Distinctly two states in every way possible

The story was initially posted here –
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/column-two-states-every-way-possible/
BY PRIYALI SUR  February 15, 2017 at 9:13 PM

We sat sipping slushy mojitos. It was the kind of night that makes you want to throw away your heels and dance without a care in the world. Swaying to the electro house music at Kuli Alma in south Tel Aviv were the young, insatiable night owls of the city. On my way there, my Israeli friend Etay, a 21-year-old ballet dancer, walked me through the Ruppin street, talking excitedly about his current role as Billy in the musical “Billy Elliot” and admiring the Bauhaus architecture that dotted the city.

My mind raced back to earlier in the day when I zipped along Highway 1, connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and then crossed a checkpoint to enter West Bank. I had carefully hid my keffiyeh — the Palestinian checkered black and white scarf — under the car seat to avoid suspicion by the guards. Once the first hurdle was cleared, I drove through beautiful, mountainous, brown landscapes until I reached Nablus and the home of Bashar.

Even after 10 years of being a journalist and documentary filmmaker, I still don’t know what is the right question to ask a family member who has lost a loved one. A picture of Bashar and another one of Yasser Arafat, the former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, on the wall welcomed us along with a bunch of enthusiastic young men in the room. Abu Ashraf, Bashar’s brother and the only older man in his 50s in the room, turned to my camera and started talking about how he didn’t know a thing about his brother’s plans to carry out the suicide bombing attack that killed seven people in 1997 at the Ben Yehuda street. Fumbling a little and nervously turning a rosary that was the Palestinian flag colors — red, green, white and black in color — he said he understood the loss of the families who had lost their loved ones in the attack. He had a lost a brother too. No one’s loss was bigger, he added thoughtfully. They had equally suffered because of the occupation.

Soon the younger men in the room chimed in. In his late 20s, Ashraf, the son of Abu Ashraf, started talking passionately about how being related to a suicide bomber had taken away almost all their liberties. “None of us, even our children’s children’s children, will ever be allowed into Israel. The guard at the border told us that we should try in 100 years.” So two years ago when his wife from East Jerusalem, holding an Israeli ID card, was giving birth to their first born in Jerusalem, Ashraf risked his life by jumping the 438 km long wall dividing Israel and the West Bank to be by his wife’s side and welcome their son into the world.

As Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Trump, with clear warnings from his far-right minister Naftali Bennett to not mention the phrase “two states” or “Palestinian state,” I wonder how the politics and the balancing act of Trump and Netanyahu — of neither sounding too right nor displeasing their right leaning supporters — will play out in the lives of the people there.

“None of us, even our children’s children’s children, will ever be allowed into Israel. The guard at the border told us that we should try in 100 years.”

The wall does not just divide Israel from West Bank, but it was also divides free-spirited thoughts, ideas and life from a shackled existence. On one side is 21-year old Etay, with his ideas of art, architecture, dance, music, and on the other side is Ashraf, with the fear of being arrested for meeting his newborn son. This cannot be one state. This is distinctly two states in every way possible.

So when Rami, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed by Bashar in 1997, took a stand against the occupation and said that he is curious about the meeting of these two leaders, I knew it would resonate with the millions others who defy the politics of divisive walls and borders. “There is no point in debating the two-state solution. The question is not the number of states. That is irrelevant. It was irrelevant 50 years ago. The question is about equality, respect and dignity. The state is just a technical issue,” said Rami to me, sounding very calm as we discussed U.S.- Israel over a Skype call.

On the other hand, my other young Jewish friend living in Jerusalem sounds worried. “I’m not so worried by the discussion over the U.S. Embassy moving to Jerusalem. Trump may or not actually do that and it may or may not impact our lives, but the Muslim ban by Trump might very well affect us.” Married to a Palestinian Muslim and struggling to even rent a house in West Jerusalem, since no one wants to lease their house to an Arab man, this couple wants to move to the U.S. Though she now fears that even the U.S. will be hostile to her husband because of his religion. “We just returned from a visit to Auschwitz with our 1-year-old son. When I hear about the ban, it feels like history is repeating itself. What will my son learn — his mother a Jew, his father a Muslim, both with a history of persecution. Is this what we want?”

“What does this mean to you?” A strong, broad-shouldered man interrogated me at the Ben Gurion airport. A little startled and shaken I asked, “What, sir? What do you mean?” Pointing to the neatly folded keffiyehs in my camera tripod bag, he asked again, “What does this mean to you?” I wanted to answer that to me, as a nonpracticing Hindu from India who lives in the U.S., the keffiyeh meant nothing cultural, religious or political. But as a citizen of this world, the ability to carry a piece of cloth, just any piece of cloth, meant celebrating the freedom to choose what I want to wear, who I want to be, where I want to travel and how I want to live. It meant not being boxed in by stereotypes.

But I needed to board that flight to Washington, D.C., in the next 40 minutes, so instead I said, “Sir, the keffiyeh to me is just a fashion accessory.” He smiled approving of my answer, stamped my boarding pass and I was soon on a flight back to the “land of the free,” as they say.

 

Watch the trailer to my new film ‘sahbak’. It’s a film about stories of Israeli-Palestinian love and friendship.

 

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Why Donald Trump will never be the President of the United States of America

– A subway scribble –

View story at Medium.com

A simple subway ride is enough to tell a non-American like me a little bit about why Donald Trump will never be the President of the United States of America. Some might say I’m being unreasonable, saying something like this, especially on a day when Reince Priebus tweeted that Trump will be the presumptive GOP nominee, but if you are in America just pause and look around you and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

This morning as I rushed through the crowded escalators trying to catch the metro that was already on the platform, a Latin American man dragged his suitcase into the same train compartment that I got into. Gui Boratto playing on my iphone I tried to match people’s random movements in the train to the beats of my song. That’s when I noticed the man with the suitcase again, looking very lost. His suitcase kept falling, as though dancing to my Boratto track. He struggled to hold it with one hand and with the other hand clutched on to a crumpled paper, as he strained his neck around the pole to read the metro map. Another man as blonde and as white as Trump made his way to this Latino guy and started explaining something to him. He then pulled out a piece of paper and drew what seemed like a map from a distance. I like to eavesdrop on interesting conversations in public spaces so I unplugged my earphones. The blonde man was asking him if he was new in town. “It’s my 2nd day in the U.S”, said the Latino. I thought to myself, is he one of those for who Trump wants to build a wall but the blondie was oblivious to my thoughts thankfully. He offered to get off with the Latino guy at the next station only to explain to him the way to his destination and to my surprise he did. The man will probably board the next train but at 9 am on a Tuesday when all you want is to get to work on time this seemed like a Mother Teresa act to me. There was more of this philanthropy in store for me the very same day.

