by Alam Bains
Rita Banerji is a renowned Indian author, photographer and a gender activist who founded “The 50 Million Missing”, an online, global campaign working to stop the ongoing female genocide in India. Her book “Sex and Power:Defining History, Shaping Societies” containing in-depth, social and historical study of sex and sexuality in India was long-listed for the 2008 Crossword Vodaphone Non-fiction Award. In 2009 the book reached the no.1 spot on Crossword’s best-sellers list in Kolkata. Banerji has also received the Apex Award for Magazine and Journal Writing (U.S.A.), 2009. Here’s an insight into the mind of the creative soul:-
You are a trained conservation biologist and ecologist, but the majority of your work is on women and gender issues. Is there any particular experience which encouraged you to do the work you do today?
Yes the gender perspective has always been important to me. Even while in the environmental field many of mine research and projects had a gender focus. I cannot think of any one particular experience as such, that sensitized me to gender issues other than my own experience of life as a girl/ woman. I compare it to how black people are sensitized to race issues, growing up in racially prejudiced societies.
When I was 11, I remember in school, I had scored the highest in Math, and the math teacher told the boys, “I am very disappointed in you. You should be ashamed a girl beat you in math.” I was furious. Why did it matter so much to this man whether it was a boy or a girl who scored highest in Math? Was there any reason – other than my gender that I shouldn’t have had that top spot?
At family get togethers, as a girl I was expected to help, cut vegetables, or remove or wash the dishes, but not my cousin brothers. And I used to think – why shouldn’t they? Is it beneath their dignity as males to do these “dirty” jobs of serving and cleaning? And then the general remarks about a man who is weak, or ineffective, “He is like a woman.” If our social stereotype equates weak and incompetent men to women, how am I as a woman supposed to take that? As a compliment?
Most people in India, even women, think these are inoffensive. I think that is because of the internalization of gender subordination. If you take the racial equivalent of these examples, and substitute male with white and females with black in the instances I speak of above (and racially it does happen in some countries), that’s when you can really feel the bigotry in context of gender in our society. Of course the greatest evidence of what it means to be female in India is evidenced by our systematic annihilation of females!
My work with the 50 Million Missing Campaign stems from my own outrage and compulsion. I’m an Indian woman, and my country looks me in the eye and says, “You and your kind mean nothing to us. You are like little flies. We’ve swatted 50 million females like you!” You kill a cow, and a riot breaks out in the city. Here we have young married women and new born girls killed every few minutes in this country. Why does that not evoke the same response from Indians?
Your book “Sex and Power” is an in-depth, social and historical study of sex and sexuality in India. It has been widely acclaimed and you have been compared to Simone De Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem. What was your motivation behind writing a book on an issue which is still considered a taboo?
Sex here means two things: one is gender and the other is sexuality as in the biological drive. And what I establish in this book is that there is a power hierarchy in society in how we deal with both gender and sexuality, and that it is this power hierarchy that is driving what I call the sex-related catastrophes of India: female genocide, AIDs, and over-population. And unless we directly address this power hierarchy which is culturally and historically defined, we are not going to see any change.
So take for e.g. the issue of population/ birth control. Go through any number of projects by NGOs or the government, and they will talk about ignorance, education, etc. But they will NEVER address a very fundamental issue about reproduction in India. That woman does not have ownership of their own bodies. They have no choice or say over their sexuality or reproduction. And this has nothing to do with economics. This is entirely culturally and psychologically driven. Most women in slums and villages are the ones who are economically sustaining their children, while their husbands are waywardly, drunk, drugged and sporadic with their earnings. Yet, women are ultimately only commodities for their families.
If you go through India’s slums and villages – there are thousands of such women, who are abandoned (without divorce) by their husbands, and are trying to feed and house the children by themselves. There is no sexual and reproductive responsibility expected on the part of men: And this is a very important point to note about Indian social norms. Even in middle and upper class families, when in cases of domestic violence the wife finally leaves with the kids. I have very rarely seen the men assume economic responsibility for the children, leave alone parental responsibility.
Therefore, I think it is very important, particularly in view of our present and future, for us to know our history, in terms of how the issues of gender, sex and sexuality have played out in context of social power, in different periods of our past, and how they continue to be a part of our thinking and social behaviour. Unfortunately most young people in India grow up, partially blind, to their own history and sociology.
