For the artisans’ daughters, their first and most powerful role models are their mothers. These women have overcome educational, social and cultural obstacles to become breadwinners and community activists. In addition, the girls – and boys – can look to some prominent women who are making a difference in India through activism, professional success, and social work. Some of these women came from privileged backgrounds and chose a life of service. Others had more difficult beginnings but found the strength and compassion to work for a better society.
Kiran Bedi (born 1949)
A police officer, prison inspector general, social worker, political activist and TV star: Kiran Bedi has lived an eventful life. Despite some controversy and opposition, she has persevered in her efforts to change Indian institutions. Born in Amritsar in 1949 to a prosperous family, she was a champion junior tennis player – who risked social disapproval when she cut her hair short because it was easier on the courts. When the convent school she was attending did not offer any science curriculum (they instead had “household” classes designed to prepare girls to be good housewives), Bedi transferred to another school before continuing on to college and graduate school.
Inspired by Amritsar’s Service Club, Bedi decided to pursue a career in public service, specifically the police force. The only woman among 80 male trainees, she became the first woman officer in the Indian Police Service. During her varied career, she dealt with crimes, violent protests, traffic, drug, and alcohol addiction, and strike mediation. She introduced innovations including an open-door policy, anonymous tip boxes, on-the-spot fines, traffic classes, detox centers, humane prison reforms, and towing improperly parked vehicles. This last one earned her notoriety when her team towed the Prime Minister’s car. What she called her “equal enforcement of law” resulted in many powerful enemies and caused difficulties in her career and personal life.
In 2007 she resigned from the police service to concentrate on academic and social work, including establishing and supporting foundations providing residential treatment for drug and alcohol addicts and education for children living in the slums and streets. Other interests are establishing schools, vocational training, and counseling centers as well as promoting prison reforms, women’s empowerment and community development. Another group was formed to expose and combat corruption. In 2003 she became the first woman appointed police advisor to the United Nations. She was appointed Lt. Gov. of Puducherry in 2016. Bedi even served a stint as a reality TV star, dispensing everyday justice on a court show. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships recognizing her leadership in her many roles.
Laxmi Agarwal (born 1990)
India is a male-dominated society in which cultural attitudes can allow women to be treated with little respect and in which violence towards women is on the rise. Stalking and harassment are called “Eve-teasing” and Indian movies often feature heroes harassing women as part of a normal courtship. Women, even in Bollywood, do not have the right to say “No.” Violence against women in India has many names: dowry deaths, honor killings, female infanticide, rape, human trafficking, domestic violence, harassment, molestation, forced and child marriage. And acid attacks. There are 250 – 300 acid attacks reported in India every year. Because many go unreported, the actual number could be over 1000, the highest rate in the world. The majority of the victims are women, and the attacks are often prompted by revenge because of a rejected marriage proposal or sexual advances.
In 2005 Laxmi Agarwal became one of these statistics. The 15-year old schoolgirl and aspiring singer-dancer was by Delhi’s upscale Khan Market when she was pushed to the ground and had acid thrown over her. The attacker was a 32-year old man, a friend’s brother, who had stalked Laxmi for months demanding that she marry him. This was punishment for her refusal. When she saw her face for the first time after the attack, she wanted to kill herself. While her parents supported her, friends and other relatives cut off contact. “Neighbors and relatives blamed me and said I must have done something wrong to earn this man’s wrath.” She stopped going to school and hid her face as she underwent 9 surgeries and accumulated large medical bills. When she took the case to court, her lawyer had her lift her veil in the courtroom so that the judge could see her injuries. When she left, however, she covered her face again. The trial lasted for 4 years, and in the end, the assailant was sentenced to 10 years in jail and the accomplice 7. But her main attacker was out on bail within a month, got married, and resumed a normal life.