Later that day –

It is 8 pm now and I am standing next to a rabbi and a girl who is with him. Suddenly an African American man who smells of alcohol gets up from his seat and deliberately elbows the girl. I am standing with my backpack touching this girls shoulder, that’s how cramped it is. This man doesn’t stop at that. He now starts saying some random things to the girl. I turn off my music to listen. She looks very uncomfortable and is trying to move away but there is no place to move. That’s when another African American man standing on the opposite side of the train compartment makes his way towards us through the crowd. He comes right next to us, pushes this other man away and stands right between the girl and the man who elbowed her. He doesn’t say a word, just stands there like a wall between her and the man until her stop comes. Before she leaves she smiles and thanks him. I plug my earphones and get back to my twitter feed — “#Trump wins #IndianaPrimaries”.

I know you are probably thinking that the subway stories sound too simplistic and not representative of an entire nation and what about Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Eric Garner? Yes, all that does exist in America but this exists as well. And lets hope as always the good trumps the bad.

An Uber Ride and the Debate over Climate Change

View story at Medium.com

During an Uber drive two weeks ago, I had the most bizarre conversation with the driver of the car. It was a day before the predicted snow weekend in the middle of March in DC and I was baffled by the unpredictable Washington DC weather. 18 degree Celsius one day and a dip to 2 degree Celsius the next day was not normal for someone like me who has grown up in a tropical country.
So my chat with my Uber driver started with a discussion about the unpredictable weather and then went on to climate change. At the mention of the word ‘climate change’, he got a bit defensive. “I am a nerd. I study science all the time. Climate change is not a reality but a political gimmick”, he said. I had to contradict. This was the time to bring out all that I had gathered during those Tuesday Climate Change sessions at SAIS. I responded, assured and armed with all my grad school facts and figures. I got this, I thought to myself as I said to him, “So you think all the industrialization, the green house gas emissions, the increasing population and the depletion of the ozone layer is all a farce?” I was mighty pleased with my brief and well-rounded attack when out of nowhere like a heavy weight boxer he just knocked me out — “That’s not a farce”, he said — “but don’t you think that volcanic eruptions in the world cause more green house gas emissions than all the billion people in the world? We humans are contributing nothing.” I was dumbfounded by his comment. Did he just say that? How is this even an argument? Devoid of any caffeine in my system and my head still dizzy with sleep, I decided to give up.
A Pew Research Center spring survey 2015 found that only 41% Americans believe that climate change can harm people. While most people in other regions, especially in Latin America and Africa say that climate change is already harming people around the world. This debate over whether climate change is a real threat or not also spills over to the political arena in the U.S. Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to consider it a very serious problem, believe its effects are being felt now, think it will harm them personally, and support U.S. participation in an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
A recent Reuters report published that the rate of carbon emissions is higher than at any time in fossil records stretching back 66 million years to the age of the dinosaurs, according to a study in the Nature Geoscience journal. Scientists believe that given currently available records, the present anthropogenic carbon release rate is unprecedented during the past 66 million years. It notes that outpouring of CO2 is 10 times higher than it was even when the dinosaurs lived.
So back to my Uber driver, whom I may never meet again and who might continue to exist in his blissful ignorance regarding climate change. But in case I ever do get to hop into his car again, I have to be prepared with a better answer. So with that in mind I came home and a quick search revealed this –
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the world’s volcanoes, both on land and undersea, generate about 200 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually, while our automotive and industrial activities cause some 24 billion tons of CO2 emissions every year worldwide. Hence, greenhouse gas emissions from volcanoes comprise less than one percent of those generated by today’s human endeavors. Also to drive the point in, I found another statistic. In 2014, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation accounted for about 26% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second largest contributor of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. This means dear Uber driver, that your car too is a contributor to the emissions that we talked about and unfortunately I contributed to it as well. But aren’t we all responsible for this and isn’t it high time that we started acting responsibly towards this?

The Pariahs of the Global Refugee Flood

http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/20/the-pariahs-of-the-global-refugee-flood/

<strong>The Pariahs of the Global Refugee Flood</strong>
The term “refugee” should be expanded to include more than those fleeing conflict. South Asians looking for better opportunities or displaced by climate change should be included too.

BY PRIYALI SUR
NOVEMBER 20, 2015
The dark eyes and hair of the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Afghans almost blend with the other migrants’. The brown skin tones are also not giveaways, but ask them where they come from, and you notice the hesitation — trying hard to blend into the crowd of Syrian migrants at Europe’s border crossings, afraid of being spotted and sent back.

“When they find out about our nationality, we are pushed back in the line. The others get priority to board the buses. I have been waiting here at the railway tracks for two nights now. I hope I can board the bus for Hungary tomorrow,” Abbas, a 32-year-old Bangladeshi, told me in Tovarnik, Croatia. Abbas is not alone in trying to navigate the challenging politics of Europe’s refugee and migration crisis. More than 6,000 Bangladeshis were intercepted at the border crossing points of European Union member states between January and July 2015, according to data from Frontex, the European Union’s external border management agency. (Afghans and Pakistanis make up 11 percent and 1.8 percent of migrants intercepted in Europe respectively.)

Abbas falls on the wrong side of the line drawn between refugees fleeing political oppression and migrants seeking better opportunities. Many European governments — who are worried about this huge influx of non-Syrians — are drawing distinct lines between the two. And the distinction matters greatly. Unlike refugees who generally have access to faster entry mechanisms and social benefits, migrants are dealt with under states’ typically slower and restrictive immigration laws and procedures. Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, called the migration of people from relatively safer places “unacceptable” and has warned that most Afghans would be deported.

