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.