Meenal founded Shiva Foundation with her husband in 2012. She is a mother of two young boys and Councillor in Hertsmere. She believes that education is a necessary tool to solve so many challenges the world faces today. With a firm dedication to investing in individuals and communities, Meenal is involved with a range of service based activities and social enterprises. She co-founded a youth leadership charity, Connect India in 2008, and is on the board of social enterprise launchpad, Unltd. Meenal completed her undergraduate degree at SOAS, followed by an MPhil at Cambridge.
Can you tell us about your background working in the NGO and social impact sector?
In 2004, I co-founded Connect India. The charity was established around the idea of empowering young Indians through youth leadership and service oriented programmes. I was invested in this due to its strong emphasis on service as a means to empower the individual. Connect India also believed that an understanding of one’s identity is a key ingredient to one’s success. Through Connect India and our family foundation, GMSP, I have also worked on various rural and urban projects in India and Africa with a focus on education and empowerment.
Why did you decide to work on anti-trafficking issues? Why do you think they’re important?
This happened overnight. in early 2012, my husband and I heard stories about the widespread issues related to child trafficking. As a mother of two, I lost sleep over this for a while and I felt this urgent need to act. I thought it was my responsibility to do something.
As part of the Shiva Hotel’s CSR we wanted to focus on issues related to children and human trafficking. When we started, we were really jumping into the deep end without knowing too much about it, but we knew we wanted to do something. In 2014 Shiva Foundation really took off in a more strategic way. We thought that despite the limited funds available to us, we should invest our resources to educate ourselves and identify gaps in the sector in order to intervene intelligently.
How do you manage the emotional pressure of this work with such an intense human element involved?
Although I am not directly involved with on the ground activities on a daily basis, I am extremely passionate about the work I do around this issue. Human trafficking is such a multifaceted problem that working on the issue can sometimes leave me feeling defeated. I think it can be easy to give in to these emotions – and I can’t deny feeling overwhelmed at times – but I try to channel my anger into something positive that will actually help tackle the problem.I see personal growth as a prerequisite. I think it’s important to maintain a balance between impacting and being impacted.
Helplessness is not a very nice feeling and that is why one of Shiva Foundation’s pillars is to raise awareness around trafficking and slavery and to make sure that those who want to be involved, can be. Everybody across the board has a part to play, whether it’s health-workers, law enforcement, or business owners.
Knowing that there is an estimated 38.5 million people in slavery in the world should make each and everyone wake up to these facts and become involved in countering it. These figures are completely unacceptable and it is our responsibility as individuals to push ourselves and our boundaries to make sure that this issue is eradicated within our lifetimes. Fundamentally, these are the driving forces and my motivations.
Local Councillor Role
Why did you decide to run for local Councillor?
I have done quite a lot of work abroad, especially in India, and whilst I feel really passionate about the issues I have worked on, I felt a need to start working locally and contribute to the issues on my doorstep. This was one of the reasons that encouraged me to become a Councillor. The other driver was that, as a mother, I want my children to understand the impact they can have as individuals and the importance of public service.
What change do you hope to facilitate in this role? Do you think it’s possible to make change at such a local level or does it have to come from government?
A huge part of wanting to be a local councillor was to actively serve my community. My role also allows me to contribute to various committees that I’m a part of such as the licensing or policy review committee where I can contribute towards positive change in the community.
I also want to raise awareness about modern slavery and human trafficking in the borough. Empowering vulnerable communities is also something I am very passionate about. I believe making changes at the local level can have huge ripple effects. If local actions are effectively implemented this might work to influence policy at a national level. I don’t suggest that this is easy as the process can be extremely lengthy, but I do think that determination plays an important role in making this happen.
From working in the non-profit space for over eight years, what do you think are important issues that need to be raised at the local level?
In my experience I believe that good education and service based activities can lead to individual transformations. The individual is crucial when considering social change, so I think focusing on strengthening the individual will lead to stronger and more empowered communities. All human beings should be treated equally, and if I can take that into my councillor role I would be very happy.
I also believe in fostering positive relationships with people who I serve and work with. I hope that as a councillor I will have the opportunity to increase the level of collaboration within the sector to influence a more integrated response.
How do you think the issue of trafficking can be handled at the local level?
Firstly, I think it’s important to have a level of awareness about the issue at the local level. It can be easy to deflect the problem onto other stakeholders, but even our hotels are not completely informed about the signs or consequences of trafficking, so it is all a matter of education and awareness.
Secondly, I think that in order to build this awareness it needs to be followed through with training. Investing in people working on the issue will lead to more collaboration and a higher level of understanding around the issue. Promoting this within local councils, law enforcement, businesses, etc. will influence discussions between staff which is essential if we are to create a more hostile environment for traffickers.
Finally, to effectively counter the issue there should be a strong emphasis on establishing relevant systems to ensure that victims can seek help in a safe environment.
These points are crucial if we are to tackle the issue of trafficking at the local level and hopefully the Modern Slavery Act which was passed in March will encourage collaboration and engagement between relevant authorities and businesses.
Anti Slavery Day is on 18th October this year, if you could engage local government freely on the issue, what would you do to commemorate this day?
Ideally, I would want to hold a training day for all businesses and frontline officers in Hertsmere so that they can be informed of the extent of trafficking and slavery in the UK. Engaging individuals is key to addressing the problem, and Shiva Foundation stands strongly behind this initiative.
You care about various social issues. If you had to pick one, which do you feel is the most important concern at the moment in the world?
Through the work I have done both locally and abroad, I have learnt that empowerment is really the backbone of stronger individuals and communities. One of the ways to continue empowering people is through education. Education has the power to change the landscape by substantially reducing poverty and the threat of victimisation and thus increasing the levels of social awareness. From an economic, social and environmental standpoint, education is the most important issue in the world right now.