Sitting calmly at the railway tracks, Abbas tells me that he left his home in Bangladesh four years ago. “There was no work and no money to feed my family. After crossing over to India, an agent promised to get me work in Turkey, but instead, he put me on a plane to Azerbaijan. I worked in Azerbaijan for a year and then came to Greece. I was working at the BMW factory. But many South Asians have started to leave Greece a year ago. The economy is going down, and for that reason, getting your paper work done is becoming very difficult.” Abbas adds, appearing embarrassed, “I was in jail for a few months because of no papers, and then I decided to leave.” His friend, 23-year-old Porosh who worked as a dishwasher at a hotel in Greece notes, “I didn’t have to do the dishes by hand like in Bangladesh. It isn’t that bad. But I now want to go to France.”

Abbas left Bangladesh for economic reasons and thus is not at the center of the current discussion of the “refugee crisis” that focuses on Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country. However, to simply label Abbas –and others like him — an economic migrant obscures the narrative. Geoff Dabelko, the director of the Environmental Studies program at Ohio University and a member of U.N. Environment Program Expert Advisory Group, said that calling the Bangladeshis coming to Europe “economic migrants,” while true, is insufficient. “We can call them economic migrants, but for many people coming from Bangladesh it is intertwined from environmental conditions that are pushing them to move,” says Dabelko.

A 2012 ActionAid report labels Bangladesh a hotspot for displacement due to climate change. It finds that more than 50 million people there are affected by disasters every five years, and approximately one-quarter of the country is inundated by floods annually. The 1998 flood overran up to 61 percent of the country, rendering 45 million people homeless.

Some caution against blurring the line between refugees and economic migrants. Roger-Mark De Souza, who heads the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center, argues that the term economic migrant remains fitting for the Bangladeshis traveling to Europe. “When we think of mobility and displacement there is a climate and economic angle to that. But people who migrate have additional assets that allow them to deal with the risks that include climate,” states De Souza.

Abbas, however, tells a different story. He says that he had to get out in search of work and money to feed his family. “That’s the reason we are here without our wives and families. It is not easy,” he adds.

The 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum in foreign countries from persecution in their home nation. In the past six decades, however, the convention has failed to expand the definition to include economic migrants or people displaced by climate change. Some experts argue that the convention needs to be more inclusive to address modern crises that are forcing people out of their homes.

When asked if the refugee convention should include climate-displaced people, Mary Robinson, the United Nations special envoy for climate change, said that more support programs and policies are necessary to address the issue of climate driven migration. “It is a big question. At the moment we are not honoring the refugee convention at all. It is being dishonored all over Europe and Asia. I am not going to predict what the right solution will be, but I will be part of engaging heavily in how we get the best possible result for those who are displaced by climate change,” said Robinson. Dabelko was more certain, but recognized the political limits, commenting, “It is critically important that our international laws take these issues into play. The nation states will never agree to have that formally added since the numbers would overwhelm. That does not mean, it should not be looked into.”

In the meantime, Abbas, Porosh, and thousands like them try to evade detention and deportation back to the poor and difficult conditions they came from. Stranded for two nights at the Serbia-Croatia border, they also remain stuck amid the definitional and legal debates over who should be let in and under what framework. Porosh still strikes an optimistic note: “I want to submit my papers in France and seek asylum in a legal manner. I know I may not be accepted but I will keep trying.” Abbas adds, “At least we will be able to send some back money home then.”

Women, Peace, and Security in Afghanistan

The original was published in the South Asia Channel of Foreign Policy

http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/21/women-peace-and-security-in-afghanistan/?wp_login_redirect=0

Women, Peace, and Security in Afghanistan

It’s been 15 years since the UN passed UNSCR 1325. How has Women, Peace, and Security policy changed in Afghanistan and the Congo since then?

BY PRIYALI SUR
OCTOBER 21,

Women, Peace, and Security in Afghanistan

Oct. 31, 2000, was a landmark day in the fight for women’s rights. The United Nations Security Council adopted UNSCR 1325 recognizing the disproportionate impact that war and conflicts have on women and children. It was soon followed by seven additional resolutions (1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122, and 2242) ensuring full and equal participation of women in post-conflict reconstruction, peace, and security. But ironically, as this landmark resolution celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, experts say that it is far from achieving its goals and has failed in adequate implementation.

In one of the most significant post-conflict peace talks of 2015, in July between the Afghan government and the Taliban, not a single representative was a woman. “We are concerned and unhappy that we have not been consulted. They have not been very transparent with women about the peace process,” says Hasina Safi, director of Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), an umbrella institution that represents 140 women’s organizations in Afghanistan. Sadly, this is not a unique situation. In most post-conflict peace processes women have been given piecemeal roles, if at all any.

Protection versus Participation

Melanne Verveer, who heads the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and spearheaded the UNSCR 1325 efforts in the United States in her role as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, feels protection from sexual violence has taken prominence over participation in conflict zones. “There is still a huge chasm between what the Security Council resolution intended and what it has promulgated. The past resolutions have chiseled the importance of protection of women from sexual violence that has become dominant in many of these conflicts. On the other hand, the pillar for participation can be viewed as antithetical to protection. That is a forward-looking role that women have to play and they need to be at the table,” she explains to me.

Women have been missing from the table not just in Afghanistan but many other fragile, conflict and violence (FCV) affected countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, South Sudan, and Uganda. Cordaid and the Global Network of Women and Peacebuilders are two development organizations working towards the effective implementation of UNSCR 1325 in FCV countries. They feel one of the biggest hurdles is the lack of political will at the country level. “They don’t see gender as [a] priority, and especially peace and security. When the country has a gender ministry, it is usually the weakest ministry in terms of human resources and funding,” says Dewi Suralaga, policy adviser at Cordaid.

Lack of Political Will

Sandra Uwiringiymana is a survivor of the DRC conflict and now advocates for girls living in conflict. Now 11 years later, she still vividly remembers the night of the Gatumba massacre, when her sister was killed in front of her eyes and other women brutalized at a refugee camp. “It was around 10 pm at night…I was dozing off and my little sister too was sleeping. I was 10 and she was 6. I just remember being in a bed in a tent, when we heard a shot and my mom woke me up saying that we are under attack. We were hiding under a mattress. I watched as the two attackers walked in and killed my little sister, aunt, and two cousins. My mother and I survived as other bodies fell on us. I remember lying like that for hours. The assault was brutal; the rebels cut open the stomach of pregnant women so they could see what the fetus looked like.” As a survivor of this brutal attack, Uwiringiymana has now become a voice for other women in conflict. She feels that the DRC government should include these women’s voices in decision making.

