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Smiles and determination of rural Indian women | © Wikicommons
Smiles and determination of rural Indian women | © Wikicommons
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Meet the Women Fighting for Freedom in India

Picture of Soma Hashmi
Updated: 19 June 2017
It is a common experience for women in India to be harassed either in public or at home. According to a survey carried out by ActionAid UK in 2016, nearly four out of five women in the country are burdened with insults, wolf-whistling, groping, and sometimes even rape.

Over the years, however, many have fought to reclaim public spaces and their independence despite the hurdles of a patriarchal society. To celebrate their achievements this International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at some of the names at the forefront of the cause.

Laxmi Agarwal

Laxmi Agrawal, a woman of great courage, is a campaigner for the Stop Acid Attacks Campaign. When Laxmi was just 15-years-old she was brutally attacked with acid by her friend’s brother, Naeem Khan, whom she had politely rejected after repeated proposals from his end. The acid lead to 45 percent burns all over her face and she had to undergo 7 major surgeries between 2005–2009.

Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award | © Wikicommons
Michelle Obama giving the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award | © Wikicommons

After the horrendous incident, Laxmi turned to the Supreme Court for support, and alongside a lawyer, Aparna Bhatt, she filed a public litigation against acid being sold over the counter. She also initiated several campaigns online and offline to spread awareness about acid attacks. Consequently, police stations are now much more prompt to deal with cases when they are reported, rehabilitation and compensation for victims is much faster, and government and medical officers are much more empathetic and cooperative towards victims.

Laxmi Agarwal received a 2014 International Women of Courage Award by the United States’ First Lady, Michelle Obama. Today, she is the director of Chhanv Foundation which helps hundreds of acid attack survivors in India. She is also happily settled with Alok Dixit, a founder-member of the Foundation, and has a lovely daughter called Pihu. With undying strength and fervor, Laxmi Agarwal quoted the following words, “The face you burned is the face I love… I am alive and flourishing.”

Sunitha Krishnan

A woman made of steel, Sunitha Krishnan, is an anti-human trafficking activist and the co-founder of Prajwala—one of the largest rehabilitation centers in the country that rescues and assists trafficked women and children. At the age of 15, Sunitha was gang-raped by eight men.

Dr. Sunitha Krishnan | © Joi Ito/Flickr
Dr. Sunitha Krishnan | © Joi Ito/Flickr

From a very young age, Sunitha was always passionate about social work—at the age of eight she started teaching dance to mentally challenged children, and at the age of 12 she was running small schools in the slums. This brutal incident did not break her at all, in fact, it ignited an undying fire that has led Sunitha to become one of the most influential figures in India today. She has rescued and provided shelter to over 8,000 girls and in 2016 she was awarded India’s fourth highest civilian award, the Padma Shri.

The anonymous founder of How Revealing

A brave initiative, How Revealing, is a website designed as a safe-haven where people can share experiences related to sexual harassment and assault. Its 29-year-old founder chose to remain anonymous as she felt it would take away attention from the website’s goal—for stories of sexual assault to receive the attention they deserve.

Today, the website is a valuable resource for the country as it records first-hand experiences from men and women across India. The accounts are of every magnitude, from unwanted stares on the streets to public masturbation, as well as incidents of molestation, catcalling, exhibitionism and abuse. A person of any gender can contribute a story that they deem worth sharing. It can even be from a person who is not directly affected but is a bystander of an incident involving any type of sexual assault.

Currently the website is run by an anonymous team who are at present working towards building a support system that will feature a directory of organizations to assist victims as well as lessen the burden of blame and shame that is associated with sexual abuse.

Irom Chanu Sharmila

The iron lady, Irom Chanu Sharmila, is a political activist, civil rights activist and a poet. She is the lady who felt so passionately about the people of her hometown, Manipur, that she fasted for 16 long years in protest of the Malom Massacre. Her primary reason in protesting was to demand that the Indian government revoke the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) which is in place in the seven sister states of India’s northeast.

