1. What inspired you to create the organization Women of Worth?
The Indian woman has come a long way in breaking out of the clutches that hold her from realizing her potential. On the one hand, we are an India that sees women lead in all facets of society and who have taken giant leaps in helping the nation move forward. But, on the other hand, we are an India where discrimination and exploitation on the basis of gender, class, caste, and color remain commonplace.
In spite of continuous efforts by the government, non-profit organizations, and social activists, marginalization of women continues to be one of the most pressing issues in modern day India. Women are suffering serious human rights violations both at home and in the workplace that often go unreported for fear of public embarrassment and social isolation.
WOW was born in the midst of these realities by a group of like-minded women who wanted to be agents of change. WOW is not merely in the business of fighting for women’s rights but in restoring human rights being denied to women. WOWs mission is simply to help women lay hold of their true value and worth. This message is intertwined into all our programs and projects.
2. Can you tell us about the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign and how it ties in with the mission of Women of Worth? What has the response been like and what do you hope to achieve?
The Dark is Beautiful campaign is a WOW initiative that was launched in 2009. Through this campaign WOW challenges the iniquitous belief that the value and beauty of an Indian woman is determined by the fairness of her skin. This belief, shaped by societal attitudes and reinforced by media messages, is corroding the self-worth of countless girls and women.
Our interactions and surveys on the issue have revealed that women with darker complexions are:
• Seen as the second or last option in industries that set beauty norms such as: fashion, entertainment, hospitality and the service sector
• Put down and treated differently from their lighter-skinned siblings
• Suffering from detrimental effects on their self-esteem by the uncomplimentary words from their own family members and relatives
• Rejected by potential marriage partners based on the color of their skin
• Subject to negative comments made by friends and even strangers from a very impressionable age (E.g. ‘She has nice features but she is so dark’ or ‘Being dark, she will have trouble finding a good husband’)
While it would appear that skin color is an issue that affects only women, our campaign has drawn a strong response from men as well.
We have had an overwhelming response since the campaign’s launch in 2009. The campaign went viral on social media in March 2013 and has received the support of several Bollywood actors like Nandita Das, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Gul Panag, Shekar Kapur, Vishaka Singh and others.
In July of last year we launched a petition on change.org asking Emami the makers of “Fair and Handsome’ to take down their discriminatory advertisement which suggests that life can be more successful with ‘fair skin’. With over 27, 000 signatures on the petition Mr. Goenka, Director of Emami refused to take the ad down.
However, just last month, the Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory body drafted a set of guidelines to be followed in products that suggest whitening. We feel this is a huge first step in ensuring responsible advertising (www.ascionline.org) when it comes to whitening products. But we are aware that mind sets still need to change and may take a long time to see beauty being redefined in the psyche of the common person.
3. Your most recent initiative has been the “Girl Arise” campaign. Can you share with us the mission and goals of this campaign?
The UN International Women’s day theme for 2014 is “EQUALITY FOR WOMEN IS PROGRESS FOR ALL”. In keeping with this theme, Women of Worth (WOW) launched the “Girl Arise” campaign.
Women’s Safety is a huge area of need which includes dangers a woman faces in the womb through sex-selective abortions, to child abuse, eve teasing, human trafficking, bonded labor, sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape and more.
The vision of the campaign is to celebrate the value, strength and worth of a woman while challenging status quo and social taboos, to anticipate change by focusing on practical solutions to safety issues in the work place, campuses, public spaces and homes and to participate in the process of change by bringing together influencers and change makers to make a difference
4. The violence and murder of girls in India is escalating despite stricter laws. Why and what are the solutions?
Laws alone cannot change society. Attitudes are shaped by our world view. Equality begins in the mind first. It is not surprising sometimes to see how women devalue themselves and are not convinced enough to say ‘no’ to abuse or violence. Crimes against women go unreported for that very same reason.
Violence against women is very often accepted as the norm in a society that shows gender discrimination at every stage of the woman’s life. Changing a society’s world view takes time and continuous effort.
Introducing gender equality lessons to children at an early age could be one such step in trying to educate a society towards positive change.