Neema Namadamu, a women’s rights activist, expresses similar concerns as Sandra. Having an insider’s view of the DRC government after working as an adviser for the national ministry for gender and family, she says the patriarchal system is a barrier. “The main problem is that we really don’t have access to decision making. I know how the system works. The government thinks that it isn’t right for women to get positions. They use women for international image, to show that women have position[s], but in reality they have no voice,” says Namadamu.

Namadamu goes onto highlight another critical problem that hinders the implementation of women, peace, and security — funding. “We are always talking about getting money for the implementation of UNSCR 1325, but haven’t seen any money on the ground,” she adds.

Where is the money?

In 2013, $35.5 million was committed by G8 members towards women, peace, and security to help victims of sexual violence and prevent further attacks in war affected countries, but aid organizations working on ground say the money has failed to reach where it’s most needed. “We work very closely with women’s organizations on the ground and all of them are saying that they have not accessed a single cent for the implementation of [UNSCR] 1325 and 1820. Where is the money from the G8 funding going?” questions Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, an international coordinator with GNWP.

Despite many donors funding women, peace, and security in conflict countries, experts and activists working on ground believe that the money is channeled in other projects and very little is directed towards the real issues. “Donors promise millions and millions of dollars for Afghanistan, but if you really analyze it, you will see that even 0.5 percent does not reach the people on [the] ground who really deserve it. One can say that the donors want to support but they don’t know how to,” says Hasina Safi from AWN.

Who needs a National Action Plan?

Afghanistan adopted its National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security in June this year. The NAP looks at bolstering the implementation of UNSCR 1325 and including women in all aspects of conflict resolution and peace negotiations. Until now, only 48 out of 193 countries have implemented NAPs on Women, Peace and Security. With gender not a priority for many governments, many countries have also refused to have a NAP. “Many governments say that they are not conflict countries and that’s why they don’t need a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. India also says that it is not a conflict country but what about northeast India?” says Suralaga of Cordaid.

Even donor countries like the United States are slow to join the NAP bandwagon, passing a NAP in 2011, 11 years after UNSCR 1325 was passed. A NAP in the United States — a donor country — is crucial, since the United States can ensure women, peace, and security in other conflict countries. “The NAP for [the United States] is externally oriented. They need to also look internally and avoid doing things that can disrupt peace and security in conflict countries. They contribute a lot to obstruct peace and security and yet their NAP doesn’t look into their defense policies,” says Suralaga.

Channelizing and Monitoring Funds

Implementing UNSCR 1325, and the subsequent resolutions, cannot be only about military efforts to prevent sexual violence; it also needs to be focused on ground initiatives to ensure participation of women. Cordaid, GNWP, and the U.N. Women are working on the Global Acceleration Instrument (GAI) that aims to close gaps between funding and implementation. It focuses on national and local level implementation, specifically through NAPs. “Many of these NAPs have not been implemented because of lack of funding. NAPs are gathering dust on the shelves of government bureaucracy,” adds Cabrera-Balleza from GNWP. The GAI that will be launched on the 15th anniversary of UNSCR 1325 looks at short-term funds by donors with a five-year evaluation plan. It will focus on urgent implementation and a monitoring mechanism on the where the money is spent.

Fifteen years after the landmark U.N. resolution on women, peace, and security and 20 years after the Beijing Platform for Action, women still continue to be on the margins for sustainable nation building and peace processes. Along with increased and channelized funding, what is also needed is a shift in attitude towards women — a country and community that gives their women due importance and a government that treats them as equals. “We hear that the government is lacking confidence on the capacity of women. They say that there are not enough qualified women to be strong leaders. I want to tell them that despite the hurdles in the past 14 years, we Afghan women have proved that we are strong enough to lead,” says Safi as she looks at the next 15 years with confidence and optimism.

Will India Bridge the ‘Rainbow Divide’ Over Same-Sex Relationships

This was originally published on The Quint
http://www.thequint.com/world/2015/06/27/will-india-bridge-the-rainbow-divide-over-same-sex-relationships

– June 26, 2015

Amidst the fluttering rainbow pride flags and people singing the ‘star-spangled banner’ outside the US Supreme Court, there is a petite blonde woman holding up her phone to capture the scene, as she face-times with her grandfather in Ohio. I move slightly closer to hear her conversation. She is crying and so is her grandfather. Jessica Morrison is a USAID worker from Ohio and has been married to Anne Richardson for 5 years. As she talks to me, she says that her grandparents have been her biggest support.

It was toughest with my mother. She had a really hard time coming to terms with it. My family comes from a religious background. It is because of my grandparents that my mother has gradually come to see that my relationship with my wife is just about love.
– Jessica

In a historic decision, the US Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the US Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry. The court ruled 5-4 that the Constitution’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law mean that states cannot ban same-sex marriages, making gay marriage legal in all the 50 states.

People from different nationalities including Indians joined the crowd gathered outside the US Supreme Court – cheering and rejoicing. But for India, today’s decision creates what one may call ‘a rainbow divide’ between the world’s oldest and largest democracy. While the US legalised same-sex marriage across the country today, in India under section 377 of the IPC, homosexuality is still criminalised.
I am sure the US Supreme Court decision today will have a ripple effect outside the US too and I am slightly hopeful about a similar positive change back home.
– Ananth Virakthi, a 27-year old gay Indian student studying at the University of Maryland.
But under the present law, would he consider going back home?

It would be easier for me to live a free life here without being judged or facing peer and parental pressure as a gay man, but it certainly would be so much sweeter if I could live that life back home as well. I believe where I decide to live, will be hugely depend on my ability to live an open, honest life as a gay man.
– Ananth Virakthi

India’s archaic law that dates back to the 1860 British colonial law, is not just a cause of worry for Indians from the LGBT community but also for foreigners travelling to India. Jessica who works as a US foreign services officer and has been in a same sex marriage since 2010 tells me that it is a big challenge to find postings in countries that respect their sexual orientation.

Finding those entry points where the host country government will be respectable of the cultural norms and also protect human rights and equality is a priority.
– Jessica

The scenes outside the US Supreme Court are reminiscent of those witnessed in Delhi on July 2009 when the Delhi High Court struck down section 377 and decriminalised homosexuality. But almost four years later in December 2013 the Supreme Court of India overruled the Delhi High Court order, placing the onus on the parliament to amend section 377 of the IPC criminalising homosexuality. Meanwhile, the Modi government has said that it has no plans to amend or repeal section 377 till the Supreme Court settles the matter. A curative petition on decriminalising section 377 of the IPC remains pending in the apex court.

