By Susan A. Hughes

Ananya Chhaochharia MPP 2024 uses her determination and HKS experience to break down barriers for women in India.

When Ananya Chhaochharia MPP 2024 decided to apply to Harvard, she knew there might be barriers. Growing up in Kolkata, India, she was encouraged to pursue undergraduate studies, but undertaking post-graduate studies was not something the women in her family did. 

“I happen to be one of the only ones who is unmarried, career oriented, and does not have a family at the age of 28, which itself is astounding,” she notes. 

But barriers are meant to be broken. 

Chhaochharia attended the University of Calcutta in 2017 and studied political science. She signed up for a virtual class—“an HKS alum, Prateek Kanwal MPP 2018, organized the session,” she remembers—and in that two-hour stretch, she saw what she wanted to do with her life. 

The course was on campaign management and about making politicians, led by Steve Jarding, then professor of public policy at HKS. “Campaigning as an art form, the way Professor Jarding spoke about it, was a new concept altogether. And that's when I knew: this is what I want to do,” she says.

She called Kanwal. “I asked him, does this exist in India? Can I do this? Because I didn't even know campaign management had become such a big emerging field in politics,” she says. Within a month, she did her first campaign.

With the uncharacteristic support of her father and grandfather—“I really want to emphasize the need for men to be feminists,” she explains—Chhaochharia entered politics when she was 22 years old. 

“The first campaign I ran, right after the session with Professor Jarding, we lost miserably,” she says. “My candidate got a thousand votes. But I think failure sets you up for greater learning.  If I had success, I would have been very cocky and probably expected things to go the same way every time.” 

But she did eventually find success, winning the next four campaigns.

“During my last campaigns, I got to work a lot on the messaging side. I found that very empowering—communication is a strong suit of mine,” she says. “I had the opportunity to train campaigners on public messaging and work with how you adapt your messaging to the audience you're with. When people are voting, they're voting for someone who understands their fears.”

Chhaochharia (back row, second from right) with her 2023-2024 Cheng Fellows cohort.

Wanting to expand her political expertise, she applied to HKS and was accepted in 2020. But as the COVID-19 pandemic set in, Chhaochharia deferred her acceptance only to face another barrier. 

As the world came to a stand-still, she along with women across India, experienced an unimaginable—and hard to discuss—oversight; the Indian government forgot to identify sanitary napkins as an essential good in the first COVID lockdown, leaving menstruators on their own. Coupled with the cultural and religious stigmas around menstruation and women’s bodies, the lack of supplies became a severe problem that Chhaochharia experienced first-hand.

So, she created an organization to distribute sanitary products to women in India.

“I'm calling it an organization but at that time, it was just some volunteers and I,” she says. “We started reaching out to sanitary pad producers and became the connecting factor between the production that already existed and those who needed the supplies.” 

Together, they founded the Paint It Red Foundation to address “period poverty,” an umbrella term Chhaochharia uses to describe a unique form of gender inequality. In addition to getting products to women during a pandemic, the foundation wants to “create a sustainable space to educate, empower, and engage menstruators in India, especially marginalized and economically vulnerable sections, and destigmatize menstruation.”

Chhaochharia enrolled at HKS in 2022 to continue to work on her foundation. Her time in the Master in Public Policy Program and at HKS have been full of opportunities, and she has grabbed as many as she could. 

She is a Gleitsman Leadership Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership and explains, “I would not be here if it weren’t for the generous support of the fellowship.” As a Cheng Fellow through the New World Social Innovation Fellows Program, she is developing an interactive and activity-based toolkit that will enable learning at the right level and complement Paint It Red Foundation’s on-the-ground efforts. She was among the fall 2023 winners of Social Impact Fellowship Fund from the Harvard Innovation Lab and is a finalist for the Seed For Change Student Grant Competition offered by the Mittal Institute at Harvard. 

Ananya Chhaochharia standing in the HKS courtyard, smiling and wearing traditional Indian clothing.

“Campaigning as an art form, the way Professor Jarding spoke about it, was a new concept altogether. And that's when I knew: this is what I want to do.”

Ananya Chhaochharia MPP 2024

Chhaochharia was also one of the chairs for the student-led India Conference 2024

“It made me realize the power of what it means to be a student in a space like this,” she says. “I had the opportunity to bring discourse about my country to global platform like this, which had an international audience listening and tuning in to nuanced conversations. It was a humbling reminder of India's growth in the world and how I had the good fortune to fuse my identities together to create an engaged community.”

But one opportunity stands out among the others. 

“The faculty are amazing,” she says. “I began my time at HKS with Professor [Juliette] Kayyem, my Policy Design and Delivery core professor, and I am taking her course, Mitigating and Managing a Crisis, as my final class.” 

But it was a course on criminal justice reform with Professor Cornell William Brooks that offered her the opportunity to see firsthand how justice played out. She was among a select cohort of students who went to Mississippi as part of MLD-375: Creating Justice in Real Time: Vision, Strategies, and Campaigns to directly address social injustices. Students across Harvard apply to gain on-the-ground experience through the semester-long project; they are paired with external clients to develop and execute an advocacy campaign.

“If I had not gotten an opportunity to visit a place like Mississippi, I think my experience of being in the United States and at the Kennedy School would have been incomplete. That case will always live with me,” she says. “Our ideas and feelings of justice must be represented in the work we do. It is something that I carry with me now as a value.”

Chhaochharia addressing the audience in the JFK Jr. Forum in February 2024. She was a co-chair for the student-led India Conference 2024, an annual event that brings experts across sectors to develop insight on India’s current landscape.

There is yet another opportunity ahead for Chhaochharia: seeking public office in India. “I do see myself maybe in the next 10 years, if not sooner, as a legislative member,” she says. 

Currently, only 14 percent of the Indian Parliament are women, but if anyone can break that barrier, she can.

Portraits by Natalie Montaner

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