Another overlooked area is including men in the change enforcing process. Men need to be empowered to realize that women are valuable and equal. Men need to be encouraged to join hands with women to show the positive effects of gender equality.
5. Why do you support the documentary Petals in the Dust?
Our organization is aware of the existing issues surrounding sex selective abortions and skewed sex ratios in our country. These issues actually highlight that laws by themselves are not sufficient to protect women, even unborn girls. More grassroots work is necessary to raise awareness, sensitize men, change patriarchal beliefs and attitudes, and experience a true sense of equality in our society.
6. How can people get involved in your organization/campaigns?
Our initial call is for people to BE THE CHANGE THAT THEY WANT TO SEE (Mahatma Gandhi).
We invite people to initiate discussions or organize a simple an event around Dark is Beautiful or Girl Arise. We encourage people and especially women to stand up for what they believe, speak out boldly against injustices in their spheres and to use their talents as photographers, designers, artists, writers, musicians, etc. to bring awareness on women’s issues.
It is not easy to stand up to discrimination that one faces within the four walls of one’s home or workplace. Our hope is that campaign such as ours will give people the courage to fight back for what is rightfully theirs. We are convinced that change begins at home.
We also call upon men to join our movement in changing beauty perceptions based on skin color and to raise their voice to fight for women’s safety and well-being.
Thank you to Amisha Patel for interviewing Kavita Emmanuel
My father always said to us, “You have brought luck into our lives.” In fact, someone asked my father recently about how he feels having just girls, and he responded, “I asked God for two daughters, and He has given me five daughters,” (my sister, my daughters,my sister`s daughter and me).
Never was I made to feel unwanted because I am a girl. My sister and I grew up in a totally sheltered atmosphere. We both did everything and anything that we wanted to. Never were we told that we couldn’t do something because we were girls. I studied to become a doctor.
I never knew that life for girls could be any different than the life I had. My sister and I were sheltered from the stark realities of life. All our needs were met even before we asked for them. The only thing my parents wanted from us was that we study well and complete our education before getting married. They had no other expectations of us. In our family, we all lived for each other. If one person was fasting on a particular day, the rest of the family would eat vegetarian food on that day.
2. You had a happy and loving childhood but things changed after you got married. Please share with us what happened with your dowry, the abuse and violence you faced, the harassment you faced to abort your daughters, and your in-law’s treatment of you and your daughters after they were born.
I guess the last time I was happy was on the day of my marriage. That day was an end to a carefree, sheltered and pampered life. It was the beginning of a struggle, one which would change me from an over-protected daughter to a fighter, from a pessimist to an optimist, from someone who always gave up to someone who learned to persevere through any situation.
Marriage was a turning point in my life which would expose me to the stark realities of life outside of my loving and supportive family:
• The reality that despite all our advances, women in our society continue to struggle. We struggle to be born, to live, to eat, to study, and even to live with self-respect. And the struggle is so often with those very people who are supposed to ensure these most basic rights.
• The reality that life is very different from what we all are led to believe.
• The stark reality that despite all the talk about the empowerment of women, it is a far-off dream. The reality that, really, no one cares or wants to do anything about it; everyone is happy with how things are, or, even if they are not happy, it is a “chalta hai” attitude which is running this country.
• The reality that there are laws, yet still justice is more often than not out of reach of common women.
• The reality that the very authorities who are mandated to enforce the so-called “women friendly” laws are not willing to enforce them.
• The reality that though laws are there, the implementing system itself makes it more of a harassment to fight abuse than to live with it.
• The reality that most of us have accepted abuse as our way of life, and we do not feel that we can do anything about it.
The day I stepped into my in-laws’ house, I felt unwelcome. After all the rituals, I was shown my room. It was on the top floor of the house. The bed and the minimal furniture which my parents had given in dowry were there. Other than that the room was essentially empty. It had not even been dusted. The mattresses still had their covers on. Thank God at least someone had bothered to cover them up with a torn old bed sheet. This was the room which greeted me, the new bride, into the home.
From the next day onwards taunts started appearing: taunts for insufficient dowry, for bringing an old used Santro (car) instead of a Honda city car, and for not getting a flat (apartment). I thought that things would change with time; they did change, but only for the worse.
