TOPICS > Arts

How To Lift Half the World

BY Hari Sreenivasan  February 26, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST

Above, a laborer in South India earns money for her child by carrying bricks and mortar on her head all day. Center, social activist Medha Patkar and below, a “video volunteer.”

In the past few weeks and months, I’ve mentioned women on my nightly contributions to the NewsHour programs—at times in their struggles for equality, despite the atrocities they endure. There is the story of Malala Yousafzai recovering after the Taliban shot her in the head for being an advocate for girls education, the Billion Rising movement on Valentine’s day that found new energy in India after the tragic gang rape in Delhi, or more recently, the spotlight on violence against women in South Africa in the wake of the tragic murder of Reeva Steenkamp. When the set lights go dark, and I’m taking my microphone off, I am often perplexed that half the population on the planet still has to fight to be heard, to be treated with dignity, to get a fair shot.

Perhaps I’m at times dumbfounded because in my first and second grade class in India, in a room of more than 70 students, I was competing with everything I had for the No. 1 ranking with a young woman named Uma. Maybe it is in that competition where I assumed naively that girls and women would always be my equal competitors.

It did not take long for me growing up in India to recognize how lopsidedly unequal situations were for women outside that classroom. While my worldview may have shifted by immigrating to the U.S., I’ve become aware of the gender inequities of the developing world as well, and often glanced to my motherland to see women rising and leading masses and movements in a culture which is very slowly beginning to accept the reality. Rather than picking a particular woman, I’d like to highlight what I’d say are classes of inspirational activists.

Medha Patkar crossed my radar in the 90s when she was working furiously to stop dams on the Narmada River. She lobbied for the hundreds of thousands of people living upstream who would be flooded out of their homes. While the occasional celebrity activist has joined her cause, her efforts have continued for decades and she has survived arrests and hunger strikes as she continued to become a voice for so many who had no chance to be heard. What was considered her radicalism has now become a countervailing voice thanks in part through prestigious international awards and recognition. But there are legions more who have less recognition and are still doing stellar work.

Run through the archives at the NewsHour and through Fred De Sam Lazaro’s pieces and you’ll find the story of Sunita Krishnan, a tireless activist who along with her non-profit Prajwala fights the realities of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking in India. Check out a powerful TED talk by Krishnan where she details the lives of some of the victims and pleads with the audience not for our pity but for our acceptance of these victims as fellow humans. Given the recent report by Human Rights Watch on child sexual abuse in India, Krishnan’s work will not end soon. A decade ago Fred also profiled Dr. Suniti Solomon, a doctor who was part of the team that documented the first cases of HIV in India and who is still working to help destigmatize being HIV positive. Dr. Solomon was profiled in a recent film about a culture of intermarriage between HIV positive individuals in India.

There are quieter tiers of activists who are incredibly effective in their own focused corners. In 2003 I visited the Banyan, a woman-run non-profit in Chennai India that focuses on helping homeless and mentally ill women (mostly) get off the streets. The patients are castaways from families who don’t want them or can’t care for them, and they endure abuse of almost every kind on the streets, but somehow this agency manages to reach out, care for, and often stabilize women through medical and psychological treatment. I was also inspired by the Sylvia Wright Trust whose namesake has been tirelessly working in rural South India for more than three decades. She started with a medical van and now has built schools for deaf and disabled children who were often times castaways and one of the highest caliber hospitals in the area. This former nurse from Leeds has even built a nursing college which will continue her legacy.

The stories of the Sylvia Wrights, the Banyans, and any of these change agents would not be heard were it not for what I consider the amplifying class of activist. I’m inspired by the engagement techniques and campaigns spearheaded by Mallika Dutt and her organization Breakthrough. From Facebook Games to promise campaigns, she is helping “ring the bell” and raise awareness of gender violence, women’s human rights and immigration. Documentary journalists like Sharmeed Obaid Chinoy tell powerful stories and sometimes are rewarded with widespread accolades as she was with her Oscar last year. Did the recognition stop the practice of Acid attacks? No—but do a billion more people on the planet at least know that the atrocity exists? Yes. There are also grassroots enablers like Jessica Mayberry of Video Volunteers who are capitalizing on the falling prices for cameras and digital storytelling tools, and are enabling and empowering women, the poor and the disenfranchised to begin telling their own stories.

I also wonder whether we are at the beginning of a more significant groundswell of awareness of women’s issues. The same forces which fuel all of the campaigns that comprise the marketplace of ideas are enabling stories of gender violence and inequality to spread farther and faster. From social media calls to action to non-profit campaigns to educate women and girls, they are all competing for our most valuable diminishing resource—time. The difference I’m noticing is that in the past couple of years, it seems these campaigns are winning more of my attention. I wonder whether this conversation goes “viral” and infects the consciousness of us all, more powerfully than the gun debate or climate change or education, or any number of issues. Because If I can reframe thinking of inequality as a gender-centric set of conditions, lift it out of a box I may have placed it in within my own head, and perhaps begin seeing it as something that affects half the population who will help tackle gun violence, and climate change and education and everything else, perhaps I would feel more urgency to act. Working toward that paradigm shift is why the women I’ve mentioned and so many others inspire me.

You can subscribe to Hari on Facebook, Google Plus and on Twitter @Hari.