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Prenatal Sex Selection Has No Place In An Equal World

Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your organisation’s background?

“My name is Sanjoli Banerjee. I am 22 years old. As a native of India, I was born in Karnal to Mihir and Gagan Banerjee. I work full-time as a young activist and Director of Sarthi (a non-profit organisation in India). I graduated from ANU, Canberra, Australia, with a Bachelor’s degree in International Security Studies. It is my privilege to have been honoured with national and international awards, to be one of the Diana Award Recipients 2021, and to be considered the youngest social activist in India (2007). SARTHI NGO was founded by Mihir Banerjee and Maha Singh Punia in Haryana, India, in 1992. As a non-profit organisation, we strive to empower, educate, and raise environmental awareness among youth to improve their quality of life. Supporting rural communities and preventing female foeticide are among our top priorities.”

What motivated you to start advocating against female foeticide or prenatal sex discrimination?

“My motivation comes from my childhood experience. My mother was expecting a girl; I was really excited and looking forward to getting a sister. Society didn’t share my excitement. They wanted my sister’s life to be taken away while still in the womb. It was suggested to my mom to think about having a boy: because he could care for my parents, do funeral rites, and never have to leave the house after getting married. Although my mother was under pressure from family members, she gave birth to my younger sister.

Since crimes against women are on the rise in India, parents are expected to act as bodyguards for their daughters. Having a female child was therefore viewed as a burden. My questions were many when I was just 5, including why does female foeticide exist? Why does male foeticide not exist? And what is the reason the public supports killing my unborn sister? I had no idea my curiosity would lead me to a career in activism. I was lucky to have parents who answered my questions honestly rather than shrugging them off like many parents in India do. My parents encouraged me to speak out against the issue. The path to activism was paved for me by my father.”

Can you tell me what kind of programs you are running?

“I have been working with my team to abolish sex-selective abortion in India since 2004 through the 'Beti Bachao, Desh Bachao' that is, Save daughters, Save India—campaign. My first attempt to raise awareness was by reciting poems at school events about unborn foetuses’ cries when I was just five years old. To celebrate the birth of a daughter, our NGO Sarthi began celebrating the "Lohri Beti Ke Naam" or "Lohri festival". It is a festival celebrated by North Indians for the birth of their sons. Apart from this, it is not uncommon to see Sarthi volunteers wearing yellow aprons with messages like 'Female Foeticide is a Sin and a Crime’. As a means of raising awareness about this issue, we have also held bike rallies, peaceful demonstrations, marches, and even made a documentary called "Beti" (which means "Girl"). A firm believer in the rights and opportunities for girls, Sarthi works to ensure equal opportunities for girls and boys.”

What support have you received from the community?

My team consists of 250 volunteers now. At the micro level, we get some support from people in our community. Despite our efforts, we do not currently receive much support at the macro level from the government or other stakeholders. Our local community awareness programs, seminars, and rallies are making a difference in people's lives as people continue joining us and participating in these activities.”

What are some challenges you face during advocacy?

“There was much opposition to my work in Indian society because of the patriarchy. Numerous times, I have been overshadowed by men who think they know more than I do and hear less of what I have to say. My opposition was primarily attributed to my young age, being a woman, and coming from a small rural town in India.

Moreover, our organisation is self-funded. The funding issues prevent us from organising any large-scale events to draw high authorities' attention to this social cause. There was one more big challenge that my team confronted when we decided to set up a free school to provide free education to girls or other children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We started searching for a location. However, when we tried negotiating with the local administration, they refused to cooperate. Despite our efforts, we failed to get approval as they demanded a lot of money to create a school in our village. I was very disappointed by that. On the positive side, after this incident, we did not step back; now, our NGO is running a mobile school that provides education at different locations across our state. Spreading awareness through education is an empowering tool to change people’s mindsets or negative attitudes and bring all people together to bring some positive changes in culture and social norms towards sex-selective abortions.”

What do you think led to the negative mindset and attitudes prompting female foeticide?

I think the dowry system has been the driving force behind female foeticide. In low-income families, the fear of needing to provide a dowry leads to killing daughters in the womb. Many parents consider their daughters an obligation in terms of finances. People believe spending money on a girl after her wedding will be a total waste since she will live with her in-laws afterwards. Under Hinduism, having a son is regarded as the path to heaven. Girls are executed before they are born because of such conservative ideas. The rise in inflation is one of the other root causes of female foeticide. Because of inflation, parents are forced to rethink their decision before having a girl. Educating and marrying their daughter is of the utmost importance to them. The progress in technology is usually responsible for female foeticide. In some cultures, parents abort their children if their sex during pregnancy does not match their expectations.”

What guidance would you give to anyone who wants to effect positive social change in their community?

“My advice to all is to not wait for the right time or the opportunity to start something that will change your life or the lives of others. Every individual can become an agent of change. The first step towards advocating for social causes is to start with yourself. You can bring macro-level cultural or systemic changes later by working with others in the community. Small steps lead to significant results. The most significant thing is to put selfishness aside and do what will make a real difference in the lives of others”.

Have your advocacy programs and efforts made a difference?

“As an activist, I have contributed to a significant improvement in the situation concerning female foeticide. The gender ratio in our state, Haryana, improved significantly from 743/1000 in 2011 to 922/1000 today. As a participant in the Prime Minister's ‘Save the Girl, Educate the Girl’ initiative I have the opportunity to contribute to positive change and this is a great honour for me.

Our advocacy and women empowerment programs are making a difference in our society on a micro-scale. As I began to recite poems based on the cries of unborn foetuses’, I saw people becoming emotional. I also spoke with women who had to abort their unborn girls many times due to their in-laws' pressure. Collaborating with other volunteers, I aim to empower women to fight unfair treatment.

Our NGO, Sarthi, and I raised many concerns about crimes against girls or women. We sent a letter to the Indian Prime Minister suggesting some proposed solutions. As a result, we received an acknowledgement from the PM. The Prime Minister also embraced our efforts. The result was the establishment of police stations exclusively for women in our state where they could express their concerns freely to female officers. Lastly, I would like to mention that changing people's mindsets or existing social and cultural norms regarding this social menace is not easy. While we are doing our best, reaching our goals will take time."

Are there any final words you would like to leave our readers with?

I hope to instil confidence in other young girls like myself. My life is the same as yours; I am like you, an average human. I hope that my story and work will serve as an inspiration and encourage other women to stand up for their rights against injustice.”

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