projects, she volunteers in a non-profit organization that supports and mentors homeless youth (girls and boys) to enable them to stay in school instead of dropping out. The non-profit organization does this by providing school supplies, clean clothes, and whatever is needed for students to feel equal to other youth without being discriminated against. Ms. Nawaz Merchant is also involved in activities to empower youth to increase their resilience from decades of trauma and help them maintain their dignity. Such is the power of inclusion! 

For Ms. Sujata Gautam, inspiring inclusion occurs in the form of outreach and educational programs for people of all ages, genders, and ethnic groups regarding environmental protection and increased awareness of the health hazards of trashing non-biodegradable products.

Culminating the concept of Inspiring Inclusion, Swamiji brilliantly described it as a mindset or a way of thinking beyond oneself to a broader perspective of existence. Inclusion is characterized by (1) acceptance of others no matter how different, (2) respect for the unique skills and talents that contribute in meaningful ways, and (3) empowerment with the understanding that the playing field is not equal. It is not enough to ensure legal rights but to support those who need it.

Empower Women to Empower Humanity 

We can equalize the playing field by empowering all women to move and shake the world. For example, Smt. Rathna Reddy said that she studied only up to grade 5, was married at the age of 18 years, and shortly thereafter, she and her husband moved to Rourkela, Odisha, where people spoke languages that she did not know. Without feeling discouraged, she used language translation books from Telugu and learned to speak Hindi, Odia, Bengali, and English. 

"Rathana Reddy"

Recognizing the difficulty of learning new languages, Smt. Rathna Reddy aspired to improve the literacy rates in her hometown of Chittoor. Upon inquiring, she found that only 20% of the population was educated. She resolved to improve educational services for which plenty of resources would be required. She started using her skills in tailoring which turned into a very successful business. She used the income generated from tailoring clothes to start SVCR Government Degree College in 1981. She spent INR 18 crores and instituted 22 buildings. The current literacy rate is at 85%.

As if this was not enough, Smt. Rathna Reddy also learned Ayurveda from her granduncle who used to treat paralysis with Ayurvedic medicine in their village. She later launched an Ayurveda Factory to help poor people, charging no fees and giving medicines at very affordable rates. Whether people have kidney stones, high blood pressure, diabetes, or suffer a heart attack, they provide them with high-quality medicines to enable recovery. This is an amazing illustration of how empowered women can impact humanity in such a profound manner.  

Drs. Madhavi Reddy and Sejal Mehta also described how they empower women through mentorship and networking opportunities to nurture the next generation of female leaders. 

In his Keynote address, Swamiji shared the profound story of another JKYog awardee from 2021, Sindhutai Sakpal, who felt intrinsically empowered to empower humanity. Despite very dismal experiences from childhood to early adulthood, Sindhutai Sakpal, who almost committed suicide, was driven to seek happiness by taking care of and serving others who were in an even more pitiable state than her. She soon came to be known as the mother of the orphans. She educated these children and many achieved unimaginable success in their lives. 

Break Barriers and Build Bridges to Inspire Inclusion 

Breaking the traditional barriers and building bridges to inspire inclusion involves challenging gender stereotypes in one’s profession and breaking the glass ceiling. 

Challenging Gender Stereotypes 

Ms. Debjani Biswas described a remarkably interesting story to typify gender stereotyping and how she broke the barriers to success. She found herself to be the only girl in a classroom with 39 boys when she joined IIT Madras. Until that time, she had never experienced being the odd one in any group. She then realized that there existed stereotypical gender-based beliefs regarding the choice of a career, specifically in engineering and STEM fields in general. An important takeaway is that in most cases, [Indian] parents rather than children choose a career path based on their beliefs regarding what may be more suited for specific genders. Parents may want to reflect on the message they give especially to young girls regarding career choices to create bridges, not barriers. 

Another thought-provoking story shared by Dr. Madhavi Reddy was how one of her professors in medical school in India told her that she did not have the personality to be a surgeon. She never expected to hear something similar from a professor at a US university. Unfortunately, history repeated itself. Regardless, Dr. Reddy’s hard work, perseverance, and more well-intentioned mentors made it possible for her to break the gender-stereotypic barrier. She feels that everyone should use this formula to help others forge ahead. 

Dr. Sejal Mehta also broke the barrier of choosing a field of study and profession that has typically been stigmatized, i.e., Psychiatry. Being very fascinated with both observable and unobservable behavior of people (e.g., thoughts and feelings), she has practiced psychiatry for 25 years, with not a single dull day in her life! She does not just prescribe medications but shares a “piece of herself” with her patients. For her, it is both a professional and a spiritual journey. 

"IWD Panel"


Cracking the Glass Ceiling

When asked about the advice they would like to give young women who are trying to break the glass ceiling, both Dr. Sejal Mehta and Ms. Debjani Biswas had vastly different perspectives, reflecting diversity in views among the panelists. 

Dr. Sejal Mehta felt that the glass ceiling was already cracked by role models in Indian history (e.g., Pandita Gargi, Ahilyabai Holkar, etc.), and contemporary women (e.g., Indra Nooyi, Nirmala Sitaraman, etc.). Her perspective was that what kept women from advancing in their careers was their own perceived limitations. She advised women to break the self-created boundaries and enjoy the journey as they rise upward in their careers. 

