Rita Banerji : The woman behind the 50 Million Missing Campaign!
The author, photographer and gender activist, Rita Banerji has not only authored the revolutionary book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies, but has also founded the 50 Million Missing Campaign to generate global awareness about the much-prevalent female gendercide in India. Let's hear more about her mission and vision.
1.Describe the "woman" Rita Banerji in 3 words.
self-defined, non-conformist, revolutionary
2.What was your childhood like? Were you drawn towards social issues from an early age?
My father was in the army and we moved a lot. By the time I finished school, we had lived in 17 towns all over India, north, south, north-east, east and center! So the Indian diversity that’s a theoretical or touristy concept for many was the reality of my childhood. It was a wonderful introduction to life. My parents raised me like most middle-class Indian parents do – which is, study hard, obey your parents, take up science, become a doctor, and earn well. But for the actual sensitization to issues in society, to our community and fellow citizens, which did come early to me, I have to give credit to the nuns in the convent schools I attended. They taught us how to recognize inequalities in society, to be sensitive to the sufferings of others, and to assume personal responsibility for the society we live in. Having also attended some non-denominational private schools I have to admit, that even they don’t foster that kind of social and civic thinking in their pupils. But, there were also certain bodily and sexual concepts for girls/women, which were taught, that I questioned and rejected as I grew older.
3.You began your career as an environmentalist. Tell us something about it.
The environment is my first love. It is my vision of life. I am an atheist, and this is probably the closest I come to religion! The little towns I grew up in had lots of green spaces, fields and forests. Even as a child I loved gardening, raising animals and exploring the wild on my bike. Then I went to college in the U.S., and took ecology and environment. These subjects were not taught in the sciences in India at that time, and it just opened a whole different area of passion for me. In college, my advisor Dr. Leslie Lovett-Doust, introduced me to Dr. Vandana Shiva. And then I came to India for a few months to work on a project for Dr. Shiva. My project was to show that the limestone quarries in a specific area of the Doon Valley (the Sisyaru-khala valley) were destroying the biodiversity and disrupting the livelihoods of the villagers. I stayed with the villagers and they helped me with my project. Back in the U.S., I later moved to Washington D.C. for a Ph.D. program in Conservation Biology and I also worked with various international organizations there in the field.
4.What sowed the seed the gender activism in you? When and how did you decide to write about it?
I was always aware of the issues of female repression and violence even when I was a child, though I may not have had the language for it at that time. I saw it in my family and in our communities, schools and neighborhoods. And even though, my mother, and grandmother, aunts and other women, even teachers tried to tell us, this is ‘normal,’ or that ‘it happens,’ ‘ignore it’ etc. it has always rankled me. I would sulk and act out sometimes, because I think I could see the wrong, but the family and society did not offer the necessary mechanisms to name and address it. It was only when I went to the U.S., to Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, I found a name and an ideology for something I already thought and felt. Women’s oppression was a fact, and I began to discover comprehensive ways to name it and address it. In fact many of my projects and research in the environmental field had a gender focus.
As for writing, that is something I wanted to do from when I was in school. I had written for school magazines and was the junior editor at one time. But my parents discouraged me. They’d have loved for me to be a doctor, which I absolutely did not want to be. So I went on to other things, but writing was that need in me that wouldn't die, and by the time I was 30 it was something I realized I had to return to. For me it’s like breathing. It’s what I must do.
5.What was the motivating factor behind the 50 Million Missing Campaign?
I’d say: outrage. I’m an Indian woman, and my country tells me “We've eliminated your kind by the millions, like flies! You are not human. You are nothing!” 20% of women have been exterminated from the population. And people need to know – this is unprecedented in human history. It is not normal for any society! No other human group has been subject to this kind of systemic and targeted extermination. China is the other country that has female gendercide. But what makes India worse than China, is first the apathy of the Indian government. The Chinese government takes this far more seriously. And secondly, in China it is largely sex-selection. In India the violence is perpetuated in all kinds of ways, for girls and women of all ages: starvation, physical battering, rape, honor-killings, dowry murder, witch lynchings. If this was happening to a human group in India because of their religion or their ethnicity, we would have the media and all civil rights sections in India up in arms – like for Kashmir or for the Gujarat massacre. We’d have global human rights groups demanding international action. But are women not human? Why does our genocide not evoke the same response?
6.Five years down the line, what more milestones do you wish to achieve?
One, I hope to have the couple of books on different aspects of gender that I have in the pipe-line completed and released.
Two, I hope that through The 50 Million Missing campaign, I can initiate the emergence of a cohesive, national movement of women, that demands a policy of zero-tolerance towards all forms of violence on girls and women, and puts the issue of female gendercide as a No.1 priority on the national agenda. Safety on demand, and unconditionally. It is what every human being, every girl and woman is entitled to, regardless of class, caste, education and economics. No human being or citizen of a democracy should ever have to explain or give incentives to a nation for why they should be safe and free! It is our birth-right!
