Category Archives: news

Justice for Sonali, and a Stand for Women’s Rights in India

I became aware today of a very sad situation, which tragically happens to many young women across India.

Sonali before the attack

Sonali Mukherjee is a young woman who was verbally abused and harassed by a group of local men. When she dared to complain about their teasing, they retaliated by pouring acid on her while she slept. Although the assailants were taken into custody, they were later released on bail and still have not had justice served to them. They remain free, while Sonali has to live with the pain and suffering of their violent attack for the rest of her life. Not only that, her family has gone into huge debt to pay for both her treatment, and legal costs to pursue justice.

Below is Sonali’s account, in her own words. You can help by signing this petition to the prime leaders of India to help bring proper legal ramifications to her attackers. You can also make a donation to her cause. I did both — will you? Sonali is so in despair right now that she would rather end her life than continue without further treatment or justice. Where is the humanity in that?

On April 22, 2003, I, Sonali Mukherjee, was severely injured in an acid attack, that left me with a burnt face, burnt body, blind and partially deaf. I was just 17-years-old then. Three assailants – Tapas Mitra, Sanjay Paswan, and Bhrahmadev Hajra, our neighbors in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, poured acid on me while I slept. Before I could realize I felt as if my body was on fire and I collapsed.

Sonali after the attack

They punished me because I dared to complain against their eve teasing. When I warned them, they told me I was haughty and proud about my looks. They said they will ruin my face beyond recognition. And when that did not deter me, they carried through their threat and you can see the consequences.

The accused were immediately taken into custody, but were released on bail in 2006. My father and I approached the high court, the Chief Minister of Jharkhand, MPs and various other authorities for justice, but no one listened. Since then, they are roaming scot-free. For 9-years we have been fighting a case against them and requesting the authorites to cancel their bail, but no success has come our way yet.

I am in extreme pain since the incident and don’t have the capacity to withhold it anymore – neither the money nor the hope.

Therefore, I demand either justice and help in treatment or permission to end my life.

PLEASE SIGN THIS PETITION and help me get justice and means to live the remaining part of my life without pain and agony.

You can also make a donation to Sonali’s medical and legal costs.

Before the Sun – Help a “Born Into Brothels” student realize his dream

©Avijit/Kids with Cameras

Maybe you’ve seen the documentary film, Born Into Brothels. A tribute to the resiliency of childhood and the restorative power of art, Born into Brothels is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in the red light district of Calcutta, where their mothers work as prostitutes. Zana Briski, a New York-based photographer, gives each of the children a camera and teaches them to look at the world with new eyes. When it was released in 2005, the film by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The film’s producer, Geralyn Dreyfous, was kind enough to write an endorsement for my book, The Weight of  Silence: Invisible Children of India. Geralyn said, “Weight of Silence makes visible children who remain invisible to the rest of the world and reminds us of each child’s right to dream out loud and in color.”

It’s been 7 years since Born into Brothels was made, and many of the children have gone on to pursue their dreams. One of them, Avijit Halder, himself aspires to be a filmmaker. And he’s raising money to fund his project, Before The Sun. Now a senior at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Avijit has come full circle and is making his own film.

Geralyn Dreyfous wrote to me about Afijit:

Avijit Halder came into my life as a subject in one of the first films I executive produced called BORN INTO BROTHELS. He was a young determined 12 year old determined to get an education and pursue his dreams of being an artist. Several years later he came to Salt Lake City to visit and was offered a scholarship at a local day school Rowland Hall Saint Marks and then landed a scholarship to the Tisch School at NYU, majoring in filmmaking.

Today he is worried about starting his senior thesis, graduating and finding a job in a city he has come to love. He is a remarkable young man. Fearless and not afraid to try new things, Avijit will make his mark in the world as a photographer and filmmaker.

Before the Sun is an undergraduate thesis short film, written and directed by Avijit. It is a visual poetry set in the colorful neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens – a place where languages, beliefs, and traditions are piled on top of one another and identity is easily erased – it is the story of three immigrants, imprisoned in their mundane lives.

The three strangers – a Mexican teenage boy, an old Russian man, and a middle aged Bangladeshi housewife – slowly become entangled in a web of inevitability. In their daily lives they intersect one another, and through silent observations, hidden enigmatic bonds are formed.

They have never met one another nor they communicated in any way. Yet everyday expectations are formed as they long for one another. What will happen to these relationships when life takes its toll, shattering it’s fragile existence?

Born into humble beginnings in Calcutta, India, if there’s one person who’s been to the ends of the earth to do what he loves, it’s Avijit, one of the children documented in Born Into Brothels. The documentary’s prestigious Kids With Cameras Program and the amazing Geralyn Dreyfous helped him follow his dreams and his art, and he’s spent the past four years learning every aspect of filmmaking.

Here is what Avijit says about his film:

As an immigrant living in America, I know how hard it is to adapt, and to suppress feelings of nostalgia. When I first arrived to this country,  it was easy because everything was so new and exciting; but after a while I began to feel isolated.  I missed everything about Kolkata, my family, my friends; but most of all the feeling of being understood/ the feeling of belonging. 

Avijit Halder today - photo BBC News

This film is important to me because I believe that it gives a personal voice to immigrants living in  America. Many people in this country have misconceptions about immigrants. Some believe we are the cause of many problems, while others just feel pity for us; but we are never accepted for who we are . 

From experience I would say most of us are here to pursue the ‘American Dream’, and to better our condition. We sacrifice a life at home, but try to re-create a new home in America. This film will give a glimpse inside the mind of immigrants. 

If you would like to help Avijit realize his dreams, you can go to his Indiegogo page to make a contribution to his film. There is also a very nice story about him at BBC News.

