Breaking boundaries: A lifelong journey to fight injustices in India
Sanjoli grew up in a family dedicated to gender equality and climate activism - and now runs a respected NGO concerned with these issues herself. Still, being a young, female changemaker from a rural area, she is heard far less than others in her position.
India, Southern Asia
Story by Sanjoli Banerjee. Edited by Sterre van Dord and Charu Thukral
Published on October 31, 2021. Reading time: 7 minutes
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I was about 4 years old when I started to question what was ‘normal’ in society. My mother was expecting a girl and I was excited to have a little sister. However, society did not share my excitement.They wanted my sister dead in the womb. They would suggest my mom to try again for a boy: someone who could grow up to take care of the parents, someone who could do the last rites, and someone who wouldn’t have to leave the house after getting married. Society expects parents of a daughter to act as bodyguards to protect girls from increasing crimes against women in India. For these reasons, having a girl child was (and, in places in the country, still is) considered a burden. However, I was just 4, and I had a lot of questions: what is female foeticide, why isn’t there male foeticide, why do people support the killing of my unborn sister, why are there so many crimes against women? Little did I know that my curious questions were the starting point of my activism career. Unlike many parents in India, my parents answered my questions honestly rather than shrugging them off. They encouraged me to raise my voice against the issue. My father was the one who guided me to the path of activism.
My family and I believe that nature and women share a very strong bond. Both nature and women are the lifelines to humanity.
In 2003, when I was 5 years old, my father organised road shows and campaigns to create awareness about female foeticide, in which my whole family including me, my infant sister and mother participated. We distributed pamphlets stating “kanya bharoon hatya paap hai,” which translates to “killing female foeticide is a sin.”
When I was about 10 years old (in 2009-10), I went on a 4,500 km road expedition for the Save Environment campaign wherein we stopped at various schools and colleges in villages and cities with the message 'Save Earth.' We showed them the documentary “Earth in Flames,” which was directed by my father and I and conveyed the message ‘Save Earth and Save Daughters.' Our aim was to create awareness about climate change and women rights. For the campaign, I also conducted interviews with the general public from all walks of life to see how much they knew and what they had to say about these issues. I compiled these views to be presented in the documentary. My family and I believe that nature and women share a very strong bond. Both nature and women are the lifelines to humanity. One gives birth to us (humankind), and the other sustains us.
I ticked many pointers on the list of people to be sidelined by patriarchal society such as: younger in age, female by gender, and from a small town in India.
From going on campaigns with my parents as a child activist, I have come a long way to now running a full-fledged NGO called Sarthi with my sister. We are a group of 200 volunteers working on three campaigns: Save Daughter, Plant Trees Save Earth, and Sushiksha: Empowerment through Education. But the journey has not been easy. I ticked many pointers on the list of people to be sidelined by patriarchal society such as: younger in age, female by gender, and from a small town in India. On many occasions I have been spoken over and heard less by males who think they know more. Often at conferences and discussions, my father would be heard more than me because of his age and gender even though I would have valid questions and points.
Feminism in India is misunderstood and is considered an extreme form of activism. A lot of my friends and family misunderstand the term and want to dissociate themselves and me with it.
In India, patriarchy is deeply rooted and time and again females have been forced to sweep it under the rug when they try to question the status quo. I took this up as a challenge and claimed my space in society. I fought as a representative of the youth and millions of unborn and born girls who do not have the opportunity to speak up. For my efforts I have been recognised by multiple organisations, the latest ones being The Diana Award and Young Global Changemakers Award from the Germany Secretariat, which I am honoured to have received.
Feminism in India is misunderstood and is considered an extreme form of activism. A lot of my friends and family misunderstand the term and want to dissociate themselves and me with it. However, for me feminism is simply a scenario where men and women are seen as equal. Coming from here, I call myself a proud feminist and I will keep fighting for women's rights. Since I started my activism career, the situation regarding female foeticide has improved a lot. The female to male ratio in Haryana was 743/1000 in the year 2011 and is currently 922/1000--a significant improvement. I am proud to have contributed to this positive change that has now become a national agenda with the Prime Minister’s ‘beti padhao beti bachao’ campaign (Save the girl child, educate the girl child).
I want to set an example for the other young girls around the world like me that if Sanjoli can, you can too. I am not an extraordinary person; I am a normal human being like you. I hope that with my story and work I am able to influence and encourage many to speak up against injustice to women.
 In Hinduism, after death the funeral rites are performed by the eldest son or a close ‘male’ relative who generally starts the cremation process – by lighting the fire or pressing the button for the burning to begin.
 Female foeticide is the process of finding out the sex of the foetus and undergoing abortion if it is a girl.
The not-for-profit organisation started by Sanjoli’s parents in 1992. https://www.ngosarthi.org/
 The award recognises the efforts of youths in making a positive change in the society.
 The award Young Changemakers from 13 countries for their remarkable contributions to furthering the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs by serving as positive change catalysts in their communities. https://www.fenews.co.uk/press-releases/77173-young-global-changemakers-award-2021
 Indian state from where Sanjoli belongs
 Last census was conducted in 2011
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