Laxmi strode confidently into the hotel ballroom where we were holding the launch of Wajood — a project developed in partnership between Indrani’s Light Foundation and PSI India to stem gender-based violence in Delhi.
She was slight, dressed in skinny jeans and unmistakable in her confidence, her beauty and for the scars covering her face and arms.
We had not exchanged a single word but I could feel the life and purpose flowing from her, and I loved her immediately.
A little later, we sat down to talk and with self-assurance and boldness, she shared her story. When she was only 15 years old, she refused the marriage proposal of a man twice her age in her New Delhi neighborhood. As revenge, the man enlisted his friend to help him punish her. At a crowded upscale market in India’s capital, the two men approached her and threw a glass of acid in her face.
Now at 23, after multiple surgeries, she is speaking out on the issue of violence against women and mentoring women who’ve experienced similar abuse. She is giving voice to victims and hope to women, and she is pushing for change.
There is something painfully beautiful about the human spirit that allows Laxmi to take such an unimaginable tragedy and turn it into fire and light and love.
Too many young girls and women share Laxmi’s experience. She’s determined to stop the cycle. I am, too. It’s why I was in Delhi launching Wajood with PSI India. The timing is critical and the women I met are ready for change in one of the most dangerous places in the world for girls and women.
I left our conversation restless, determined and impatient. Laxmi inspires my work and she challenges me to do more.
What one thing can we do today to help create change? It could be a simple as sharing Laxmi’s story.
A few days later, I spent time with prostituted women at Shakti Vahini, India’s leading organization to combat human trafficking and slavery.
It broke me. I felt sorrow, anger, rage and incredible grief.
But what most overwhelmed me was the incredible grace of the women I met. They invited me into their space and they shared their very intimate personal stories.
I felt a special connection with Geeta, with her vibrant spirit and strong voice. She’s a leader in this community and encourages the other prostituted women to seek health services and products like condoms. With Geeta’s bold demeanor and humor, you could imagine her as an activist, politician or NGO leader.
Geeta’s mother died when she was 7, leaving behind six children — all girls. Two of her sisters were married off at the age of 7. As her father could not support her, she was sent away to be a domestic servant.
Geeta was only 15 years old when she was married to escape servitude, and then promptly had two children by age 19. Her husband regularly beat her and demanded that she make more money selling goods at the local market. He soon left her alone, young and with no way to support her two children. That’s when a “trusted” male friend offered her a better life and work in the city. Hopeful for a way to provide for her children, she agreed and was soon sold into the Delhi brothel that has become her life, her home, her prison.
One after another, each woman shared her story. I was humbled and fought to hold back tears.
I’m thankful for Shaki Vahini and their work to strengthen law enforcement agencies and campaign against violence against women, child marriage, sexual harassment and forced marriages. With them, we are a step closer to ending gender-based violence in my lifetime.
Join me. Share Geeta’s story. Help create the awareness we need to change. When our voices become too loud, too powerful, they will have no choice but to be heard.
I think most people would expect an educated woman in the country’s capital city to somehow be immune, protected, taking advantage of the basic rights of a modern woman.
In 2004, Mitu, a pediatrician, married an orthopedic surgeon. Shortly after her arranged marriage, her in-laws demanded a greater dowry from her parents — a new car, more jewelry and other possessions. Her parents could not give more, and as a result, Mitu suffered abuse at the hands of her mother-in-law – a practice all too common in India.
After becoming pregnant, her in-laws demanded a sex determination test. Mitu refused.
She was carrying twins, and she knew that they would force her to have an abortion if she was pregnant with girls. Persistent, her in-laws tricked her into eating a cake that she was allergic to and she ended up in the hospital where they arranged a full fetal scan, revealing the sex of the babies to her in-laws. All without her consent.
Mitu fought back.
It so happens that gender-based abortion is illegal in India under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1994. Mitu became the first woman in India to file a complaint under the law against her husband and the doctors and hospital that performed the illegal sex-determination test. To date, no charges have been pressed.
One of the great challenges in addressing gender-based violence is getting laws passed that protect people from abuse. Another great challenge is ensuring charges are filed and people are held accountable for their actions.
The deeply engrained preference for boys in India means that most people feel that Mitu is wrong and that she should have respected her in-laws’ preference for a boy.
Mitu’s path has not been easy. She experiences stigma, has been ostracized and is financially burdened. But she does not let these things stop her from doing what she knows is right.
Change takes champions, advocates and heroes. Mitu and Laxmi and Geeta are my heroes, I join them to forge a world where girls will choose who they marry, when they marry, and celebrate the birth of their daughters.
As I prepared for my journey home, I had a lot to consider. I was exhilarated, exhausted and inspired. I will take these stories with me and I will do my best to amplify them — to honor them.
All of us
I have been back from Delhi for a few weeks now. I went to launch a partnership between Indrani’s Light Foundation and PSI India and Wajood — a project to address gender-based violence in Dehli and surrounding areas.
It’s been my dream to take my experience and the experiences of the women I have met through Indrani’s Light Foundation and put them to use to help women around the world. In India, that dream was realized.
I expected to hear difficult stories. I expected to see great differences in culture and the similarities that make us all human. What I did not expect, what has stayed with me, is the overwhelming sense of hope — from Laxmi and Mitu and Geeta.
When I close my eyes, I see their faces, I hear their voices and I feel their pain and their purpose.
These women are regular women — obedient girls and hopeful wives whose lives were upended by harmful cultural practices that have become far too common. Geeta was forced into prostitution and 20 years later she still suffers. Laxmi was barely 15 when a 32-year-old man doused her with acid because she refused his hand in marriage. Mitu is a pediatrician whose daughter was thrown down the stairs by a spiteful mother-in-law because she did not want two girls in the family.
Thankfully, what is also becoming common is that women like Geeta, Laxmi and Mitu are giving voice to an issue that holds back families, communities and countries. These women are easy to identify as activists, as they are speaking up to create change for the country they so dearly love.
But for every Laxmi, there are hundreds of women who will never get the chance to speak openly or in public for fear of reprisal or even death. Nevertheless, these unsung heroes live next door to us in Delhi, Detroit and Dublin. They take the beatings and the rapes and daily verbal abuse as they try to do their best for their children. They continue to care for the parents of their husbands, often their abusers, and they continue to try to be the best wives and mothers they know how to be.
These women, these invisible heroes, are the backbone of India. They are the ones we must reach with prevention efforts and support services for they will change India into a more compassionate culture towards girls and women. We must also reach boys and teach them new ways, we must talk with men and family members to break harmful cultural practices. The work is complex and daunting and something we must do. Laws must change, people must be held accountable for crimes, solutions must be developed as locally as possible so they are relevant, and we must push for more funding and greater inclusion of gender-based violence programming into existing health programs.
Wajood, the movement that we have started to help address issues of Gender Violence in Delhi, begins today. We join a growing chorus of organizations, women and men who will not stop until we achieve a world free from violence based on gender.
Today, I feel nothing but hope.
She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.