A government led by a Hindu nationalist party and opposed to homosexuality can be anti minority in all senses of the term. For years we won’t see any change, they have a majority they can do whatever they want.
– Samar Khurshid, a journalist and the son of a senior Congress leader who was present outside the US Supreme Court.

At present there are 21 countries where same sex marriage is legalised. Will India follow suit? Well, to many hopeful Indians and global citizens today’s ruling only proves that ultimately #LoveWins .

Are women traveling into a safer 2015?

The report was first published in World Bank blogs
http://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/are-women-traveling-safer-2015

– January, 2015

NEW DELHI—It happened outside a plush mall in Gurgaon, a booming financial and industrial hub just southwest of the Indian capital. A 21-year old woman, a newcomer to the city, hopped into a shared taxi after finishing her second day at work. “Only when the driver started taking me through deserted streets did I realize that this was his personal car and not a shared taxi,” she tells me of that night two years ago. “He took me to a lonely place, hit me, threatened me, and raped me. I wish I knew it wasn’t a cab. I wish there was a safe way to travel.”

Every 51 minutes, a woman faces harassment or assault in India’s public spaces, according to a 2011 report by the National Crime Records Bureau. Staggering numbers of reported and unreported cases of violence and harassment make transportation difficult and dangerous for women and girls, especially after dark.

A recent case in which a 25-year-old woman was raped by her Uber driver has meanwhile raised questions about the promise of enhanced safety in radio taxis. The Delhi metro meanwhile runs only until 11 p.m.—it’s not an option for late-night travelers—and public buses at night recall the brutal 2012 Delhi gang-rape and murder of a 21-year old physiotherapist.

So should safety issues simply keep women and girls indoors—or does their vulnerability in public spaces highlight a desperate need for gender considerations in designing and planning public transport?

New Framework

“We began talking about the issues of gender in urban planning in 2005 and today, 10 years later, the government is accepting its importance,” says Kalpana Vishwanath, an activist with Jagori, an Indian nonprofit that works on women’s safety issues. “In the early days, it was an uphill task to even convince the government that there was any gender dimension to urban planning, design, and governance.”

Yet India isn’t the only country that has historically overlooked the critical need of mainstreaming gender in public transport—apart from a few odd localized projects. Far from it.

One World Bank Group report, Mainstreaming Gender in Road Transport, highlights the differences between men and women in travel patterns in relation to trip purpose, frequency, and distance of travel. It finds that women make more and more complex trips than men.

These differences stem from differences in the social and economic roles of men and women. For women, transport provides access to various resources and opportunities, such as jobs, childcare, education, and health facilities, whereas men are far more likely to rely on private vehicles. Yet women’s safety is most often overlooked.

The Colombian capital Bogota, for example, was named the most unsafe city for women to use transportation in a recent Thomson Reuters Foundation poll. The survey, across 15 capital cities and New York, polled 6,550 women and found three Latin American capitals—Bogota, Mexico City, and Lima—“least safe,” followed by Delhi.

A World Bank study in Lima revealed similar findings, noting that while for men in the Peruvian capital, speed was decisive factor in choice of transport, for women personal security and protection from harassment mattered most.

Experts say that, along with new laws, women must be consulted on transport planning through participatory approaches such as focus groups.

A World Bank-supported project in the Liaoning Province, China, carried out an extensive, inclusive process leading to a drastic change in project design. Consultations with women’s groups led to investment on secondary road rehabilitations and street lighting rather than construction of more ring roads alone.

Design Is Key

Dimly lit roads, dark and empty bus stations, or a lonely nighttime walk across a deserted car park is a nightmare for most women. Safety audits across urban areas are becoming popular in an attempt to map safer areas.

In India, the nonprofit Jagori started safety audits in 2007: Through its smartphone app, Safetipin, Jagori has conducted audits in seven cities in India and plans to expand the project to Bogota and Jakarta. HarassMap runs a similar initiative across various cities in Egypt.

Caren Grown, Senior Director for Gender at the World Bank Group, stresses the need to include gender considerations at every phase of transport and infrastructure projects.

“Planning also needs to take into account that the steps are not too high for women, that there is sufficient space for safe sidewalks, that handrails are available, that there is last-mile connectivity,” she says.

Ha Nguyen, a freelance writer shuttling between Hanoi and Washington, prefers her own transport in Vietnam and like most young women rides a scooter to work, as public transport mostly doesn’t offer a “last-mile” solution.

A World Bank Survey found similar results: More women walk and use bikes than men in Vietnam.

“The public transport system in Hanoi isn’t good. I used to take the bus a long time ago during my undergraduate days. I faced the usual harassment then. Young boys would call out names and say words like ‘yummy’ and try to touch [women] in a crowd. I’ve rarely taken a public transport since then,” Ha says.

Women-Only Transport

Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, became the most recent city to introduce women-only buses in a bid to reduce sexual harassment. A 2013 World Bank report on gender and public transport in Nepal found 96 percent women prefer to sit or stand next to another woman in public transport, while 33 percent decided on a mode of transport based on personal security. While for many, women-only transport ensures safe public transit, others view segregation as reinforcing inequality.

In Mexico City, “There are subway cars for women and children only, but these spaces are not enough. The traveling population is very huge. Also special vehicles are not a permanent solution. There has to be more awareness towards respect for women,” says Rosario Carmona, a Mexican journalist.

Mexico, along with Japan, Brazil, Egypt, Russia, India, Dubai, and Iran, also has women-only subways, but many of their cities, like Delhi, still report high rates of harassment in public transport.

Julie Babinard, senior transport specialist at the World Bank Group, sees women-only carriages as a short-term fix and not a panacea.

“Emerging interest in women-only initiatives should be seen as an opportunity for improving security in cities, but not as a silver bullet for dealing with gender-based violence in transportation and urban settings,” she says.

Economic Growth

Transport relates intrinsically to whether women work outside the home—and that has a direct impact on efforts to tackle poverty and boost inclusive growth.

According to a national survey, only 11 percent of adult women in Saudi Arabia are employed: One reason is that most cannot afford drivers and Saudi law has long banned women from driving themselves.

