Sunil Desai is the President and founder of The Bindi Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering love and respect for all women and girls in India. Prior to starting The Bindi Project, Sunil served on active duty for more than 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel and holding a variety of command, operations, planning, and executive staff positions both in garrison and combat.
Sunil was born and raised in New York City by his American mother and Indian father and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He has served as an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Next Generation Fellow with the American Assembly at Columbia University, and as a delegate to Asia Society’s inaugural Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit.
Website : www.bindiproject.org
What compelled you to start this organization?
Although I was born and raised in the US, I have been keenly aware of my rare Indian heritage since I was very young as there were not nearly as many people of Indian origin living in the US as there are today. However, in visits to family in India while growing up, I never saw or heard about the widespread preference for sons (or any other forms of violence and discrimination that so many women and girls in India face) and the terrible things some people were doing because of their beliefs. When I first found out that many Indians were even killing their own daughters, so many that it was effecting the national ratio of girls to boys, I was appalled and vowed to do something about it. At the time my own daughter, who is only one quarter Indian, was very young but alreadytruly fond of her Indian heritage—her bed room is decorated in an Indian theme by her choice. I felt I owed it to her to try to do something so that when she was older and learned about the situation, she could be proud that at least I was trying to make a difference.
What does your organization do?
The Bindi Project’s mission is to foster love and respect for all women and girls in India primarily by working with men and boys. I believe that most men and boys do love and respect women and girls. But within a population of 1.2 billion people, the small percentage who do not adds up to a large number. I also believe that most of those men and boys who do not love and respect women and girls (and especially those who do not want to have daughters) are committing their crimes out of nothing more than ignorance. Thus, The Bindi Project uses the power of positive example to change how these men and boys think and feel. We have a variety of activities including identifying good men who love and respect their daughters and promoting their stories as positive examples within their own communities and facilitating younger men and boys in taking an active role in preventing violence and discrimination within their communities.
When did you become aware of female infanticide and sex-selection in India?
Despite my visits to India while growing up and as a young adult as well as participation in Indian weddings and visiting Indian friends and family in the US, I did not find out about this problem until I was much older and myself the father of a daughter. I actually read about it in a news article on ‘India’s Missing Girls’ and was in disbelief. I then did more research including talking with family and soon realized the gravity of the situation.
Do you think Indian girls are still endangered? And if yes, why?
Yes. The statistics are quite clear that the situation is steadily getting worse. In 1961 the ratio of girls to boys in India was 961:1000. By 2011, it had fallen to 914:1000. Although this is not yet catastrophic, it is of grave concern and reflects horribly on India. Of course the loss of each life is a moral tragedy, but the sheer scope of the problem is staggering. Other measures of violence and discrimination are similarly getting worse. This despite a huge effort to empower women and girls through education and job opportunities and to protect them through laws and law enforcement.
How do we change the attitude of parents who consider their daughters a burden?
I believe in the power of positive example. It is in human nature to get defensive and fight back when attacked. So telling people they are wrong or bad for what they are doing is not usually effective. However, people naturally want what others have if they see it making them happy or is otherwise in their self-interest. This includes loving and respectful relationships. Therefore changing attitudes can be most effective through positive examples that speak to people’s hearts and minds. Laws cannot accomplish this. For those who are intent on anything that happens to be against the law, the law is simply an obstacle and such people will find a way around the law or simply ignore it if they think they will not be caught. But if people, especially men and boys, see others they know or admire who are happy and proud parents of daughters and do not view their daughters as burdens, they will realize they can have such relationships too.
What can we do to make India a safer place for girls?
Although it is necessary to improve public security infrastructure (public lighting, police patrols, public toilets, health care, and so on), it is more important to engage men directly. Living in a world where one’s safety is dependent upon such structures is unsustainable and unconscionable. We need to engage good men and boys to speak out in their own communities. Though they are indisputably a majority, it is not enough for them to simply go about their lives. By proactively setting the right example and talking about love and respect for women and girls with other men and boys, I believe we can change the mindsets of those who perpetrate or condone violence and discrimination against women and girls.
How can we change the way men perceive women in India?
All human beings naturally do what they believe to be in their self-interest. If men and boys believe that discrimination and violence against women and girls is in their interest, then they will act accordingly. However, if they see that treating women and girls with love and respect is in their self-interests (and, by extension, that violence and discrimination are not in their self-interest), I believe most such men and boys will change how they perceive women and girls.
What are three things you love about India?
The diversity of colors you see everywhere, Indian food and tea, and the pervasive entrepreneurial spirit of ingenuity, determination, and happiness in the face of adversity.
Your favorite quote
Those who would deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God cannot long retain it. – Abraham Lincoln
She is the founder of the series “Kionki Meri Bharoon Hattia Nahi Hoyi” (Because I Was Born), a weekly column in India’s prominent newspaper, Jagbani, aimed at the empowerment of women with contributions from women from all around the globe. She is also the founder and president of Amar Karma Organ Donation Society, Canada’s first South Asian organization that focuses on the need for organ donation in the South Asian community. The mission began with one pioneer member—herself—and now has spread throughout the community binging over 6o more volunteers aboard the team! Her first book of poetry is in the works.
Tell us about your childhood in India? What did you dream of being when you grew up?
As a child I was an explorer, very energetic, independent, fearless, opinionated, and somewhat of a mischievous child with my eagerness to understand something. There were some standard answers that were given to us as children by our parents, just for sake of answering, but I was the kind to not accept just any response unless it satisfied my curiosity level.
