Gender sensitivity is a matter of life & death

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By And all of us are accountable, says Nandana Sen, combining activism and acting
  • Published 3.03.13

What were your key points of address at the recent Call to Action Summit for Child Survival in Chennai?

A systemic gender bias directly endangers girl children in India. Right from birth (indeed, even before), boys get far better care than girls, who, if they survive, can face other crises. For example: child marriage, illiteracy, violence based on caste and religion, sexual abuse, child trafficking. In the last 10 years, the ratio of girls to boys under six has fallen alarmingly due to female foeticide. Gender-based violence is disturbingly on the rise; the majority of our youth believe husbands are justified in beating wives.

This dangerous bias is reinforced by our laws and practices — marital-rape impunity or the two-finger test and our popular culture through TV shows that romanticise child marriage or exonerate child traffickers; films that objectify women and glorify heroes who stalk them. It is reflected in the tolerance for gender-based violence in all strata — affluent families who condone sexual abuse, khap panchayats that justify honour killings, leaders who publicly blame a gang-rape and murder victim, functionaries who mishandle and don’t report child abuse.

Prioritising a gender focus is imperative for promoting equity in all areas of child development, be it in healthcare or education, the judiciary or the police. Be it in ensuring greater male participation in our community outreach, or integrating into our medical tracking systems a critical focus on protecting the girl child. We cannot afford to assume that gender sensitivity is not a matter of life and death, for we know that it is; or, that the problem is so immense that we can’t make a difference. We can, and we must. All of us are accountable.

What triggered your interest in this and when?

I’ve always found it deeply disturbing that our instinct often is to distance ourselves from the child on the street, the child working hazardously, the child who has been raped, the child who has been sold. As if she belongs to an alien universe. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t working with children, whether with street kids in Calcutta, when I was no more than a child myself, victims of domestic abuse as a student at Harvard, or UNICEF’s adolescent empowerment programmes in Bombay (Deepshika, Navjyoti). The disregard we show as a nation for the protection of our most vulnerable children is horrifying. We must see every child as our own. Each one of us is responsible for ensuring the safety and wellness of the children of India.

What organisations are you working with to raise awareness?

For years I’ve been working closely with RAHI (the first Indian organisation to break the silence about Child Sexual Abuse) as its Cause Ambassador, and as ambassador for the global children’s NGO Operation Smile. In Calcutta, I have collaborated with Terre des Hommes Foundation and Sanlaap, and I also work regularly with NCPCR in its fight against child trafficking and as jury for public hearings. My work is pretty hands-on and takes me to children’s shelters, like Sneha in Narendrapur, Kishalay in Barasat, the MVF homes in Hyderabad, or the RENEW shelters in Bhutan. I recently travelled to the trafficking hinterland of Bengal, to meet rescued girls and their families. It’s critical to connect with the reality of these children.

My focus is on protecting a child’s physical and mental health, safeguarding his or her immediate as well as long-term wellbeing. The organisations I work with need different kinds of attention, but being closely involved with all allows me to join forces when appropriate, on a larger as well as case-by-case basis.

For example, Tuba Tabassum, a stunning girl of 14 and the best student in her Bihar village, dreamt of being a doctor. When Tuba refused her classmate’s wooing four months ago, he and his friends threw acid on her. Tuba is now permanently disfigured, out of school, and struggling to survive. When this case was referred to me by NCPCR, I was able to convince Operation Smile to take on Tuba’s case as a humanitarian exception, to be attended to by their Calcutta branch (closest to Bihar). Although it’s for an acid-attack victim rather than a child with cleft-lip, this unconventional collaboration makes sense as Operation Smile has direct access to what Tuba needs urgently: skilled plastic surgeons who volunteer their services for children who need help.

What distresses you most about child protection, especially in Bengal?

The most unforgivable violation I’ve encountered repeatedly, in Bengal and other states, is the abuse of authority. Frequently, individuals with the responsibility of protecting children are themselves the violators — police letting identified child traffickers go free and refusing to report them, headmasters charging illegal fees or denying admission to HIV positive children, school inspectors pocketing the midday meal fund, wardens of children’s homes physically and sexually abusing their wards. What can be more deplorable than children being exploited by those who are supposed to keep them safe?

What kind of change is your goal?

What’s imperative is a systemic change in attitude, social norms and behaviour, which will not happen overnight. One of the biggest challenges is to create accountability in our public sectors. There’s a great deal of rudimentary work we have to do on an urgent basis to keep our children healthy and safe, to empower them, and work towards creating a better future for them.

As an actor, do you feel cinema can be successful as a medium for activism or social change? Do you ever combine your two roles?

(Laughs) It’s interesting that ‘actor’ and ‘activist’ share their root verb, isn’t it? To act is, essentially, to ‘do’ — and to engage or compel others to ‘act’ as well. In my life the two roles often intersect. I’m deeply opposed to violence in any form, and it’s no coincidence that many of my films condemn it strongly, whether it’s a critique of terrorism as The War Within, of cross-border violence as Tango Charlie, of apartheid as The World Unseen, or of religious fundamentalism, as Rang Rasiya. Whenever possible I combine my commitment to child rights with my acting work. A decade ago, I flew in from NYC to originate the role of a child-abuse survivor in the play 30 Days in September at Prithvi. More recently, I completed Chuppee for UN WOMEN, directed by Madhab Panda, on Child Sexual Abuse. Madhab also explored child labour in I am Kalam, a great example of how popular films can raise awareness. I believe fully in the transformative power of cinema, but very few filmmakers in India are utilising its potential to promote gender equality or child welfare.

When and how do you take time out for these causes?

It is a priority in my life. For example, the last two weeks have been totally focused on my child rights work. From the invitation to fly from New York to Chennai to speak at the Child Survival Summit, to participating in a conference on public action in Calcutta, to launching a book on Child Protection for TDH Foundation in Hyderabad, to spending a day with the bright-eyed kids taken out of child labour and placed into schools by the MV Foundation. To me, the issue is accountability rather than making time. Child protection is every citizen’s moral responsibility.

(Interview by Mohua Das)

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