Irom Chanu Sharmila | © American Center Mumbai/Flickr
Irom Chanu Sharmila | © American Center Mumbai/Flickr

The Act grants security forces the right to search properties, arrest or use weapons if the need arises or if they suspect someone to be working against the state. The Malom Massacre involved 10 civilians who were brutally shot and killed while they were waiting at the bus stop; this deeply affected Irom Sharmila. She vowed that she would not sip a drop of water or eat a single bite till the AFSPA was repealed.

For 16 years, the government force-fed her using nasogastric intubation, giving her food such as Cerelac, Horlicks and protein shakes. Finally, on July 26, 2016, Irom Sharmila ended her hunger strike and announced that she would contest state elections in Manipur. Irom Sharmila has received multiple awards such as the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, a lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission and in 2013, Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience in relation to the arrests she has suffered for standing up for what she believed in.

Karuna Nundy

Involved in some of India’s most challenging cases, Karuna Nundy, is a commercial and human rights lawyer as well as an expert on gender and freedom of expression. She is a strong advocate for women’s rights and positions herself against the patriarchal society. Karuna Nundy played a huge role in 2013’s ‘anti-rape bill’. Following the Delhi-gang rape case in 2012, a Verma Committee Report was setup to review and amend India’s pre-existing anti-rape laws and Karuna Nundy was consulted regarding the report.

Today, she writes about how the rights of women have a long way to go in India, although the Criminal Law Amendment Act did bring about a few positive changes—policemen are now held criminally accountable if they fail to report a sexual assault. Moreover, several crimes such as voyeurism, stalking and trafficking have been included in the law but as Karuna Nundy says, laws on marital rape are still undergoing strong resistance. Alongside several other lawyers, Nundy is working on a bill of rights for women called ‘Womanifesto’. As well as using the law, she strongly suggests that a public education programme needs to be devised in order to target patriarchy at grass-root level—girls need to be sent to school, kept in school and need to have the same access to health care.

Today, Karuna Nundy is one of the most influential supreme court lawyers of India—described by Forbes Magazine as a mind that matters and by The Times of India as a feminist leading the new wave.

Shaheen Mistri

The pioneer of primary education in India, Shaheen Mistri is the founder of Teach for India (TFI). Her first inkling that she wanted to help underprivileged children achieve basic education was when she was visiting her grandparents in Mumbai and she found the disparity in education between private and public schools quite appalling. This led to the establishment of TFI in 2007—a countrywide movement that aims to bridge the gap in education. It does this by recruiting and placing college graduates and young professionals (known as TFI fellows) in low-income schools, where they commit to teaching full-time for two years.

SmileS and determination of rural indian women | © Wikicommons
Smiles and determination of rural indian women | © Wikicommons

Shaheen Mistri’s ultimate vision is for every child in India to receive good quality education. She and her team started out in Mumbai and Pune and have now branched out to Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad. Shaheen’s aim is for the cohort of fellows to increase rapidly in number, and for them to serve as perfect examples for future young students.

Sairee Chahal

Chahal possesses the admirable quality of empowering women by being the founder of Sheroes.in—an online platform for women across the country. As Sairee states, if women are provided with a conducive environment, they can easily achieve their dreams without any hindrances. Unfortunately, Indian women have always faced the issue of having to pick family life over their careers but Sairee’s entrepreneurial mind has changed this for thousands of women in India. Sheroes provides various work opportunities for a variety of women including, interns, corporate employees, returning professionals, mothers and work-from-home freelancers.

Today, Sheroes has helped over 1,000,000 women, over 7,000 companies refer to the website to connect with female professionals and it has 5,000 success stories to share with the world. In the wise words of Sairee Chahal, “Every woman who makes a choice and makes it work for her is a shero.”