In 2012 a violent rape-murder in Delhi made headlines all over India. “The wave of anger that swept the country gave women like me some courage,” Agarwal recalled. For the first time in 8 years, she walked outside without covering her face, braving the stares and comments. Determined to act, she became associated with the acid attack movement, a campaign to bring together survivors, educate people about the abuse, and push the government for treatment. She filed a writ petition which was passed by the Supreme Court in 2013. This order regulated the sale of acid and provided some compensation for acid attack survivors. Agarwal has appeared on television shows and at many meetings, she opened a Facebook account and has a TEDx program on YouTube – all to raise awareness and change attitudes. She has received many awards in India and in 2014 she was awarded the International Women of Courage Award. She even became the face of a fashion brand’s campaign in 2016, modeling elegant clothes and challenging concepts of beauty. Although there are now laws regulating acid sales and specifically naming acid attacks as an offense, acid is still often sold openly, conviction rates are low and the number of acid attacks continues to increase. Agarwal knows that her work is not done. But she no longer feels alone. She has new friends and she and her partner (another activist whose Stop Acid Attacks NGO has set up Sheroes Hangout Cafes to employ survivors) have a daughter. She has even more incentive not to hide, but to make sure all girls are allowed to follow their dreams.
Manasi Pradham (born 1962)
As a girl growing up in a remote farming village in Odisha, Manasi was a feminist in the making. She observed that the women there were not treated with respect and there was a lot of domestic violence. She saw husbands spending most of their money on liquor, even selling household goods to buy more. “So I had this bug in my mind that if I ever get the chance, I would work for women, to develop and improve their conditions.” Female education was considered not only unnecessary but undesirable. However, Manasi resisted pressures to end her studies and not only finished middle school in the village but continued into high school. The only high school in the area was 15 km. away, a distance she had to walk every day over rough terrain. She became the first woman in her village to pass the high school examination. The family moved to the city so that she could further her education (BA Economics, MA Literature, LLB, Law). At the age of 21, she began her own successful printing business and literary journal, which paid for both her studies and supported the family. She took it upon herself to educate her younger siblings, as well.
Within a few years, Pradhan was pursuing her childhood ambition of empowering women. She founded OYSS Women to help girls achieve high education and become leaders. OYSS has organized leadership workshops, educational and vocational training, legal awareness and self-defense camps. In 2009 the organization launched the Honour for Women National Campaign, a nationwide movement to end violence against women. The campaign raises public awareness through booths, festivals, speeches, workshops, literature, and street plays. In 2014 they released a Four-Point Charter of Demand asking the state governments to enact laws to help women: restricting liquor sales, teaching self-defense for women in schools, developing special security for women, and fast-tracking court procedures. They also inspired many volunteers to lobby for these goals.
Coming from a poor rural background, Pradhan has a realistic perspective on the depth and complexity of cultural attitudes about women. “What I really want is for there to be more awareness. The instances of high awareness there is, is mostly in the cities. But… these do not represent all of India, right? India has primarily rural and tribal areas, and there is less awareness there.”
Mamatha Raghoveer Achanta (born 1967)
“I have dedicated my life to the cause of the Girl Child,” Achanta has declared. Although she was a bright and talented child who was cherished by her mother (a professor) and father (a district judge), Achanta knows well the perils faced by this vulnerable and powerless group. Through her work on government committees and commissions and her own NGOs, she has waged war against child marriages, human trafficking, child labor, abuse and other crimes which disproportionately affect girls. Although illegal (with loopholes), child marriage is still prevalent in parts of India, including Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where Achanta has helped to foil hundreds of marriages, helping the girls to continue their education, instead. Such marriages may be desired by parents because of tradition or financial need. Older daughters, for example, require more dowry. Or the parents may be trying to secure a better future for their daughters, especially in areas with few economic opportunities. Consequences of child marriage include threats to maternal and infant health, violence, and loss of educational possibilities. Recently a child marriage racket was uncovered in Hyderabad in which young girls were being married off to older men, many from the Middle East.