Closing gender gaps in the world of work could yield enormous dividends for development. A Goldman Sachs study finds narrowing the gender gap in employment could push per capita income in emerging markets up to 14 percent higher by 2020.

Safe roads and transportation rank as a top priority globally. UN-led polling as part of consultations on what targets will succeed the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals, “better transport and roads” was listed in the top 10 by more than 7 million men and women who voted.

The message is getting through. In Washington this week, for example, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences convenes the world’s largest meeting of transportation experts, with a number of gender-related sessions on the agenda.

For its part, the World Bank Group is providing Brazil with a US$500 million Development Policy Loan for a major infrastructure project to update Rio’s urban transport system. The project, which takes gender-based violence considerations into account, will ensure all stations have women’s restrooms and improved lighting. A similar initiative, with a US$205 million loan, is under way in Ecuador.

The need to factor gender considerations into all aspects of transport and infrastructure is urgent—and long overdue. The benefits to women and girls, their families, their prospects and communities are clear. Keeping them front and center should be a top priority.

Climate Change and Human Trafficking: A Deadly Combination

Climate change, poverty, and violence are contributing to a surge of human trafficking in Assam.

The original version of this article appeared on the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat and The Diplomat.
http://www.newsecuritybeat.org/2015/02/conflict-climate-change-collide-assam-girls-pushed-slavery/
http://thediplomat.com/2015/02/climate-change-and-human-trafficking-a-deadly-combination/

-February 25, 2015

The story of Uma Tudu captures the endless cycle of poverty, violence, and suffering faced by too many girls in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.* At 16, following floods that destroyed her village, she traveled more than 1,600 kilometers to Delhi, lured by the promise of a good job and a good life. Instead she was sold as bonded labor.

Rescued two years later, she returned to the abject poverty she tried to escape. She decided to help other girls avoid the same fate by becoming a crucial hand at Nobel Prize-winner Kailash Satyarthi’s non-profit, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, passing on information about human traffickers. Life was reasonably good; she had a purpose.

Then in December 2014, Uma’s village was attacked by rebels during a wave of ethnic violence. For weeks afterwards, no one saw or heard from her. She wasn’t spotted in any of the relief camps. As bodies were recovered, her family dreaded to think if this was the end for the 20-year-old girl who had overcome so much.

A State of Turmoil

The sight of displaced families, widowed women, and orphaned children is not unusual in certain parts of Assam. In September 2014, a hundred people were killed and a million more displaced by floods. Three months later, ethnic conflict claimed the lives of at least 80 people, most of whom were women and children.

Assam shares borders with six other Indian states and neighboring Bangladesh and Bhutan. In the western corner and parts of lower Assam, conflict over land and identity between Bodo tribals, Muslims – many migrants from Bangladesh – and other ethnic groups has resulted in periodic violence over the past 20 years. From low-lying Bangladesh into Assam comes one of the largest flows of people across international borders in the world. The particularly bloody attack that claimed Uma’s village was reportedly carried out by a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland that seeks to create a separate state for Bodo tribals.

Against the backdrop of this strife, there is climate change.

Ushabala Das doesn’t know exactly how old she is, but at least 50 and too old to restart her life in any case, she says. The flooding in September destroyed her home in the village of Kalapani, Goalpara district. “I lost everything,” she says in a video interview. “The water level was above the roof of my house.” Before the floods, Usha and her husband Ramakanta Das made a living out of rice cultivation, but now their paddies are covered in silt and sand.

While Ushabala’s husband is hoping to restart small-scale farming, she knows it may be a long time before they reap any benefit. For her family and two teenage boys to survive, she has no other option but to work as a daily wage laborer in Goalpara town. Many women have found themselves in similar situations, forced to find work as domestic help or laborers.

The mighty Brahmaputra River, which flows through Tibet, downstream into India through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam before reaching Bangladesh, has been the backbone of the state’s predominantly agrarian economy for thousands of years. But in recent years the river has changed. As Himalayan glaciers melt upstream, it has experienced prolonged floods year after year. Flooding and loss of land by river erosion affects the poorest segments of Assam society most. According to the World Bank, at least 386,000 hectares of land in the state have been lost to erosion since 1954, and 800,000 hectares are affected by floods every year.

A 2012 report by the Center for Environment, Social, and Policy Research, an environmental research and advocacy organization, found women in Assam are disproportionately affected by climate change. In recent years, there has been a significant reduction in the percentage of women involved in agriculture and an increase in their involvement in labor work, the report finds, spurred in part by unsustainable agriculture.

“I Will Be Going to Look for Girls”

For young women and girls, this shift is especially dangerous. “We fear that with the recent floods and conflict, there will be a rise in trafficking of girls for slavery in Assam,” says Rakesh Senger, national secretary of Bachpan Bachao Andolan. “The girls are scared to go back to their villages and the traffickers know this.”

In a phone conversation two weeks after the wave of violence that claimed Uma’s village, Bibek Kirki, a 45-year-old trafficker in Assam’s Lakhimpur district, confirms as much. “I will be going to look for girls from Sonitpur [one of the three conflict-affected districts]. I think I can arrange them in three to four days,” he tells me with scary confidence.

Bibek has been trafficking girls from various districts of Assam for many years now. He went underground after the owner of an agency in Delhi to which he supplied girls was arrested six months ago. The economics look good to him. “Earlier I would be paid 10,000 rupees [$170] per girl, but now it’s become more risky,” he tells me. “My rate has doubled.” He’s confident of reviving his business and is almost certain he’ll find girls eager to go to the city from Assam.

Once the girls reach Delhi and other cities, they are sold to illegal placement agencies who in turn sell them for almost 40,000 rupees ($660) as domestic help, forced labor, and even brides for forced marriages to much older men. This is a blueprint for human trafficking and slavery that thrives in India.

Mirila was sold to an older man for 70,000 rupees ($1,160). All of 17, she is the eldest child to a single parent. Her mother sells oranges in Goalpara town to make ends meet and to ensure her two younger brothers can continue in school. Mirila says the prospect of a job in a city seemed the obvious solution to her family’s problems. “This was last year in August, a boy from my village said he will introduce me to someone in Delhi who can give me a job,” she said:

“So I traveled with him by train to Delhi and met this man called Samir. I stayed at Samir’s house for a week. He told me he was finding me a good job and then one day took me to Rajasthan [a northwestern Indian state]. Over there, he sold me to this man. He would physically abuse me and repeatedly tell me that he paid a lot of money for me. Then one day I managed to call my mother and told her where I was. I was then rescued by the police.”