Deepika Padukone

One of India’s top Bollywood actresses, Deepika Padukone is the founder of the Live Love Laugh Foundation (LLLF) which focuses on spreading awareness and fighting stigma associated with mental health. Deepika herself battled with severe depression and it was only then that she realized how underestimated mental health issues are in India. Consequently, LLLF has used several platforms to spread awareness of mental health—via its website, written both in English and Hindi, via radio, television and several ad campaigns, as well as through numerous field activities. Today, awareness programmes have already been conducted in 27 schools in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Delhi and have reached approximately 5,000 students and 1,500 teachers around the country.

Actress Deepika Padukone attends the premiere of 'On Tour' during the 63rd Cannes Film Festival | © Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock
Actress Deepika Padukone attends the premiere of ‘On Tour’ during the 63rd Cannes Film Festival | © Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock

Alongside her foundation, Deepika also launched a campaign which she titled “Dobara poocho” meaning “ask again”. The campaign includes a short film which depicts friends and family reaching out to loved ones in mental distress. Deepika is a true believer that listening to someone who is suffering from issues like depression can be a great support. Today her foundation is also training physicians to correctly diagnose depression, she believes this can help bridge the gap between the large number of patients and the sparse number of mental health specialists.

Sampat Pal Devi

The pink lady, Sampat Pal Devi, is the powerful founder of Gulabi Gang which is an extraordinary women’s movement that was founded in 2006 in the Banda District of Uttar Pradesh. Sampat Pal Devi’s driving force was the deep-rooted patriarchal culture she has been surrounded with since she was married at the age of 12. The gang, also known as the “pink gang” consists of young girls and women from the ages of 18 to 60-years-old that wear bright pink saris and carry bamboo sticks for security. The Gulabi Gang works towards the betterment of all the social and personal issues that Indian women commonly face by preventing child marriages, persuading families to educate their daughters, training women in self-defense, registering reports against sex-offenders (including abusive husbands), and encouraging women to become financially independent.

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Rupa, Neetu, Ritu, Geeta and Chanchal of Sheroes’ Hangout, Agra

Founded by the Chhanv Foundation, Sheroes’ Hangout in Agra is run by five acid attack victims—Rupa, Neetu, Ritu, Geeta and Chanchal—and is the first of its kind. The cafe not only gives financial stability to the survivors but is also a center of hope and activism for all acid attack survivors in India.

Indian women| © kaetana/Shutterstock

Indian women| © kaetana / Shutterstock

As you walk into the cafe, these ladies will greet you with bright shining eyes and happy smiles. The cafe is a colourful haven of graffiti, trinkets, funky wall art and casual cane chairs. As you enter you will be able to spot a library, a small handicraft section, a boutique that sells clothing designed by Rupa and a cozy documentary screening area.

In a country where women are usually hidden behind-the-scenes, this cafe is a brave movement not just for acid attack survivors but for women all over India. Being able to independently and confidently run a cafe, and have hope to build a better future is undoubtedly commendable and worth acknowledging.

Sheroes Hangout Cafe will be given the Nari Shakti Award (Women Power Award) on International Women’s Day. Rupa will personally receive the award by the President on March 8, 2017 at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Previously Sheroes’ Hangout has also been awarded ‘Indian of the Year’ and the ‘Woman of Courage’ awards.

Sheroes’ Hangout, Fatehabad Road, opposite The Gateway Hotel, Taj View Chowraha, Tajganj, Agra

The women of India have come a long way. They have changed the face of the country by substantially challenging the stereotypical image of an Indian woman and proudly occupying top positions in business corporations, courts, hospitals and various other fields.

However, this in no way discounts the fact that female rights still need to develop further—women in rural areas are still bearing the brunt of India’s patriarchal society; but what serves as a beacon of hope is that the women highlighted above are still struggling, fighting and dedicating every second of their lives to create a better world. They are using their personal experiences, insurmountable strength and unwavering hope to make India a safer, freer and happier place.