- Guest Activist -
Rita Banerji is an author, excellent photographer and gender activist. Her book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies was released by Penguin Books in 2008 (Penguin Global, 2009). She is also the founder and chief administrator of The 50 Million Missing, an online, global campaign working to stop the ongoing female genocide in India.
Welcome Rita ... tell us more about your work ...
WHAT’S YOUR CURRENT JOB?
I am a free-lance writer and photographer, and an author at Penguin Books, India. My book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies, is a historical study of the relationship between sexual norms, gender and power in India. I am also the founder and director of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, an online campaign that’s fighting to end female genocide in India. But I don’t get paid for this, and I don’t really consider it a job. It’s more like my life’s mission!
WHY DID YOU FOUND THE 50 MILLION MISSING CAMPAIGN? WAS IT ONE PARTICULAR INCIDENT?
The 50 Million Missing Campaign activities are geared toward two primary goals:
1) to continue to raise global awareness about the ongoing female genocide in India through news, information and discussions via our blog and various social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Causes. There’s also a campaign newspaper log where we keep tab on the latest media reports on incidents of violence on girls and women in India. We have a flickr site that’s supported by more than 2400 photographers. It has a photo pool of over 17000 photos of Indian girls and women, which we use to create online photo exhibitions on specific topics. We’ve done periodic surveys for public feedback, which gives us an idea of how the campaign is progressing, and where we need work.
2) Build a strong, grassroots public lobby around a global petition that demands official accountability and action, from the government and international human rights bodies. We want zero tolerance for violence on women and strict implementation of existent laws. This petition is available in English and 11 other Indian and European languages.
WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF HUMAN RIGHTS?
They are fundamental rights that each individual is universally guaranteed from the time they are born, the rights to life and safety being among the most important. And they are rights that are non-negotiable and unconditional, and which absolutely no one, not even your family can violate. In the case of the female genocide in India, the standpoint of the campaign is that it meets the definition of genocide under the 1948 U.N. Act on genocide, and it is imperative that the international community recognizes that. I argue that in this video I presented at the U.N. symposium on Femicide in Vienna in November 2012.
DO YOU DO ‘PRO-BONO’ CASES?
We are a fund-free campaign, so we do not raise funds, and are not set up to give aid or shelter. We do use our vast grassroots lobby to rally public support for justice and action on cases like for instance the Suryanelli gang rape case. But if we are approached for medical, legal and other help, we contact NGO's, organizations or experts to facilitate assistance. If no one responds, and help is urgently needed, then we may request our campaign supporters to directly aid the person in need. This is what happened during Roopa’s case. She’s a young woman whose husband and in-laws tried to murder her for dowry by forcing her to drink acid. She was dying and urgently needed surgery. Her parents are very poor, and had taken her to a small hospital, but couldn’t afford the specialized surgery and care she needed. We were desperate because no NGO or organization was willing to help her. So the campaign supporters donated directly to her family, and though it seemed uncertain if she’d survive at first, fortunately she did!
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES IN THE WORLD AS YOU SEE THEM?
I think the violation of human rights anywhere in the world should be of concern to all of us. But in context of human rights, what I find particularly concerning is that when race or religion, are the reasons for killings the world sees it as a human rights issue. However, when gender is the basis of killings, the world does not see it as a human rights issue! But what is strange is that even women often don’t see the deadly violence inflicted on them as a human rights issue! It’s seen as a ‘domestic’ issue or a ‘cultural’ issue! But not a human rights issue. Which shows that societies everywhere, and even women have internalized gender based violence. At some level we’ve all somehow ‘normalized’ it. That is one of the things our campaign has been pushing – that the killing of girls and women because of gender must be recognized as an international human rights crime, which cannot be allowed any excuses of culture, religion or economics. The same as would be true for the killing of people because of race or religion. This second factor has actually been the bigger challenge for our campaign in changing public mind-set.