One of the NGOs Achanta formed, Balika Sanghas (Girls’ Collective) targets girls between the ages of 14 and 18. Through a variety of programs, it seeks to build up their abilities and feelings of self-worth. Vocational training and saving schemes combine with workshops on raising confidence and awareness to give these girls more power. In the Network of International Legal Activists Achanta coordinates with other legal activists to protect the rights of women and children worldwide. As a lawyer, she has filed many cases for the protection of girls and she was instrumental in bringing about improvements in the Law for the Prohibition of Child Marriage. She partnered with the Hyderabad city police to create BHAROSA, a support center for women and children victims of violence. Services include trauma counseling, legal and medical help, and a special child-friendly counseling facility for child abuse victims. Achanta has received numerous awards and honors for her work to save, educate and empower girls, giving them the chance to change the world, too.
Kirthi Jayakumar (born 1987)
Storytelling and doodling are not the usual methods used to fight for gender equality. But Kirthi Jayakumar – author, artists, playwright, lawyer, newspaper columnist and activist – employs a variety of creative approaches to inspire awareness, empathy, and action. After finding work as a lawyer unsatisfying she tried volunteering with a variety of organizations. In 2013 she established her own organization, The Red Elephant Foundation, with a mission of peace-building and activism for women’s empowerment.
The Foundation’s activities embrace some unconventional techniques. Storytelling is used to “shift mindsets and pivot people naturally towards equality peace and non-violence.” Narratives of inspirational people from different cultures are resources meant to widen horizons and inspire positive acts. Telling her own story helped Jayakumar come to terms with childhood abuse, helping her to heal and to tackle the issue with honest communication and practical ideas. Curricula are developed to address problems such as gender inequality and violence towards women which are then used in training sessions at schools, community groups, and workplaces. Red Elephant created an ingenious online system which enables survivors of violence to quickly locate legal and medical help and other resources. Researchers write and curate papers concerning gender equality, peace, laws, public policy, and psychological and social effects to provide a resource for activists.
In addition to her Foundation work, Jayakumar has published two short story collections dealing with international political conflict and human rights abuses which also allow for hope and human resilience. She is an artist who creates “Zen doodles” to express thoughts about life and society. Her Instagram-based “Femcyclopaedia” contains doodle portraits of inspiring women through the ages along with their stories. Another project was a play that channels the voices of young women from conflict zones in different parts of the world. In 2016 she delivered a TEDx talk describing how peace education can help end bullying. Her many methods share an essential goal of changing minds and changing society.
Aruna Roy (born 1946)
In 1967, after college and graduate school, Aruna Roy joined the Indian Administrative Service. She was partly inspired by her father, a lawyer who also worked as a civil servant. He had instilled in her a strong social conscience, and the idealistic young woman thought working for the government would be a good way to help people. She was soon disillusioned.
As one of the few women in the IAS, she found that she had to prove herself over and over again. She also grew frustrated with the bureaucratic red tape which interfered with her doing her job. Her first postings took her to rural areas, where she had her first experience of the dire circumstances of the rural poor. After a transfer to Delhi, she observed extensive evidence of government corruption. Eventually, she came to the conclusion that the IAS was too flawed to be effective. Quitting her job, she committed to work for the poor and marginalized at the grassroots level. She joined her husband’s Social Work and Research Centre which had mobilized an army of volunteers to go into rural areas. From an original focus on drinking water and land rights, they have expanded into the fields of education, skill development, health, women empowerment and solar power. SWRC provides literacy and skills classes for adults and children, with girls outnumbering boys in the night schools. Working with the SWRC in rural Rajasthan, Roy lived with the villagers and was able to get a first-hand view of their problems and work directly with them on short and long-term solutions.
In 1987 she helped found the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (Workers and Peasants Strength Union), which became a major force in India’s civil rights movement working for the empowerment of the poor. One important initiative was calling for more transparency in the government as a way to curb corruption and give people access to information they could use to assert their rights. They played a major role in pushing the government to pass the Right to Information Act in 2005. Roy has been a leader in a number of other campaigns, including fighting for the passage of the Whistleblower Protection Law and Grievance Redress Act and speaking out on the vital importance of free speech. Aruna Roy knows how things work, and how they should work: “This begs for us to challenge the way things are, especially corruption and the arbitrary use of power.”