Livelihoods Destroyed

In the last six months, more than 70 trafficked children from Assam, mostly girls, have been rescued from Mumbai and nearby Haryana State, with 31 being rescued last December. Jyotsna Das goes to the police station every time she hears of such a rescue. She scans the girls with hope that her lost daughter is back. This has been her routine for two long and lonely years. “That day she had gone to school, I think it must have been on her way back home that she was abducted,” she says, holding the picture of a teenage girl with black shiny hair falling to her shoulders in a blue and white school uniform. “She was just 14 years old when she went missing. I have searched everywhere, searched across four states, but no one knows anything.”

Jyotsna and her family were among the 12 million people displaced by floods in Assam in 2004. She along with her husband and daughter moved from flood-affected Bolbola to Goalpara. Jyotsna today sells fish and earns between $4 and $5 a day.

“I can’t find evidence of traffickers swooping in hours after a cyclone, but I can find evidence of families pushed from their homes, land and possessions lost, and becoming refugees… and in that very vulnerable state, falling prey to the blandishments of traffickers,” says Kevin Bales, the lead author of The Global Slavery Index report and co-founder of the anti-slavery organization, Free the Slaves. “Any environmentally disruptive event can push the poor into a situation in which they are more easily enslaved, especially when the rule of law breaks down as a result.”

Data from a 2011 UN Environment Program report suggests that human trafficking increases by 20 to 30 percent during disasters. According to the State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, more than 2,800 minor girls have gone missing in the last five years from Assam. More than 400 trafficking victims have been rescued and 281 middlemen arrested since 2011.

Harnessing Hope

Mirila feels lucky she was rescued after five months. There are many who never come back and there are others who return home to the same poverty and struggle they fled in the first place.

The first step to untangling this web of environmental, social, and security challenges is recognizing the problem. Sanjoy Hazarika, founder of the Center for Northeast Studies and Policy Research, says the national government needs to setup a network of counseling centers in conflict and flood-affected areas. “Women need counseling from the effects of post-traumatic stress, otherwise they remain trapped in the past,” he says.

“There also needs to be tough action on traffickers and establish their links to the conflict and the natural disasters,” he continues. “The government seems to be content with pursuing armed groups after they strike and does not have the requisite number of police to tackle the issue of conflict while natural disaster management remains ad hoc and spotty.” A stronger police force and a collaborating network of anti-human trafficking units and legal centers could go a long way.

During the completion of this report, I was informed that Uma has been found. Although she was injured in the attack on her village, she is recovering in a hospital and her spirit is far from defeated.

In a state wounded by conflict for decades and being reshaped by climate change, a beacon of hope ironically comes from those that are worst affected. Traffickers are exploiting the drive by women and girls like Uma, Mirila, and Jyotsna’s daughter to strike out for a better life. The state should be tapping into this same desire to provide legitimate means for them to be productive – education, vocational training, and a legal system that provides stronger protections for migrants. The women of Assam display a rare resilience that pushes life ahead despite incredible vulnerability and neglect.

*The names of trafficking survivors have been changed to protect their identities.

A Message To Those Who Said NO To #Indiawithpakistan

Was originally published on The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.in/priyali-sur-i/a-message-to-those-who-sa_b_6365694.html

– Dec 23, 2015

The year 1992 –
I was nine-years-old and living in Bhopal. The demolition of the Babri Masjid had seen its repercussions and riots in this city too. From the army cantonment where I stayed, one could see the entire expanse of the city and every now and then we would see plumes of thick, black smoke erupting. I remember being sleepless at nights. The horror of terror and deaths tormented me and as I’d lay awake next to my sister, I would think, “what if I don’t live to see the next day, would my parents miss me?”

It must have been a similar thought multiplied a ten thousand times flashing through the minds of the children at the Army Public School in Peshawar. I shudder to think what must have been their last thoughts, some too tiny to even comprehend death. Was it parents or God that they thought about…or did they think the nightmare would be over soon? Did they wish to be in their mothers’ arms one last time or were they innocent enough to think about not being able to play with friends that evening? I don’t know…we will never know.

I’m not a Pakistani and not even a parent as yet but like many of you reading this I have had the privilege of living a childhood of innocence and as this tragedy unfolded, paralysing many across the globe, the only thing I could do to express my anger and condemnation was to send messages of support. Many like me used the hashtag #IndiawithPakistan on social media. This perhaps was our only way of reaching out to a grieving nation. But to those who have questioned this support–No, it does not in any way mean we are standing with the ISI or the Pakistani army or the terror emitting out of a country, it means we are standing up for humanity and against terror. It means we are grieving for all those little children who were massacred for no fault of theirs and for parents whose loss is incomprehensible. It means standing up for the values of love and peace that bonds people and nations.

We are not using dead children to prove a point, but you who says no to #IndiawithPakistan too shouldn’t try to do that by dismissing a genuine feeling of anger towards terror and compassion towards people. You and I have read enough reports and seen many gruesome pictures from the Peshawar School attack by now. Children being singled out and shot in the head, terrorists blindly opening fire at an auditorium full of children, a teacher being burned alive in front of her students. This is not the time dear Indians to talk about the terror or the militancy that comes from across the border. I am the daughter and wife of Indian army officers. I have seen them man the borders of our country and I have worried for their lives. I have seen close friends die in counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir and I have honestly hated the men who did this. But the ones who did this to our people are no different from the ones who killed these children. Let’s hate these men and not a nation. Let’s not colour terror with religion or jingoism.

#IndiawithPakistan will never symbolise support towards Hafiz Saeed or Zakir-ur-Rehman Lakhvi or the acts of terror on our soil…but let it be a means of reaching out to similar-minded people on the other side of the border…let it get out of a 140-character box and become a stream of words and actions that brings people together.

