Having been a feminist and activist for the greater part of her life, Smita Bharti has come to the conclusion that the great Indian middle class is the one most trapped in the morality of what “good girls” and “good families” are supposed to be.
“Women are taught that the family comes before us – not just your partner and children but the entire extended family comes first,” says the executive director of Sakshi, a pioneering rights-based NGO working against sexual harassment and child sexual abuse (CSA) in India.
With experience in diverse roles from educator, writer and translator, to playwright, director and actor, Smita is the recipient of the global civilian honour KarmaVeer Puraskaar 2016 for Social Change given by the international confederation of NGOs in partnership with United Nations.
Working primarily with women and the youth, she always asked herself why women never seem to realise their own potential. After years of learning, she realised that, “Women aren’t taught to have a sense of self, nor given to understand that we have autonomy and a responsibility to ourselves.”
It is something she began to question two decades ago – through her self-education explorations such as applying for a fellowship to WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace) in the late 1990s and later through her writing, producing theatrical performances, talks and educational programmes.
The Delhi-based 55-year-old’s own personal story contributed to her understanding, but only in retrospect. Smita spent her early childhood in Shimla with her maternal grandparents, where her grandfather was a doctor. That was also were she had her first experience of CSA, which turned her into a quiet child.
Later, she moved to Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, to live with her paternal grandparents, and had an opposite experience of running through vegetable orchards and milking buffaloes. She calls it a rich experience going “from fork-and-knife to farm life.”
She enrolled at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi for her Bachelor’s, got engaged in the first year, married in the second, and went to college with a baby in her third year. Another baby came along in a few years as did incessant abuse in her marital home. Twelve years into the marriage, Smita walked out with both children and set out to find herself and make a new life.
Referencing her storytelling workshops with women prisoners in Tihar Jail, Smita noted, “When they were asked to ‘rewrite the story’, the women in jail had more gall than women outside. Those outside assume they are free and have a choice in their life. But any career they choose should not inconvenience the family, and the credit or debit card in their hands is an add-on to another card or account that belongs to the male head of the family. They cannot travel on their own if they wish, they do not even know how to change the car tyre on their own. A woman’s potential is meant for others and not for ourselves.”
Smita credits the NGO Sakshi for empowering her with its legacy that focuses on “prevention, not protection; making equality a ground and not a goal; and systemic interventions instead of working on one individual at a time”.
Founded in 1992 by Supreme Court lawyer Naina Kapur, who was the lead instructing counsel on the Vishaka Guidelines 1997, Sakshi was the force behind two critical public-interest litigations that led to the formation of the POSH Act (The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace – Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act, 2013), the 172nd Law Reform that informed the Sexual Assault Bill (2010) and POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012).
Smita, in her role as Sakshi’s executive director and president, is currently fully immersed in its ambitious Rakshin Project, a workshop included in the 12-hour National Service Scheme (NSS) curriculum that is offered to college students. NSS students are only educated about the POCSO law and their Constitutional Right to Equality but also equipped to provide CSA survivors access to creative expression, counselling, legal aid and sustained engagement.
“One in every two children in our country is a survivor of sexual abuse, and 90 percent of these are by people known to them,” says Smita, explaining why having young adults trained to spot and intervene in CSA cases is the best way to stop it within families. The 10-year Rakshin Project has been launched in partnership with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and has a target of reaching out to NSS units in 40,000 colleges and universities across India thereby equipping 40 lakh youth to become rakshins or preventers of child sexual abuse.
Rolled out in February 2020, the pandemic stalled some of their plans but even so, Sakshi managed to take workshops online and has already trained 12,500 youth in 200 colleges in the past year. “Sexual abuse in childhood leads to 40 percent lowered productivity as an adult,” says Smita, whose sole motivation is to spread awareness so that “someone somewhere can make informed, real choices, and know how to heal and resolve dysfunctionality”.
“I was not born a feminist,” says Smita, who explains patriarchy as a mindset favouring one gender above all others that society collectively buys into. According to this mindset, she says, “The woman’s sacrifice is valorised, whether it’s through the concept of bhadralok or khandaani families (respectable people) or by terming her acche ghar ki ladki (girl from a good family). The alternative possibility – the feminist – is attributed negative values and stigmatised.”
Since patriarchy is so nuanced and insidious, women co-opt into it without realising it, claiming they don’t need financial freedom or it is their choice to give up their jobs after marriage or pregnancy. “It’s like the frog in a pot of slow burning water; you don’t notice it until it begins to burn. Until then, you are nice and cosy,” she says wryly.
There’s a lot of work ahead, she admits: “It’s not just about educating women but all genders. Everyone has to buy into the vision of an equitable world.” What is her own inspiration for always pushing on and forward, safeguarding the rights of children and empowering women to discover their own truths? She takes a deep breath before she replies, “I don’t know any other way of being.”
First published in eShe’s March 2021 issue
Syndicated to Money Control