“Our relatives thought having two girls in the house would mean that my father would need to turn into a bodyguard.”
While this is the thought that most Indian homes have about the birth of a girl child, for 23-year-old Sanjoli Banerjee, an activist from Karnal, it was the start of a nightmarish ordeal.
When Sanjoli was just five years old, she witnessed her pregnant mother being pressured by relatives to get an abortion when the sex determination results indicated another baby girl was on the way. She says that while her parents had wanted to move ahead with the pregnancy, they were forced to take the test thanks to familial pressure, despite the knowledge that killing their baby solely because she was a girl would be abhorrent.
It was at the very last moment — when the nurse was ready with the injection on the operation table — that the couple decided to ignore their relatives and raise their baby girl as a lesson to all who thought girls were a burden.
At a tender age, Sanjoli was a silent witness to all of this. She watched, observed and the seeds for activism were sown within.
Since the age of five, Sanjoli has dedicated her life and work to empowering women. She does this through educating girl children with a mobile school that she runs with her sister Ananya, campaigning for issues like menstrual hygiene, speaking at rallies, etc.
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She has been lauded for her work by dignitaries and ministers alike and has also received many awards, including The Diana Award in 2021 for Social Action and Humanitarian Work.
One of the first events that the family conducted for the cause of raising awareness about female foeticide was in 2004 at Yamuna Nagar on the occasion of Lohri. Through their event Lohri, Beti Ke Naam, they honoured parents of baby girls with cash prizes.
At this event, Sanjoli enacted the role of a female foetus while reciting a poem — ‘Hold Me, Papa! Hold Me!’— penned by her father. “Just spare me a chance to live…To come out not in fragments,” she recited as the masses gathered there found themselves emotional.
This was the moment Sanjoli found her tool of sensitising the masses — her voice of activism.
At the age of seven, she received the Bal Puraskar for Excellence at Activism by the chief minister of Haryana in 2006.
While Sanjoli was actively taking part in raising her voice for women’s empowerment, Ananya was watching her and learning too.
“Getting to know how I was not accepted, welcomed, or celebrated by society because of my gender was extremely uncomfortable,” says Ananya. “Every time I think of it, I am bothered and the pain gives me more strength to actively build a world where girls are accepted, educated and empowered.”
When asked what fuelled their desire to be the voice of change, they say their parents fighting family pressure to raise two girls was their first inspiration.
For Sanjoli, the other was personal experience. “Through my activism journey, I’ve seen firsthand how it is being a woman in India. I’ve often been dismissed by men who think women don’t have the right to be educated as much as them.”
Meanwhile, Ananya says that instead of being a mere spectator, she wants to take the responsibility of change on her shoulders. “Now it is not just me and my sister, but a long chain of young changemakers impacting lives.”
Under the umbrella of Sarthi, the sister duo diversified into other topics that need addressing. Their motive was simple — to create awareness about various issues that affect women, while not losing sight of their initial starting point, which was to stop female foeticide.