Labour with dignity

This story was first published in Deutsche Welle’s – Women Talk Online blog

http://blogs.dw.com/womentalkonline/2014/05/14/labour-with-dignity/

– May, 2014

India is busy deliberating on its next possible Prime Minister- Narendra Modi, who has been marketing his model of development in India’s Gujarat. But in the dry and arid hinterland of India’s western state , one woman who believes in Gandhi’s ideals is working tirelessly to uplift women.The white–silvery shimmering line that blurs at a distance is just a mirage. There is no trace of water for miles together in the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. Parched, brown land spreads across in a tiled pattern in this beautiful desert. But there is no sign of any life, not a single tree, no desert animals, no birds, just empty stretches of aridness and a hot salty desert wind.

Amidst this wilderness, is a young girl draped in a blue sari wearing black gum boots – with her 5-month-old baby tied to her back and raking salt in the brackish waters of a salt pan under the scorching afternoon sun. Kalpa has been a salt worker or “Agariya” ever since she can remember. Born in the Agariya tribes that lead a nomadic life spending eight to nine months in a year producing salt in the Rann, she says this is what she has done all her life, but she is determined that her daughter will follow a different path.

India’s first trade union for women

Enabling Kalpa dream big for her child by providing child care centres or balwadis and educational facilities for children in this far-flung corner is SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), India’s first trade union for women that was started by a lawyer and a follower of Gandhi, Ela Bhatt in 1972. “At that time (1972) there were so many women who were economically active but not recognized by the law or even recorded in the census of India as workers despite working for 10-12 hours a day. They were unprotected and vulnerable, despite being almost 89 percent of India’s labour force at that time,” says Bhatt.

Working with the Textile Labour Association in 1972, Ela Bhatt felt there was a desperate need to organize these unskilled women to give them more bargaining power in the job market. It was also the year that Rose Schneiderman, one of the pioneers of the international women’s labour movement, credited with the coining of the most famous phrase “bread and roses” passed away. By then, the world had seen many women unions such as the Women’s Trade Union League, but in India, no one had heard of it and it remained an alien idea. So when Ela Bhatt went to register SEWA, she faced what she calls “conceptual resistance.” She says it took almost a year to convince the registrar of trade unions that these women too are workers and they too have the right to be registered.

Women construction workers

Once registered, SEWA soon branched out in different labour sectors to fulfil its promise of full employment and self reliance to women by providing work, income, food and social security. It revolutionized this coming together of women by adopting the cooperative structure. “Being a Gandhian, I always believed in forming of organizations namely union, namely cooperative, because in such structures the members themselves are the owners,” says Bhatt.

One such member owner is Galal Ben. A mother of three, she is part of SEWA’s cooperative society for women construction workers called Rachaita Bandhkam Mandli. A strong and robust woman, her physical appearance matches her mental strength. For 15 years she has been working at building construction sites as a daily wage labourer, grinding cement and carrying huge loads of bricks on her head. But for 12 hours of hard physical labour she would get paid only a paltry amount, anything between 35 to 80 rupees a day. There were also days when she would be without work. But after joining a cooperative society,with 300 other women labourers like her, she is now ensured of work every single day. Daily wages too have gone up to almost Rs 400 per day, thanks to the elimination of middle men. “Today I earn triple of what my husband earns. He treats me like an equal and the society too respects me. Like any other modern city woman I too use a mobile phone”, says Galal, proudly displaying her cell phone and the pictures of her children, all of whom go to school.

Women are an integral part of the economy

The cooperative structure is not new to Gujarat. The state has been known for its cooperative model since the early days of Amul, a milk cooperative union that took off in 1946, but many have accused it of poor representation of women in cooperative bodies. Ela Bhatt has been using this model effectively to empower women in each labour sector. Today, over 100 SEWA cooperative societies in different sectors are providing employment to over 10 million women.

In SEWA, one thing has led to the other. SEWA believes that women are an integral part of the country’s economy and it is essential to harness their labour in the mainstream of economic development. It was an idea that had mushroomed from a simple question asked by one of the SEWA members. “Chanda ben, one of the old clothes dealer said, why can’t we have our own bank?

Ela Bhatt (far right) was part of Nelson Mandela’s “Elders,” a group Mandela founded as “a fiercely independent and robust force for good.’ The Elders include Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi among others.

I said, we are poor, so she said but we are so many,” says Bhatt while describing what led her to start India’s first micro-finance institution. She felt that poor women are vitally concerned with the livelihood of their households and therefore, they are the most eligible borrowers, but they are the ones who have been excluded from mainstream banking.

Banking for women

So in 1974, 4000 women came together, each contributing 10 rupees (0.12 euros) to raise the share capital and that’s how the first Sewa bank was registered as a co-operative bank under the dual control of The Reserve Bank of India and the state government in Gujarat. Since then, it has been providing micro-financing, banking and even insurance to poor women.

Four decades later, many have followed suit. Today, hundreds of thousands of people have access to microfinance due to government and NGO-sponsored programmes. But what sets SEWA apart is that they are open to new ideas. SEWA now provides doorstep banking for each of its 400,000 active depositors and pension schemes for its ageing women members. Currently, 80,000 members have been linked with the micro pension Scheme.

Benefitting from this pension scheme are women like 65-year-old Puri Ben. Her enthusiasm defies her age. While embroidering an intricate traditional piece of banas craft (embroidery that comes from the Banaskanth region of Gujarat), she breaks into a song and dance. Wearing her traditional skirt and choli (blouse) she pulls in the younger girls and the new entrants of Hansiba to join her. Hansiba is an association of almost 15,000 women under SEWA. These women sell their embroidery and craft under the Hansiba brand. 65 percent of all sales go directly to the artisans and they themselves are the shareholders and suppliers of the company. But while they are independent and self-sufficient now, Puri ben says it wasn’t easy to begin with.

Fighting the ‘purdah’ system

Women who stayed mostly in purdah (veil) had to fight social ostracism to get out of their homes and sell their work. The men got together against them and declared through a village council that households whose women would step out to sell would be boycotted and no one would marry the girls of that house. The women including Puri ben then collectively decided to fight this diktat. They decided to stop cooking for their men until this order was withdrawn. Finally, the men gave in. Today these women earn with dignity and thank SEWA for backing them in their difficult times.

SEWA has always stood by its women. When Gujarat was burning in 2002, battling one of the worst communal riots, 40,000 SEWA members were directly affected. SEWA held relief camps for both Hindus and Muslims, set up child care centres and helped people work from camps so they could continue earning their livelihood. Bhatt says, “There are so many successes but there are many, many, many more failures as well but each step of organizing and then acting in the right way, in the right direction is empowering.”