I never protested, nor was I in a position to. My husband, Kamal, would shout at me for no reason and in front of anybody and everybody. He would get angry with me if there was even one call from my parents or sister. On the other hand, sometimes he would demand, in the middle of the night, that my parents should pay him a visit as he was now their son-in-law.
Life had changed totally. Now I was living in constant fear. I was doing everything to please my husband and in-laws so as to try to find a niche, a place for myself, in that house. Life was so unpredictable; I never knew what was coming next. I still tried to love him. Sometimes he became unexpectedly loving, and in the very next moment he would become violent and start throwing things around.
My mother-in-law would say to me, “You keep quiet. Women should not speak when their men are angry.” I would yearn for the few times when he would show me that he loved me. Till today, I do not know why I tolerated all the abuse.
I thought that time would change him. I thought my love would improve things. I thought that, perhaps, children would soften him. I became pregnant.
The violence continued during my pregnancy and increased once it became known that I was carrying twins. Now they wanted to know the gender of the babies. After they got it done by deception, they wanted me to kill one of the babies, if not both.
I remember falling at my mother-in-law`s feet and begging her to please not make my babies feel unwelcome even before they come to this earth.
Even before my babies were born, people were wishing them to die. I remember my husband coming home and demanding an abortion. I remember shielding my tummy with my hands when my husband would shout at me, as if that would shield the babies from his shouting, as if that would stop them from hearing. I remember telling my babies that Mother wants them, even if the entire world does not. I remember crying myself to sleep often. I was losing weight. And then, after the abuse became too much, when he pushed me down the stairs and locked me in the room so that I would abort, it was then that I decided to commit suicide. I could not kill my children before birth. I would just die with them.
Just before taking the drastic step, I called up my father to bid him farewell. I told him, “Forget that you have two daughters, just think you have one. Think that rather than marrying me off, you cremated me.” I remember the day and time very well. My husband was watching television, oblivious to all the hurt and pain he had been causing me. I don’t know when Papa called him up and asked him to bring me back home. I just remember his coming into the room full anger and dragging me into the car. I remember he was so rash, slamming on the brakes every five minutes and shouting all the way. Was this death… or was this my life?
After I was returned to my parents’ house, I was brought to one hospital after another in order to save my pregnancy. I was now on complete bed rest to prevent a miscarriage. I remember Mummy giving me something to eat every two hours, even during the night, to help me regain the weight I had lost. I remember crying in the hospital wards because every woman had her husband besides her except me. I remember not wanting to go to the hospital because I would feel jealous and full of self-pity seeing other women so happy and being pampered in their delicate stage of pregnancy.
I remember Papa losing control over his anger, when I was admitted to the hospital due to pre-term pains, because Kamal came there and started shouting since we did not let the miscarriage happen. Papa told him, “If you can’t be a good husband, be a good doctor, at least, and leave Mitu alone.” Alone he did leave me…. he never visited for weeks …
And then my babies came into this world. I remember the feeling when I heard Guddu`s cry when she was brought out. I was so happy. The feeling can’t be explained. But then, when Pari was brought out, she did not cry and was immediately taken by the pediatrician to be resuscitated. I remember my heart praying for her to live. I wanted to get up from the operation theater table and be with my daughter. Those few moments before she, too, cried were perhaps the most anxious moments for me.
I remember my husband and his family left soon after I was shifted from the operating theater to the room. He came to the hospital the next morning, after Mummy had gone to the temple, and started shouting. I found my courage after the doctor left and asked Kamal to seek help for his anger, otherwise he would lose all three of us someday. I do not think he cared. In fact, perhaps he wanted that.
I remember holding my daughters the first time I went into the nursery. I remember trying to feed them and crying when it would hurt too much. I remember everything as if yesterday. And then, on the ninth day, all my in-laws came to the hospital. My younger sister-in-law was going back to Singapore and they stopped by on the way to the airport. My paternal aunts, who were with me at that time, congratulated my sisters-in-law for being aunts to two daughters at one go, to which one sister-in-law responded, “God forbid such a moment comes again in my life when I become the aunt of girls.” To this, my mother-in-law replied, “Do not worry! These girls won’t survive. They are born in the 7th month.” So still they were praying that my daughters would not survive.