I was always fascinated by a leading role, even when I played with my friends as a child. At times, I wanted to be a police officer, a book-store owner, a social worker, etc. There was even a time when I thought I wanted to be in circus for some adventurous acts. I have always been fascinated about making changes, wherever I have been, and have always been one to question what I thought was not what it ought to be.
Did you face any discrimination at any stage in your life so far? And if you did, how did you overcome it?
In my immediate family, I have never faced discrimination. I was rather a spoiled brat, and usually got my way. I was given every available opportunity that was given to male children in and around our house. Yet, I have always, to this day, experienced discrimination of the kind where my set of duties or behaviours might have formed from a preconceived notion of male vs. female, in any given situation such as weddings, social gatherings or at a community level. There have been times when I have had to stand up for myself when being placed on the ‘girl side’ at weddings, which is generally assumed to be the lesser side; the girls are often seen with their eyes lowered in front of so called ‘boy side.’
I overcome such things by insightfully defining my expected behaviour as a person, and by applying my keen communicational skills. Most of the time it works for me and that is how I familiarize myself with that particular setting. I have always stood up for myself and my parents whenever I have felt that there is even a hint of discrimination based on the fact that I am a female. No way!
Tell us how you got to where you are today?
I am a believer. I believe in myself, my surroundings and the universe, and our connection. This connection is what keeps me empowered, to just continue doing what I believe in, and results are just part of the continuation. My strong belief in myself comes, for the most part, from my father’s journey, his determination and moral values that he instilled in us, and my mother’s continuous support for our creative learning. I am fortunate to have grown up in a healthy home environment.
What advice would you have for other Indian girls and women?
We should stand up for nothing other than our own individuality first. Belong to yourself before belonging to anything or anyone. Whenever you feel your individuality is at stake, under the influence of any relationship, social value, or preconceived notion, choose yourself first–everything else is irrelevant. Society is not to decide your parameters of success or beauty. You do not have to be an astronomer, doctor, engineer, or Miss Universe, etc. to be labelled as successful. You are a society within yourself. Get the recognition by you, for you, and of you.
I think we, the South Asian community, are still very far from treating female members of our society as persons. Our women still live as daughters, wives, mothers, and sisters until the day they die; they are not seen as complete individuals most of the time.
Do you think Indian girls are endangered? And if yes, why?
No, I don’t think Indian girls are endangered. Anyone who is weaker has the tendency to get tortured by those of the dominant side in a given situation. The weaker can be anyone, regardless of gender, species, or age. The powerful generally target the vulnerable, and in that sense the vulnerable are, endangered. Being a female, I do not accept being vulnerable, and our first battle is to empower the vulnerable.
What can we do to make India a safer place for girls?
1. Home: It has to begin in the home. Parents must take responsibility to assure that each of their children are aware of themselves as being an individual, and to stand up if ever jeopardized over self. Children, regardless of gender, should be taught respect. Just as our daughters are trained to remain daughters for the rest of their lives, we have failed to infuse our sons to become individuals; therefore, some of them have become evening teasers or, even worse, rapists.
2. There should be a mandatory course at educational institutions which would address social behaviours where students gather at one platform to emerge as responsible citizens.
In my opinion, the way to start is at home and in the schools from a very early age.
Is there anything personally you are doing to promote the value of girls and end gender discrimination and violence?
I have been running a series of articles called “Kionki Meri Bharoon Hattia Nahi Hoyi” in India’s leading newspaper, Jagbani, for over a year now. The articles have reached out to the rural corners of the country and female writers from all over the world have contributed to this campaign. This is a multi-dimensional campaign which includes seminars, walks in coordination with “Global Walk for India’s Missing Girls,” and through YouTube videos.
For English readers, I am running a series called “Because I Was Born” which, translated, means ‘Kionki Meri Bharoon Hattia Nahi Hoyi.’ This series encapsulates inspirational stories of woman who dared to look at the eyes of life, and emerged as empowered women after triumphing over violence and discrimination.
I often attend social gatherings and events which include seminars addressing the empowerment of women.
What are three things you love about India?
To me, I am India, and wherever I go, I carry a little bit of India with me just because India has this strong essence of authenticity in its soil, and it is bound to get absorbed in oneself, never to become separated again.
Although it is difficult to pick 3 things out of an enormous India that lives within me, I would say
1. Spirituality: I love India’s spirituality! Even without having to walk into a spiritual gathering or setting, it can be a hypnotic experience by sitting or standing under a large banyan tree. It’s something deep!
2. Diversity: India is diverse with every step of the foot. Diverse roads, landscapes, weather, languages, architecture, foods and what not! You don’t even have to travel one single mile to experience her million aspects of diversity.
3. Connectedness: I love how people have a sense of belonging to each other. Everyone is like a family. Everyone who’s your mother’s age is your mother, and so on. It is like a beautiful diverse web which is so rich within itself. It still projects such strong connections in spite of the big leaps and changes in the socio-economic-political system which India is going through. It’s amazing!
Your favorite quote
1. “Get the recognition by you, for you, and of you, and the universe will echo in your applaud.” Loveen Kaur Gill
2. “Basically I like moving the mountains,
doing the impossible,
brightening the room,
making the difference,
bringing the change,
……is my favourite hobby!!” Loveen Kaur Gill
Thank you to Judi Kloper for editing this interview.