There’s a social conspiracy that conceals the most fundamental words of our own bodies because they deal with sex. But it also heartens me because especially in younger Indians, I see a curiosity and openness to know, to ask, to discuss. Our social and educational systems have these huge psychological mental blocks, which in the end are harming society. Sex and sexuality are the very basis of our existence as an individual. It is one of our fundamental biological drives – along with hunger, thirst, sleep etc.
What is the 50 Million Missing campaign? What inspired you to start the campaign?
The 50 Million Missing Campaign is online global campaign that works to raise awareness about the ongoing female genocide in India, and all the factors that are responsible for it through our blogs, presentations, Voice of the Campaign project, and social networking sites.
Secondly, it also lobby for public support for an online petition that demands that all existent laws – pertaining to female feticide, infanticide, dowry, dowry murders, and honor killings, be forcefully and methodically implemented across the board – in a manner that makes all government offices, the police and judiciary legally accountable. We are asking for a time-line within with this will be accomplished and includes the setting up of fast-track courts for all issues pertaining to female feticide and all other female homicides. There also needs to be an aggressive communication with the public and direct, no-nonsense messages sent out by the government about legal parameters and consequences.
How has the campaign been received in India and what do you wish to achieve through the campaign?
The campaign has been covered by various newspapers and magazines etc. But in terms of the public, and even other NGOs, the response is still impassive. I should emphasize an important point here that of all the NGOs, campaigns etc. that are working on what is called the ‘sex-ratio’ issue, The 50 Million Missing Campaign is the only one that is focused on the implementation of existent laws and is demanding official/ government accountability. And this is what I think is not palatable to the public and to NGOs. That is because this approach does 3 things and it is what we intend to achieve through this campaign:
1) It attributes legal responsibility – this is a human rights violation.
2) It demands methodical and effective action. Which means, if an approach is not working you don’t keep pushing it, but change the course of action to get the results we need to see.
3) It demands to see the results and hold those in positions of power, in government, police etc. responsible.
With the public I think it is a horror of what they are seeing, but as of yet, refusing to recognize it as self-image. The thing is that when you have violence on such a massive scale, it is because of the participation of society at large.
With NGOs, or even governmental, and I’d say even international projects, that focus on “Save the Indian girl,” there is another issue. One of my concerns is that these ngo’s and projects are popping up like mushrooms everywhere, because this is a great money garnering tool. There is tons of money going into these projects with no accountability. Our census shows we are going from bad to worse. But all these projects have to do, is say, we tried, and throw up their hands.
So why don’t we challenge government and ngo projects who totally illogically claim they want to ‘save’ girls by offering, what is, frankly, substandard education to girls of poor families?
Secondly, how many orphanages or homes do we plan to set up? Thirdly, do we ever ask what happens to the handful of girls who are raised in these homes and shelters? From what I’ve been seeing for myself, it seems most orphanages try to marry off the girls they’ve raised by the age of 18. That is their method of disposal. And since most middle and upper class Indians are so concerned about respectability etc., these marriages are arranged into poor homes. And in many cases the young girls after marriage face dowry related abuse and violence. It is like trying to rescue a girl from the trash and throwing her right back into the trash. Why bother?
The bottom line is that every form of systematic annihilation of females in India is illegal and it is criminal, be it female feticide, infanticide, dowry murders or ‘honor’ killings. The reason these have escalated and are out of control now, is because our system of law and order and governance has allowed for it to reach this stage. And if you want it to stop, there is only one way, you will have to make our government, criminal and legal system act and be officially accountable. We hope that other NGOs and the Indian public will join The 50 Million Missing Campaign in this endeavor.
How can the general public become involved with the campaign? What is your message to the masses?
I think the first and easiest thing that the public can do, which takes 10 seconds, is go to our petition site and sign it. Tell the government, we want you to act and be accountable.
Secondly, if you can spare say 20 minutes, make a brief presentation to your class in your school, college or university. See our Voice of the Campaign project.
The third and most important thing is to be personally accountable. I think the people reading this, are the Indians who are ashamed about this mass feticide in India, and ideologically they want change. The question is, what do you personally do or how do you react or what do you say when you witness it – either in your family, or among your friends or community?
Myself, I do not associate with people who I know have violated another person’s dignity or life, who have demonstrated misogyny in the many ways that our society permits. I have urged women I know who are being abused to leave their husbands and refused to accept the standard excuses. As a society we need to send out the message that this kind violence, in any form, is not allow under any circumstance. And as individuals we need to personally send that message to our closest ones first: our relatives, friends, family.
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