Growing up in the coal belt in West Bengal, brothers Ravi, Nishi and Rishi Kant were often witness to the sufferings of disadvantaged women, many of them routinely abused by their alcoholic husbands. From an early age, they say, their mother taught them to respect and protect women. But when the brothers co-founded the NGO Shakti Vahini in 2001 to campaign for an end to violence against women and girls, they were met with skepticism and mockery. At the time, it was unheard of for young men to take up women’s issues.
Undaunted, the Kant brothers continued their work and are now spearheading their campaign on two fronts. First, they want to address the issue of India’s skewed gender ratio, which has reached an alarming proportion in the northern state of Haryana – 879 girls for every 1,000 boys, according to the 2011 census – mainly due to the cultural preference for male children. The thinking goes that fixing the gender ratio imbalance is linked with tackling the high rates of infanticide and feticide in some communities where girl babies are unwanted, and challenges the patriarchal mindset that assumes women are merely commodities for marriage.
The second, and connected, part of the brothers’ campaign is their work to combat the trafficking of women and girls, many of whom are taken from the poorer eastern regions of India to make up for the shortage of women in the more prosperous northern states.
Through their charity, the brothers assist police in rescuing girls who have been trafficked and help the girls reintegrate into their families. They provide free legal aid to victims of gender-based violence (GBV). And they conduct workshops to raise awareness of gender issues at the grassroots level, as well as provide training for the police on how to handle GBV cases.
Ahead of the U.N.’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, Women & Girls Hub spoke with Rishi Kant, 42, about the brothers’ efforts to make sure more women in India feel respected and protected.
Women & Girls Hub: Tell us about your campaign and how it contributes to the elimination of violence against women.
Rishi Kant: Our work is mainly in rural areas, and one of our major focuses is to target men and boys and to sensitize the wider community to the importance of preventing violence against women and girls. The problem is so deeply rooted in the culture that men simply don’t realize that they are committing a crime when they assault a woman. So when we teach them to respect women, raise awareness about the harmful effects of the imbalanced gender ratio and tell them about the benefits of educating a girl child, they tend to understand. Many people have thanked us and said, “No one has discussed these issues with us before.”
We reach out to the village councils and organize joint sessions between boys and girls to promote a dialogue. Such interactions have had a tremendous outcome in sensitizing boys and empowering girls.
On the trafficking front, we are working with law enforcement agencies to strengthen their response to organized crime against women and girls. We conduct workshops with elected governing bodies in villages to raise awareness about the prevention of trafficking of girls and women.
It used to be that girls who were trafficked were not easily accepted by their families out of shame. Our work greatly focuses on the rescue and smooth reintegration of girls with their families. We try to ensure that the rescued girl gets legal support and has access to education.
Women & Girls Hub: What do you see as the campaign’s successes?
Kant: In collaboration with law enforcement agencies across the country, we have helped conduct training sessions to sensitize police officers across the country. This has led to greater sensitivity among law enforcement to respond to cases of violence against women and girls.
Our proactive work and advocacy efforts have helped prioritize the issue of violence against women in the government. We have strongly advocated against trafficking of girls and women for forced marriages and domestic labor. And our efforts in the courts have made the government more accountable on the steps it has taken to reduce violence against women. We have helped hundreds of victims fight legal cases against their abusers.
Women & Girls Hub: As a male activist, how seriously is your work taken in India?
Kant: When we started working in 2001, no one took us seriously. The community we lived in laughed at us for taking up the cause. We worked on the front line and reached out to remote and hostile areas where cases of violence against women and girls were not easily reported. Gradually, people started recognizing our work. Shakti Vahini is now one of a number of consultative bodies constituted by the government to address the issue of violence against women and girls. Nothing gives us more happiness than to see a girl smiling and going to school.
Women & Girls Hub: What message do you want people to get from your campaigns?
Kant: Violence against women and girls cannot be eliminated unless men became equal partners. Intervention programs must take into account young boys, as it is very important to sensitize them to women’s issues from a very young age. I would urge more men to come forward and work for the elimination for violence against women and girls. The battle cannot be won if men are not equal partners.