3.People tend to assume that there is a correlation between being educated and accepting girls as equal. This wasn’t the case for your husband and in-laws. Why do you think this is so?
If you go by sex ratios, they are the lowest amongst the educated and well-to-do. They know the technologies and they know how to manipulate the laws. The sex ratios are further lower amongst children of daughters as they have friends who will gladly do the sex determination for them (http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/fewer-daughters-for-india-s-doctors-suggests-shocking-report-330885).
My husband was the only son of his parents. Therefore, the question which arose again and again was: “How will the family name be carried forward?”
4.As we know, it is the man’s sperm that determines the gender of the child. Why do you think that some educated people who know this still blame the woman for giving birth to a girl?
I asked the same question of my mother-in-law. She answered, “Your crime is not bearing daughters, but in refusing to get them aborted.”
5. You are the first woman in India to file the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PC&PNDT Act) against your husband as well as the doctors and the hospital that performed the illegal sex-determination test. What inspired you to do so? What do you most want to happen as the result of your case?
When I filed my case, I had no idea that I would be the first one in India doing so. It was my parents who encouraged me to fight back for my, and my daughters’, rights. My father has always taught me two things:
1) Live with dignity. Never compromise your dignity.
2) Fight for what is right.
If we educated people do not fight back against what is wrong, how can we expect an uneducated women, with no parental support, to do so?
If we will not fight the darkness, do we have a right to complain?
My parents educated me. That’s the most I can give my daughters. What I can do is to work to change our society for my daughters, for our daughters.
Mrs. Bijayalaxmi Nanda played a very vital role in encouraging me, believing in me and standing by me when everything around me seemed dark. I have never felt that this is my fight to save my daughters. I have always felt this is my and Mrs. Bijayalaxmi Nanda`s fight to save OUR daughters.
6.What do you hope to achieve from this fight?
The accused must be punished for the wrongs they have done to my daughters and to me. I want my case to be a positive example for any woman who wants to save her daughters.
Every man and his parents must think twice before torturing a woman. They must be afraid that their daughter-in-law/wife can grow into another Mitu if they torture her. A woman is like Goddess Laxmi of the house when she is given love and the same woman can become Goddess Kali if her children are threatened.
Basically men and their families take women for granted. They think they can easily spoil one woman`s life, get away with it and remarry. This belief is increased by the way our judicial system functions. The pressure is always on the woman to compromise.
7. How many years have you been fighting this case and why do you think you have not gotten justice yet?
I filed my first police complaint during pregnancy in 2005. In 2006, I filed my first complaint in the crime against woman cell (the police station where crimes related to women are heard and registered). However, from 2006-2008, it was all about mediation and compromise. Every woman who approaches the police station is asked to compromise and go back to her in-laws. The police are not willing to register the case. And I met a similar fate. One mediator went to the extent of telling me that I should go back to my husband and in-laws, and that my parents can turn to the legal system when I am killed.
It is the patriarchal mindset of every authority figure who is supposed to give justice to a woman. I am considered as a criminal for dragging my husband and in-laws to court for something as simple as their wanting a son. According to many judges and other authorities, everybody wants a son. So it is me who is harassing my husband and in-laws. I have not given them a son and now I am dragging them to the court.
Moreover, the doctors and the hospital where the sex determination was done are very powerful. They are well-connected politically and are very rich. They have hired the best of the lawyers and the best of the law firms. They can easily manipulate things. I am a simple woman and a single mother. I cannot afford a big law firm like they can.
Furthermore, they have been influencing my lawyers too. I had to change so many lawyers because, ultimately, my lawyers would start harassing me to withdraw the case and do a settlement.
8.Tell us why it’s important that more women who are going through what you did should come forward. What is your advice and encouragement to them?
I am facing a difficult fight, perhaps because I am the first one to do so. If this becomes a trend than it won`t be difficult, but it will become difficult for men to force their wives to kill their daughters. If even a handful of mothers join me, then we can be the change…. I am fighting with a hope to see it become a MASS movement, i.e. Mothers Against Sex Selection.