Providing very practical pieces of advice, Ms. Debjani Biswas said that it would help to break the glass ceiling if women encouraged each other to not be reticent about describing their achievements (e.g., say IIT instead of engineering school). She also reiterated Swamiji’s comment about the incredibly low percentage of women CEOs in corporations and how that reflected that the glass ceiling still existed. Ms. Debjani Biswas beautifully articulated that to inspire inclusion, it was critical to remove exclusion due to systems of inequity. Women could empower themselves by asking for mentorship at the start of their careers and dreaming big! 

Together We Rise: Championing Gender Equity and Inspiring Inclusion

Most people would agree that it takes both men and women to inspire inclusion across the board. However, there is a need to highlight the role of men as allies in the fight for gender equality and in promoting gender-sensitive attitudes and behaviors. When asked about the message to give to emphasize this point, Swamiji stated that removing exclusion necessitated men to adopt a more humane approach. 


Swamiji narrated a story from the early career of Indra Nooyi, Former CEO of PepsiCo. When she needed to take care of her father who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her senior boss, Carl Stern, gave her six months of paid leave. Indra Nooyi later asked him for the reason behind his decision, he said that it was the humane thing to do. She credited his gesture as the most beneficial thing that saved her career.

Using this example, Swamiji discussed the importance of empathy and support on the part of men to women when they needed it the most. He also explained that women needed to genuinely believe in their capabilities. While the legal rights of women are instituted in most democracies, they could claim inclusiveness through the power of their beliefs. 

Banking on the power of belief in her capabilities, Dr. Madhavi Reddy described the importance of having mentors in one’s career. She gave due credit to one of her mentors, Dr. Juliet Garcia, the first Hispanic woman at an American university, who inspired her to follow her passion. Dr. Reddy subsequently founded “Power Talks,” a professional women’s group that included women from a variety of professions and ethnic backgrounds to mentor girls in public schools in Brownsville, TX. Considering the city’s geographical location and demographics, mentorship is aimed at providing role models for girls. Dr. Reddy’s group of women delivers inspirational talks at the schools regarding their humble beginnings and meets with small groups of girls to enable them to pursue a career of their choice by creating internship opportunities and supporting them in general. 

A critical aspect of gender equity, as Ms. Debjani Biswas mentioned, is the gender-normed language we tend to use. For example, reference words like fellow, fireman, policeman, nurse, etc. seem gender biased as is the term non-traditional when it refers to a career. Another aspect is for parents to inspire the love for STEM fields, especially among girls by using practical examples that raise their interest. 

Championing gender equity is also Ms. Avani Modi Sarkar’s passion, which she fulfills through books and toys written and designed specifically on powerful women role models, both historical and contemporary, as well as different forms of Shakti. 

In talking about gender inequity experienced in her work, Dr. Sejal Mehta mentioned how women were abused from childhood to adulthood but unable to seek help. Additionally, women tend to not demand a pay raise based on their contributions, feeling the need to prove themselves. The takeaway is that when girls and boys are young, mothers should communicate the message about the importance of gender equity and respect for women and believe in their own potential. 

Beyond Boundaries: Embracing Women's Potential 

All the awardees demonstrated how they use their internal and external resources to go beyond the boundaries to embrace their and others’ potential. 

Dr. Madhavi Reddy conducts surgical eye missions in underdeveloped countries to draw satisfaction from watching a blind patient regain vision. She wants to make this service available to all patients, not just those who can pay for it. She is thrilled when she puts together a surgical team in a location that does not even have a hospital. Additionally, she trains young ophthalmologists in these underdeveloped countries to deliver such services. 

Smt. Rathana Reddy constructed 40 schools in small villages to educate children, 400 temples to enable people to purify their hearts, and sponsored education for 2000 students in Chittoor district who scored higher than 95%. All these philanthropic activities have empowered people in her community. 

Ms. Avani Modi Sarkar started a toy company with her brother to build a cultural bridge for children. Most Indian parents want to instill Indian cultural values and education, and toys, games, and other children’s products are a great way to teach through play. 

Ms. Sujata Gautam conducted tours of the landfills to educate people about the risk of environmental degradation and is involved in projects to partner with businesses to encourage them to reuse and recycle products like mattresses to avoid having them end up in landfills. She participated in creating a Trash Lab – a museum on wheels to educate people on everything related to trash – what should not be trashed, proper use of things not needed, and ways to minimize trash in individual homes. Using a variety of exhibits and interactive games, she engages people and helps them understand the importance of environmental protection.



Ms. Nawaz Merchant addresses issues of race, gender, and morality in her books. The lead characters in her mystery books are an immigrant couple of mixed race who travel to different places, each with its unique history. Through her books, she explores issues that are beyond mystery plots and common conversations in literary and social circles. 

Final Concluding Message on Inspiring Inclusion 


Key Questions for the Global Community

Each year’s IWD celebration offers the global community a chance to reflect on critical questions that remain to be addressed. 

  • How can we ensure equal access to education and employment opportunities for women worldwide, especially in underrepresented segments of society?
  • What steps can be taken to address the gender pay gap and promote workplace equality?
  • How can technology be leveraged to empower women and bridge digital divides?
  • What strategies are needed to combat gender-based violence and ensure the safety and security of women and girls?

As we reflect on the insights gathered from JKYog's IWD celebration and contemplate the key messages and questions raised, let's reaffirm our commitment to advancing gender equity and women's empowerment. International Women's Day serves as a reminder of the progress we have made and also the challenges that lie ahead. By working together, we can create a future where every girl and woman has the opportunity to thrive and fulfill her potential.

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