When it’s Dangerous to be Born a Girl

Today’s U.K. paper The Telegraph declared a very troubling headline:

India ‘most dangerous place in world to be born a girl.’

Girls are widely regarded as a burden to Indian families who fear the high costs of their weddings. Photo: REUTERS

Females are almost twice as likely as males to die before reaching the age of five, The Telegraph quotes UN figures.

Disturbing and scary don’t even begin to describe such statistics. It’s heartbreaking enough that in many places in India, as well as other parts of the world, poverty and disease and lack of education and warfare or violence have impacted children’s lives so severely.

But to live in a place where it’s twice as dangerous to be born, simply because of your gender, is even more horrifying and unacceptable.

The Telegraph goes on to report:

From 2000 to 2010 there were 56 deaths of boys aged one to five for every 100 female deaths.

Indian campaigners for the rights of girls said the figures reflected widespread discrimination against girls, ranging from neglect to abuse and killing of unwanted female infants.

The figures, compiled by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, emerged as India was plunged into introspection over the case of a two year old girl fighting for her life in hospital after being abandoned by her family and trafficked between several adults before being beaten, bitten and branded by a 14 year old girl. The girl, known as Falak, is suffering from severe chest injuries and brain damage and according to her doctors is unlikely to survive the next 48 hours.

Photo from the UN

Girls are widely regarded as a burden to Indian families who fear the high costs of their weddings and resent spending money on their education only for them later to leave the home to marry.

Many women abort pregnancies when they believe they will deliver a girl, often under pressure from their husbands or in-laws who favour boys.

Campaigners believe there may have been as many as eight million cases of ‘female foeticide’ in India over the last decade.

This discrimination has driven India’s sex ratio progressively lower.

Census statistics show it fell from 976 girls per 1000 boys in 1961 to 914 in 2011.

But according to campaigners the figures hide the cruelty and neglect suffered by girls kept by their families, in particular from malnutrition and denial of medical treatment.

Ranjana Kumari of the Council for Social Research said Indian mothers breast feed girls for a far shorter period than they do their sons and feed them less well because they fear good nourishment will speed the advent of puberty and the need for a costly wedding. While boys are taken immediately to hospital, sick girls are kept waiting because their families do not have the same interest in their survival.

“They think they need to feed the boy, but there is less desire for the girl to survive, it is common in rural India. Boys are immediately taken to the doctor, but not the girl. She is the last to get the medicine,” she said.

Female infanticide was also a factor in the UN figures, she added. “It has been a practice in central India for a long time, where mothers were made to feed the child with salt to kill the girl child.”

In Plain Sight but Invisible

Shelley with fellow volunteers Joanne and Kathleen, waiting on the train

Sitting on my backpack in the Rourkela railway station at ten o’clock p.m., I am waiting with my group of four other volunteers for our train. We hover around our amassed baggage, far more than the five of us need because many of the bags contain art supplies, games and treats for the children at the Miracle Foundation orphanage in Choudwar we are on our way to spend a week with.

From nowhere it seems, two boys suddenly appear beside us. They look about seven or eight years old and are alone. Silently they hold out their hands, then bring them to their mouths, then hold them out again in the universal language of begging. I am acutely aware of the mountain of belongings surrounding the five of us, the suitcases containing toys and treats for other children, the plastic bags of food and drinks for the overnight train journey at my feet.

There are millions of such children in India; waves of people step over and around them every day without ever really seeing them. Of all the vulnerable children they are the least hidden, in plain sight right out on the pavement or the train stations – yet they are perhaps the most invisible of all.

When brought face to face with them, it becomes almost impossible for me to ignore them, to say no. A struggle invariably begins inside my soul and no matter how many times the situation happens, that struggle never lessens and is never resolved. The truth of the matter is that giving money to these children will not have any significant impact on their lives beyond a few moments. It might even worsen their circumstances; many of these children turn the money directly over to parents or other adults who are either exploiting them or simply trying to stay a step above starvation. Reinforcing the tactic of children begging as a successful strategy merely continues the cycle. Activists and NGO workers will tell you over and over that if you really want to make a difference for children like this, or in fact anyone in desperate need, then supporting legitimate holistic programs that address the root issues and long-term solutions is the only way to make a lasting impact.

With railway kids in Mumbai, 2007

I agree with this. In my head, I know it is true. I donate thousands of dollars and volunteer hundreds of hours every year to NGOs that work with vulnerable children. It’s the reason I’m in India in the first place, volunteering in this orphanage. But in my heart it is another story every time I’m approached, every time children like these boys look up at me with their haunted or, even worse, vacant eyes. It’s so hard to look away, to wave them off, to pretend not to see them.

A few minutes later, the station alert sounds as our train approaches the platform. I grab my backpack and a team suitcase. But I can’t help it. Just before we start down the platform to where our car will board, I pull several candy bars and two bottles of soda from a plastic bag and set them on the ground. We begin to walk away and I look toward the boys. Amazingly, they do not grab the snacks and run. They just stand there, not taking their eyes off us. I look at the candy, then at the boys, and nod my head. Hesitantly the older one questions me with his eyes and looks at the pile on the floor for the first time. I nod again and like a shot, the boys quickly snatch it up and dart off at a blazing run.

After we board the train and find our seats, I stow my backpack under a side bench and sit down. Within moments, there is a knock on the window. I look out and the two boys are standing on the platform, now with several other boys. They’re all grinning from ear to ear. “One more, auntie!” they shout. I smile and wave at them, but the train is already pulling out of the station. As little as it seems, I’m glad we left the candy and I hope it makes them happy even if it is only for a moment. They stay with me long after I’m gone and I wonder how they ended up there, what their life is like, where they will be tomorrow.

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