Likewise, as the sex ratios are declining, the crimes against women are going to increase. Rapes, trafficking, etc. are all on the increase. A gender-neutral society is a peaceful society but a society full of men is a violent society.
And most of all: IN INDIA ABORTION IS ALLOWED FOR A CONGENITAL ABNORMALITY. BEING A FEMALE IS NOT AN ABNORMALITY. EVEN GOD MADE AN ADAM AND AN EVE. WHY ARE WE MESSING WITH HIS EQUATION…?
9. Do you think Indian girls are endangered? And if yes, why?
Yes. Indian girls are endangered. According to a UNICEF report, 7000 female feticides happen every day in India. If that is not enough, the girls who are born are ignored, exploited, not given nutrition, uneducated, not taken to hospitals, etc., and many of them die before their fifth birthday.
Even if they survive their fifth birthday, then child marriages, rapes, assaults, dowry deaths, and other acts of violence take their toll. A female in India is in danger from before conception (pre-conception sex-selection techniques) until her death. At no stage of her life is she safe if she is a common woman like me and you. I am not talking about rich and powerful women such as Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and Mrs. Sheila Dixit, and those like them.
10. You were fortunate to have your parents’ support when you left your husband. They have supported you and your girls through your trial. What do you have to say for women who don’t have the support of their parents? What options do they have?
This is a very difficult question to answer. I, myself, say that the only reason I am fighting is because my parents stood by me and supported me. Our society and judiciary do not like women like me. We are seen as trouble-makers. I can only hope things will change soon, that at least society’s support will be made available for such women.
11. Why is India turning a blind eye to the violence and murder of Indian girls? What can the government do to make India a safer place for girls?
India`s administration is largely motivated by the voter pool. A desire for sons and a dislike for daughters is so ingrained that no party, whether ruling or opposition, will ever do anything to implement the laws strictly, or do anything to stop this mass murder, because they are afraid they will lose the voter pool. The women vote for those whom their husbands and in-laws tell them too. Moreover, the patriarchy is ingrained into our minds.
Add to it the corruption. Why it is that the conviction rate is so low? If 7000 female feticides happen every day, how is it that convictions have not happened for even 500 doctors?
12. How can people support you and your cause?
Help me by spreading the word! When more people know about me, the safer I’ll be. Help me in encouraging more mothers to come forward, because, as I said, the more women who join me in this fight, the better are our chances of changing this system which supports the practice of killing daughters.
Till today my father has been working hard to support my legal battles, though it is becoming increasingly difficult for him due to his age and health issues. Following Satyamev Jayate (a popular Indian talk show), thanks to Mr. Aamir Khan, one large legal firm was providing me legal aid pro-bono. However, due to some differences of opinions, wherein I was being forced to settle the matters and go back to my husband, I had to let go of them. I am no longer being helped by the firm.
I am on my own. I want to continue the fight I have started. But now I am finding it very difficult to do so. For one, the opposite parties are very rich and powerful. They have hired the biggest law firms to represent them. They have the power to influence the judiciary and the lawyers.
I am neither rich nor powerful. Alas, I do not fit the picture of the poor: an uneducated woman whom one of the big NGOs, such as Center for Social Research, Jagori, etc., would be happy to support. I am held up in the middle.
Additionally, the accused have a variety of ways to go scot-free. Our legal system works on the principle of “convicted beyond doubt.” So the only thing rich and powerful lawyers have to do is to create a doubt…ENOUGH TO LET THE ACCUSED OFF.
Today I am taking each day as it comes. Campaign Against Pre-birth Elimination of Females (CAPF), along with GirlKind Foundation, has started a trust to help me with my legal battle (http://www.girlkind.org/index.php/explore/resources-links/justice-for-mitu).
Thank you to Roshan Gujar for interviewing Mitu and Judi Kloper for editing the interview.
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.
Did you face any discrimination at any stage in your life? And if you did, how did you overcome it?
