03/22/2013 05:29 EDT | Updated 05/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Q&A With a Global Affairs Guru Changing Gender Discrimination

As Canada is reducing its visibility in the world -- the role that Canadians are playing in the world has not diminished one bit. Amrita Kumar-Ratta is one Canadian who has traveled in places such as India and Kenya to contribute to making the world a better place. The young activist hopes to pursue a passion that moves her closer to her main interest -- "negotiating certain tensions between gender and culture in the face of changing global migration processes."

She reflects on her activism here at home and abroad and looks ahead on the role she wants to play in the world.

You are presently a student at the prestigious Munk School of Global Affairs at U of T. You completed your BA in International Development and been involved in NGO work in Kenya and India -- Tell us about that.

I am enrolled in the MGA Program at the University of Toronto, an interdisciplinary professional program that gives its students a solid grounding in the hard and soft skills required in the vast field of international affairs. It is a course-based program, though I anticipate doing an independent reading course next year when I have a bit more flexibility to explore my own career trajectory. I am looking forward to that.

In terms of my experiences in Kenya and India, I'll just touch on them briefly. I worked in Kenya for a summer while at McGill, as part of the University's Arts Internship Program. This was my first real experience applying my studies of international development to the field and it was incredible. I worked with Africa SOMA Inc., a very small NGO in the rural Rift Valley of Kenya and contributed to the opening of the very first resource centre in the large area called Elangata Wuas. That was a fantastic experience. I learned skills in cultural dialogue that I hadn't previously been exposed to.

After graduating from McGill I spent eight months traveling and working in India, which was, I should say, a rollercoaster of a journey. I worked for four months on a large village libraries project (helping to set up seven of a total of 15 libraries across a large rural district) for a women's organization in the Western Himalayas. I learned a lot there about how to single-handedly manage a large project, and about what may be next in my career path.

Your current focus or interest in activism and academia is on "negotiating certain tensions between gender and culture in the face of changing global migration processes." Please explain.

I guess more simply stated, I'm interested in exploring the complex relationship(s) between gender, diversity and social justice. The question I am always preoccupied with is: How do individuals/communities (re)negotiate gender norms within a different cultural context? More specifically, what are the root causes of Gender Based Violence (physical, emotional, psychological) and what contributes to their prevalence across borders? I have been exploring this question particularly with regards to sex-selective abortion among certain diaspora communities (most particularly South and East Asian).

Tell us about the Mosaic Institute and your involvement in it.

The Mosaic Institute is an action-oriented think tank in Toronto that works to advance peace and dialogue within Canada's diverse communities and, as such, to promote a Canadian "global citizenship." I am involved with the Institute as a Program Assistant for one of their research projects, commissioned by the Government of Canada, in hopes of understanding the perceptions and realities of transnational conflicts here in Canada. I work to help make sure that the project is well promoted and represented across the eight ethno-cultural communities that we are working with. It's an important project and I love being involved in it.

You are the co-founder of "Save the Girls" in Brampton -- Tell us about that.

Save the Girls is an initiative that was started in 2008 by my younger sister and I to try and raise awareness about and advocate against the practice of sex-selective abortion among the South Asian community in the Greater Toronto Area. As two young women from the community, we wanted to assert to others that such a practice was not a product of a static and homogenous culture -- but that such a culture, assumed to be intricately tied to son preference, is fluid and ever-changing.

Denouncing oppressive practices does not necessarily equal cultural prejudice, and this is the idea that we hoped to bring into the public forum by starting this initiative. Unfortunately, life gets busy and we have not been able to continue the initiative to the degree that we would have liked; however, our plan over the next year and a half is to revitalize and redefine it in hopes of inciting a larger national conversation. I already have a few ideas about how to make this happen.

Tell about your research project on sex-selective abortion in Canada and India.

In an effort to understand the practice more deeply, I worked last year as a researcher for the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership and co-wrote a paper on this very issue. I conducted a literature review and a number of interviews on the subject, which was very insightful.

Following this, I traveled to India where, while doing other work (as mentioned earlier), I had the opportunity to explore and understand the motivations behind such a practice, as well as to see a changing socio-cultural landscape among young girls and women both in urban and rural centers in the country. It made me wonder even more why this has become a larger issue for Indian Canadians. My work on this last year was incredible and I hope to continue this in a greater capacity in the coming years.

You have been involved in and done amazing and fulfilling activism as such a young age. Where would you want to be in five years?

Gosh I am not sure. I know that once I graduate, I'd like to see what the working world has to offer me. I feel happiest in a place where I can put my community outreach and research skills together. I am quite convinced at this point that I'd like to do a PhD in 1-2 years' time as well and who knows where that will take me! What I do know is that I am incredibly passionate about im/migrant women's issues and about diaspora issues at large. I would love to keep these things constant themes in my life.