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← BackNext →