We were three sisters and although my immediate family was gender sensitive, friends and acquaintances were not. Our mother was the recipient of cruel barbs for having given birth to ‘only daughters’. People pitied us for not having biological brothers. As a child, I was sexually abused by people known to my family. As I grew up, sexual harassment was rampant and all of us young girls had to suffer in silence. My romantic partner in my student years was critical about my physical appearance and emotionally tortured me. A period of self reflection began at this time.
I learnt a lot from my maternal grandmother, maternal aunt and my mother who were bold in their own ways. I slowly and steadily gathered courage to say no to my perpetrators, confront them and to break my silence on the issue. Feminist texts which I stumbled upon accidentally ( which were not a part of our educational curicullum then )made me understand what was happening to me or had happened to me was not my fault. Being supportive to other victims and survivors and sharing stories with them helps me overcome everyday…overcoming is a continuous and dynamic process.
Tell us how you got to where you are today?
I was 21 years old when my mother died at 42 of breast cancer. I had to take up the responsibilities of my sisters who were younger than me at 19 and 15 years. My dreams of being a bureaucrat were sacrificed at this stage for a larger call to be there for my sisters. My father, my maternal uncle Pranab and my paternal aunt Tarulata were a pillar of strength for us in every sense of the term during this phase.
We had moved to Delhi. My father was then in charge of conducting the 1991 census. Amartya Sen was in touch with him and so were other social scientists like Pravin Visaria and Satish Agnihotri. The declining child sex ratio from 1981 to 1991 had appeared as a conundrum to many. My father was sure this was not due to underenumeration, migration and such other factors. Discussions were initiated by him on intense son preference in India and sex-selective abortion as leading to declining child sex ratio (number of girls in the 0=6 years age group were lesser than number of boys). These issues became a part of our dining table discourse at home. It touched a chord in my heart due to the insensitive remarks made to us in childhood for not having biological brothers. I started reading on the issue and delving into its complexities.
In 1993 I was appointed as a lecturer in a leading women’s college in India, Miranda House in Delhi University. It was a radical college which housed many feminists and activists. One just learnt by soaking in the environment there. A colleague started an initiative against trafficking of girls and women which I joined. We researched extensively on trafficking of young girls from Nepal and Bangladesh to India for commercial sexual exploitation. The girls who had been trafficked and sold into brothels were as young as 12 to 13 years! It was emotionally exhausting for me to learn about their lives. But the spirit of resilience in those children taught me the meaning of life and the grave need for all of us to engage and counter gender discrimination. With the birth of my daughter, Akshara in 1996 my mind was made up. I knew my calling was to work towards changing the world for her and for all daughters in India. My spouse Rajesh became a fellow traveller in my journey.
In 2001 the census revealed a further lowering of child sex ratio. A leading child rights activist Sabu George encouraged me to start a campaign. CAPF (then called the Campaign against Female Foeticide) was initiated then with support of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies. The CWDS fired the feminist in me. Meeting leading Women activists like Vina Mazumdar and others there was a life-changing experience. With their support the Campaign was able to generate awareness and advocacy on the issue of pre-birth elimination of girls in India. In 2002 we were successful in pressurising parliamentarians to bring about inclusion of new reproductive technologies at the pre-conception stage under the law banning misuse of sex determination. The CAFF which is now known as CAPF (Campaign against Pre-birth Elimination of Females) continues to work on the issue by engaging with the youth in Delhi. Awareness generation, advocacy, research, documentation and support and counselling to women survivors are some of its activities. The campaign now works closely with CFAR( Centre for Advocacy and Research) Personally I am involved in the drafting of Women and Girl-Child Policies for the states of Rajasthan and Odisha with the UNFPA and actively engaged with the OBR( One Billion Rising) a global campaign to fight violence against women. Eve Ensler the writer of Vagina Monologues and Kamla Bhasin, a leading feminist activist from India are also two women who have inspired my journey. Two brave women survivors the campaign has learnt from include Dr Mitu Khurana and Ms Karuna. The issue of daughter aversion also became the topic of my PhD research at JNU where I studied the interventions by the state in countering gender discrimination by looking at the issue of sex selection.