My third goal is based on certain trends I see in Indian women in the under-25 age bracket. These women are focusing on the basic question of freedom and equality: things like bodily integrity and rights, accountability of government and law, safety on demand and unconditionally, safety as their right as citizens. It is whole different paradigm of viewing themselves and their rights as women and as citizens, that the Indian women’s movement has not addressed and for some reason are resistant to. I think it’s probably because older feminists have not asserted these ideas in their own lives and families, hence the resistance. Many of these young feminists will talk to me or email me, their frustrations and disagreements with the way the old feminist order works, or they vent on social media forums, but they are not willing to claim their space in the women’s movement. I think there is also a fear because the women’s movement in India is very hierarchical, and the older feminists are in charge of magazines, forums, NGOs, organizations and have powerful networks and connections in India and in the west. I hope I can encourage the younger Indian feminists to overcome their hesitation, and claim their own platform at the national and international level to bring a true feminist revolution to India!
7. You've been a recipient of many national and international honors. Personally, what has been the most rewarding experience of yours?
My decisions to leave India at 18, and return at 30 I think were the most rewarding in terms of how my life panned out. I left for the U.S. when my parents wanted me to stay in India and go to medical school. I went with $20.00 in my pocket (the maximum allowed for an undergraduate then), and from the age of 18 years I lived alone, was a full-time student and I washed dishes, waitressed, worked as a baby-sitter, receptionist, and later I taught. And I understood what it means to live life with freedom, choice and dignity, not just as a person, but as a woman. And this would not have been possible if I had lived in India.
The second thing was when I decided to return to India after 11 years, and return to my desire to write, when my parents wanted me to stay on in the U.S. and work with some international organization there. It is while I was researching for and writing my book ‘Sex and Power’ in India that realized the magnitude of violence on women and girls and reality of India’s female genocide. And I realized this was something that I had to fight for, for the rest of my life. And if I hadn't come back to India, and decided to write, it would not have happened.
8.How do you think the Indian woman of today can make a difference in the scenario?
Each woman must bring the revolution home. Don’t keep quiet when your rights are violated by people in your homes and social and work circles, or that of other women in your family or among your colleagues. We like to believe that it is poverty and illiteracy that is responsible for India’s female gendercide. But it is not true. The 2011 census clearly shows that the gender ratio is ‘normal’ for the bottom-most 20% of the population and gets worse as you go up the economic and education ladder. It is the worst for the top most 20%! And the reason is, that women from the educated, middle and upper classes are far more silent in the face of violence than poorer women. Women from slums will complain loudly, tell neighbors, protest the violence on them or their children. But the more educated we are the more socially conditioned we are to be silent and compliant in India when the violence happens in our own homes and social circles. The Tejpal rape case is a classic example here. Even Indian feminists and activists from across the board rushed to defend him and silence the public! That is why it is so important for the women in the middle and upper classes to start speaking up. Speak out about dowry, domestic violence, forced abortions, and rape. Most rapes happen in our own social circles. Each woman must resist and protest violence and injustice openly in their homes and communities first. The reason we tolerate violence as a society, is because women tolerate violence in their homes.
9. What does woman empowerment mean to you?
It is a woman’s realization that freedom and power is not something anyone gives you. Whatever your circumstance, as humans we all are born free, and our power is within. The question is, have you allowed others to rob you of your freedom and choices? Are you using your power to assert yourself, your freedom and choices, or are you giving away your power to the system that’s trying to repress you through rules, customs, and fear?
An empowered woman is one who has complete ownership of self, which is the absolute and fundamental essence of being a free citizen in a democracy. It is only slaves and prisoners whose lives are controlled by others through fear and power. Women and girls controlled by society, family, traditions, religions, through dictums, and fear and power, are like slaves and prisoners.
A woman who is a doctor or engineer whose parents are blackmailed for dowry, who continues to tolerate violence and death threats, but does not walk out to reclaim her sanity and safety, because she fears social stigma for herself or her family, is not empowered. In fact, I say, that a village woman is more empowered than her, who may have little education, but who defies khap diktats, and chooses to leave her community and seek a new life with a lover of her own choosing. It is the village woman who is empowered because she has recognized and claimed her absolute freedom as a human being.
10. Are you glad to be a woman? Why?
Well, personally it wouldn't matter to me if I was male, or transgender. For me gender and sexuality is a personal choice and expression, and the person I am, I will be regardless of what gender or sexuality I express it through. But the one context I’m glad I’m a woman is in context of the female gendercide in India. Had I been a man, I’d be fighting this same fight for sure. But it hit me harder, and outraged me to action, particularly because I am a woman.