What is also interesting to me though personally, I find far more men (both in India and outside) accepting this view than women! And I’m not sure why. Why do women want to provide societies with excuses for killing them? Why is it not an absolute, non-negotiable human right that they are entitled to?
HOW CAN WRITERS AND AUTHORS HELP?
By engaging with the issues independently and courageously. Media can be directly controlled by the government in how it puts out information, and very often because media is funded by corporations, that may have certain vested interests, they can indirectly influence how media communicates issues. I think that is one of the biggest problems with how the western media presents India’s female genocide to the public. The western media went ballistic about the young Afghan girl who got her nose cut off. But there is that and far worse in India. India is the fourth most dangerous country for women today, after Afganistan, Congo and Pakistan. These first three countries are in a state of civil war, but India is a ‘peaceful’ democracy! There are 106,000 women who were burnt to death in one year, most of them simply because their in-laws were greedy for more dowry.
The rate at which girls under 5 years are killed, either starved or battered to death, is 75% higher than boys that age. They are killed simply because they are girls. And it causes no outrage because the western media either doesn’t talk about it, or presents it as a nominal issue that Indians should be nicely told not to do – the way children are told not to be naughty. And the reason is vested interest. Western governments view India as a massive source of cheap capital labor and big markets. And the corporations that fund western media houses see it the same way. Hence it skews the way the western media presents it. But writers and authors have the freedom and choice to write with more integrity. And they must use it to uphold human rights.
DO YOU BECOME FRUSTRATED BY THE LACK OF POLITICAL WILL REGARDING HUMAN RIGHTS?
I don’t see it as a lack of political will. I think there is plenty of political will and plenty of political power. Rather it is a question of where and how the political establishment chooses to exercise that political will and power. And it is used in self-interest, for political careers, for hobnobbing with capitalists who lobby with their purses to influence laws and government decision making etc. Yes, I find this very frustrating to work with.
HOW CAN ORDINARY PEOPLE HELP, OR BECOME INVOLVED?
I think the public needs to understand and exercise its power in leading their government by forcing it to become accountable for human rights issues within their own country and how they respond to human rights issues in other countries. This has been done before. Take for e.g. the apartheid government in South Africa. The apartheid government was supported by most western governments, including the U.S. and U.K., because it was ultimately about capitalism and business for them.
South Africa was one of the top 10 richest countries but that wealth was the privilege of a very tiny, privileged white section of its society. But the majority, the black South Africans lived under conditions of legal slavery! It suited western governments to continue to support the apartheid government. But it was the public uproar in western countries that forced their corporations and governments to either back off their support and/or stop doing business. And that’s really what toppled the apartheid government eventually.
I think in Australia some of this is coming into effect in context of India. For e.g. in Australia there has already been a call in the Australian Parliament to recognize the targeted attacks on Sikhs in India in 1984 as a genocide. This was government aided revenge on the Sikh community for the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and hundreds were killed and women were gang raped. Many of these politicians who participated in and incited these crimes are still serving in government in India loyal to the Gandhi family! Not a single case has been tried. No government puts a ban on Sonia Gandhi who continues to protect these politicians in her party.
The same sort of targeted killing and rape of women of the Muslim community in Gujarat happened in 2002, with the state government’s sanction. The chief minister, Modi, was banned by many western countries. But barely a couple of case have been tried. Most have been scuttled, the witnesses and survivors bullied and persecuted. Modi himself was never tried as indeed Hitler would be! But it seems Modi will be ‘forgiven’ now, because Gujarat is one of the biggest destinations for multinationals and their businesses! The EU and German governments are all ready to embrace Modi. I think, like with South Africa, the public in western countries must pressurize their governments to push the Indian government to be accountable for human rights violation, whether it is the female genocide or the massacre and rape of targeted minority communities.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST VICTORY?