My daughter Akshara who is now 17, is my best teacher. She questions my established notions and alerts me to privileges of class, caste and especially race which she is most passionate about. Writing and working on a televised serial on the issue called Atmaja for Nil Madhab Panda, a noted film maker today, helped immensely. My cousin brother Surya Shankar Dash’s active involvement as an activist and development film maker with the tribal population of the Dongria Kondhs of Niyamgiri region of Odisha also informs my work. My teaching, research and writing is around gender issues. I was actively involved in creating a course on human rights, gender and environment as a foundation course for students at the undergraduate level. I along-with a dear friend Shashi Motilal wrote two books on the subject. I coordinate the women’s development cell in the college and teach a course on feminist theory and practice. I allow my passion for gender issues to permeate each and everything i do. I learn from my students everyday. Conversations with my close friend Nonica Datta who works at retrieving histories of women in marginalised communities also energises me. I do not feel I have reached anywhere in terms of achievements. There is much more to be done. This journey of countering gender discrimination especially in terms of daughter aversion is a meaningful one. My sense of passion, outrage and anguish against gender violence has not diminished with time. And I think that is something I can be proud of.
What advice would you have for other Indian girls and women?
My advice to girls and women not just in India but all over the world would be to be alert to patriarchy and concomitant gender discrimination. They should always question it and have zero tolerance for it. Developing a sense of self through reading, learning and engaging on issues of gender is important for both women and men. I would advice women and girls to break their silence on gender violence, to participate in movements and collectives which are fighting against gender discrimination and violence. They should know that their rights are not dependent on patriarchy but on constitutional laws and the idea and spirit of human rights. We should all know that what we are asking for is basic and integral to human rights and dignity.
Do you think Indian girls are endangered? And if yes, why?
Girls all over the world are the most vulnerable when it comes to gender violence. In India this has taken a heinous form in the practice of sex selection. The elimination of daughters even before they are born has resulted in a lowering of the number of girls in its population. The 2011 census has revealed India to have 919 girls in the 0-6 age group as against 1000 boys. The ratio is as low as 700 in some states and in some regions girls are not allowed to be born!. In the last 3 decades there are 30 million girls who are missing from our population. The consequences of this is borne by the surviving women and girls who are subjected to greater violence and subjugation. This practice of selectively eliminating daughters through sex determination and gender biased sex selection has led to Indian girls being the most endangered in the Indian population.
What can we do to make India a safer place for girls?
Creating safety for girls and women requires multiple stakeholders. We need to engage at all levels from family, to community, to educational institutions, to the media , the market and the state. Being part of vibrant campaigns and pressurising all structures , institutions to deliver their promises to women and girls and asking state and government to bring about gender sensitive laws and to implement the laws that exist is absolutely essential. Gender justice requires timely delivery of justice at all costs. The three Es which include right to education, employment and empathy should be made available to all girls. Creating safe public spaces and enhancing the right to mobility is a part of this process.
Is there anything personally you are doing to promote the value of girls and women end gender discrimination and violence?
Yes I am conscious about my personal commitment to promoting the value of girls and women to counter gender discrimination and violence. I share my personal story at all forums and in conversations in order to encourage women and girls to break their silence. Through offering courses on the issue at the college level and writing and researching on the issue, I engage 24/7 , striving to interrogate traditional patriarchal structures and provide a gender lens to it. Through the CAPF which is self-funded I double up as a resource person, friend to women survivors, advocate to the government at all times. I work as a consultant with the UNFPA especially in giving inputs on women and girl-child policies for the government of India. I am an active participant in existing local and global rights- based campaigns fighting gender discrimination and gender violence. I volunteer to work on a regular basis with like-minded women’s groups fighting gender discrimination and violence. I share a home with my father, my daughter and my spouse. In India, a married daughter sharing a home with her father and spouse is a dismantling of the patriarchal order.
What are three things you love about India?
Our Emotive Connections- family connections, friendships, our warmth and hospitality is unparalleled.
Our Never-say Die Spirit- Irrespective of major debacles both manmade and natural, the Indian spirit triumphs over it all.
Our Democratic Resilience- Inspite of corruption, fundamentalism , class, caste and gender hierarchies, democratic elections and social movements always come as a breath of fresh air where people clearly exercise their free will.
