In 2006, 26-year-old Harshini Kanhekar became the first woman in 46 years to graduate from the National Fire Service College (NFSC) in Nagpur and consequently, became India’s first Woman Fire Fighter.
Harshini was inspired by Shivani Kulkarni, the first female pilot of the Indian Air Force from Vidarbha, whom she had read about when she was in the NCC.
“I wasn’t aware that there was absolutely no history of a girl studying in the institute,” she recalls. She refers to the time when an NSFC telegram informed her she cleared the entrance exam as the ‘golden moment of her life.’
Even when a gentleman from the administration told her that it was an all men’s college, and asked her to apply somewhere that had facilities for women students, Harshini remained undeterred.
She passed the Union Public Service Commission-styled entrance exam which had just 30 seats vacant, cleared the medical exam in round two and even completed the final interview with an intimidating panel.
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But this wasn’t all. She still had to prove herself to be as worthy and deserving as the men. She knew that as the first woman there, she would be setting a benchmark for all the others who would come after her.
“I would never turn up late; wouldn’t be a weakling during drills and parades,” she recounts.
The course required strenuous physical activity like dealing with heavy water hoses, suction hoses, and mock drills with dummies. Harshini used to go early and practice by herself in the storeroom so she would be on par.
In 2006, Harshini joined the Mehasana fire station in Gujarat, the second largest onshore production of the Oil and National Gas Corporation, after which in 2010 she was transferred to Mumbai drilling services. She happens to be the first woman who handles offshore drilling services, including boarding a helicopter, conducting auditing, maintaining follow up, and taking full responsibility.
She is also an experienced biker, married to a fellow biker buddy. She has traversed the world’s highest motorable road, Lee Ladakh’s Khardung La pass, and Kargil.
Harshini has been challenging traditional gender roles by dousing fires for close to two decades, and her story serves as an inspiration for millions of young Indian women who dare to dream.
It is also a reminder that we must work towards overcoming gender bias and stop discouraging women from entering particular fields or taking on particular workplace roles.
From encouraging young girls to pursue what they love, to ensuring housework is shared equally among all genders, change starts right from home.
Stereotypes exist everywhere — they are passed down over generations. Instead of embracing and celebrating what makes us unique, we stand divided because of them!
We’ve unconsciously learned to stereotype, now let’s consciously #EndTheStereotype.