Saving Roopa’s life which I talked about earlier was a wonderful moment for all of us at the campaign. In another case, that of Anshu Singh, a young woman who was murdered for dowry by her husband and in-laws barely six weeks after her wedding, it felt great when after more than a year of battling in court her parents finally were able to get her husband and in-laws arrested and imprisoned. The case is still pending and we continue to lobby public support for Anshu’s parents who are fighting for justice for their daughter.
In context of the goals of the campaign, there are more than half a million people supporting us worldwide. On twitter, we’ve got the support of globally prominent human rights activists and feminists like Nelson Mandela, Diana Russell, Taslima Nasreen, and Jean Sassoon.
But perhaps the biggest victories are that we’ve finally unsilenced this genocide, and raised the public conscience about recognizing it as a global human rights issue. Six years ago we did a survey where we found most people did not know about the genocide and many didn’t believe us! But in 2012 we did a public poll in which only 14% responded with ‘disbelief.’ Another poll we did recently asking people if wealthy, glamorous successful women like Indian model Pooja Chopra whose well-to-do middle-class father wanted her killed 20 days after her birth because she was a girl, should be used as incentive to tell Indian parents not to kill their baby girls, or if the message should that no parent has the right to kill a child. More than 70% of people chose the latter. So more and more people recognize that girls and women are human and their life is non-negotiable. Whether a girl or woman is rich or poor, educated or uneducated, no one has the right to take their life. That’s a basic human right. What is also interesting about the female genocide is that the more power a social strata has in terms of wealth and education, the greater its ability to inflict systematic violence on women whether getting away with dowry murders or forcing multiple female fetal abortions on women.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE SADDEST MOMENT IN YOUR WORK?
I think working with children and not being able to defend them is always the hardest to deal with. There was the case of a little girl Karishma, who we were unable to remove from the house where numerous attempts had been made to kill her. The family wouldn’t allow, not even the mother, and there is no law in India that authorizes the removal of children from homes which are unsafe for them. Recently there was another case where we were unable to intervene to prevent the ‘marriage’ of a 14 year old girl to an adult man. Child marriage is illegal under the law but the girl is Muslim, the state government prevented authorities to act because it did not want to displease the Muslim community whose votes it wants during elections. So it is the politics of votes versus the human rights of a child.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT SOME GOOD THINGS ARE BEING ACHIEVED IN HUMAN RIGHTS?
I think that sometimes people list things – like they say, we’ve ended colonialism and slavery, and so the world can pat itself on its back! But have we really? I think we’ve not changed the mentality, so we are seeing the same institutions that violated human rights in new forms. But the scary part of it is that we don’t recognize these forms for what they are. There is massive sex-trafficking of women and children, and increasing by the day, within countries, across continents. In the U.S. the top 1% owns 40% of the wealth and the bottom 80% owns 15% of the wealth. The same is true for most countries that call themselves democracies! Is this not slavery? Maybe it is worse today. Because earlier we knew who is what, but now human societies are deluded into believing they are living in free and just societies!
IF YOU HAD AN OPPORTUNITY TO ADDRESS ALL WORLD LEADERS, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
I would ask them to list one human rights violation they’ve turned a blind eye to in their country or elsewhere, which doesn’t let them sleep at night, and I’d like to see how each of them responds to that.
WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST DREAM?
To see women’s rights universally recognized as human rights and to see a real feminist revolution in India. The protest march after the Delhi gang rape was probably the first emergence of a real feminist revolution. But for it to take root and grow, women, even women leading the women’s movement in India need to view themselves as human within the constitutional framework, with rights that are inherent and non-negotiable regardless of culture and religion. I think that will still take a long time to happen!
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY?
There are two things that people can do to support the campaign:
1) Support the petition. Here is the link.
2) Be a voice for the campaign by sharing a video - link to the video
Rita Banerji: www.ritabanerji.com
Clancy's comment: there are many injustices in the world, especially today, and I admire those who find an issue and passionately run with it. Rita Banerji is such a person. It's been a pleasure, Rita. Keep going. Love ya work! - CT.