Your favorite quote?
My favourite quote is the feminist slogan of the 1960s the Personal is Political, attributed to feminist Carol Hanisch and popularised by Kate Millett.
Once an international hockey player, model, choral singer and highly successful banker till diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 37, she never gave up and extends outreach to fellow sufferers, champions those with disabilities, participates in wheelchair marathons to raise funds for charities and creates awareness against female injustice.
She writes based on her own life experiences and typed her autobiography ‘Just me, Jacqueline, on My Way’ with one finger. This was published when she turned 60.
Only perhaps when I applied for an overseas posting with the Bank for which I worked and I think that was more out of protective concern of the authorities for me, being a single Indian woman going to work in an environment with which I was not familiar, and living on my own for the first time as well. In the interview when this was raised, I replied that if I did not have the confidence to tackle what might be in store for me, I would not have applied for the position. I was 34 then and had worked for 14 years with the bank. Thanks to one broad minded boss I understand I got the position in New York, and once well settled in that Branch, my local boss did express to me his initial apprehensions of how they were wondering if I’d fit in with the all male bastion, but was proud to truly declare me a plus to the team. Luckily, my father too was confident I could handle myself and was proud of my selection as the first woman officer selected to work abroad.
Tell us how you got to where you are today?
I’ve been blessed with a reasonable IQ that has not required me to struggle too much with any pursuit of mine, and I’ve been content to be an all round achiever, going along with the flow of life. However it is hard work, dedication and a strong commitment to people and the job on hand that has enabled me believe in my own self worth and create a belief of my reliability and credibility with those who repose their trust in me.
What advice do you have for other Indian girls and women?
Whatever your circumstances and difficulties, it is for you to overcome and find support from someone around you, if you are unable to fight for yourself. In today’s world, we are fortunate to have many helplines and self help groups, but it is for us individually to find the one within us that really wants to connect with the external one to change our situation for the better, instead of being content to continue as victims of self pity and keep looking for empathy. Sadly, I still find many women like this, even those who are economically stable, lacking the courage to move forward to change for a better life where they are doing what they want to do too, alongside an effort to introduce the concept of equality harmoniously by their man and his family! Education and elimination of dowry system will improve this situation, especially in rural India.
Do you think Indian girls are endangered? And if yes, why?
Sadly the lack of awareness, education and crass male domination in Indian society leading to disrespect for all women, is still a threat to Indian females.
What can we do to make India a safer place for girls?
The past one year has however seen a great change from middle class Indian women and men, at least in terms of public protests, taking to task all offenders and making the law and authorities move to punish offenders. The media too has given widespread support and coverage of issues relating to improving attitudes towards the female sex in India, exposing laxities on the part of authorities in enforcement of rules and regulations in regard to protection and enforcement of sex determination tests, abortions beyond permitted dates and related foeticide/infanticide crimes. TV coverage spreads to rural india as well and these programmes are beamed to the masses in the local languages to educate them and hopefully change the archaic attitudes and show them how wrong the practices have been in denying the girl child her equality in the family. ’Satymev Jayate’ the TV series produced and hosted in 2012, by Aamir Khan celebrated actor on social issues, also covered a couple of gender related themes and was a ‘sellout’ programme of huge impact in terms of awareness creation in the country.
Is there anything that you are doing to promote the value of girls and end gender discrimination and violence?
I am a promoter of the ’Petalsinthedust’ Campaign on Facebook and through e-mail and I have also organized the Global Walk for India’s Missing Girls for the past three years and publicized it through local press/TV media.
What are three things you love about India?
It is truly a ‘live and let live country’ and democracy prevails!
My living and cultural tastes are mostly Western influenced, but I’d never choose to live anywhere else because this is home for me. I love my city’s salubrious climate and the neighborliness and mutual acceptance we share irrespective of caste, creed or culture.
There is much outreach to be done here towards those in need to make one feel fulfilled.
What is your favorite quote?
To be a leader as well as a member of a team
To be competitive but not cut-throat
To be sporting and gracious both on and off the job
And to play the game of life for the sheer love of it!