Fellow Since 1990
This profile was prepared when Sunita Satyarthia was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The New Idea
Indian society values boys, not girls. From birth onward women suffer, often grotesquely.Several years ago, for example, a young widow was burned alive on the same funeral pyre as her husband in Deorala, Rajasthan. The woman was drugged and pulled by her hair to the pyre crying. Although this practice of sati is illegal, thousands participated in the ceremony, including politicians and the police.No one acted.Sunita then filed a public interest suit in the Rajasthan High Court on behalf of the victim. When the day of the hearing came, thousands of villagers with guns and swords surrounded the court. They were not supportive of her position. Her colleagues at the bar stayed home. She pressed on, and ultimately the court ordered the state government to act.Sunita also forced the issue in the press, bringing national attention to this brutal demonstration of many Indians' failure to value women as equal human beings. Finally the National Parliament enacted legislation barring anyone who attends a sati from subsequently running for public office.This case illustrates most of the key elements of Sunita's approach. First, the courage to see the problem and to act. Second, the orchestrated use of the courts, the press, and the administration, providing each the impetus it needs to take action. Finally, the ability to spot and develop the particular case that provides the precedent-making earthquake that changes the prior landscape of relationships.Sunita will continue to seek such opportunities to shake the patterns of abuse Indian women suffer. She has recently struck a blow against India's widespread female infanticide by bringing a successful, highly publicized case against a leading state politician whose family had not had any girls for generations. She has also closed over half the state rescue homes for girls after demonstrating that officials were exploiting and even selling the girls brought to them.The second half of her strategy involves creating a statewide chain of emergency homes for women in crisis. While her litigation pushes the patterns, soon more and more women still face personal crises and have no safe place to turn to. Sunita hopes to have a safe haven within reach in all parts of the state.These centers would provide more than a safety net; they would help the women develop the awareness, confidence, literacy, and job skills they need to stand and support themselves independently. Ultimately, the ability to support themselves economically is what will allow them to look anyone in the eye.These centers will also support Sunita's legal, press, and policy work. Women in trouble coming for legal help often will need broader human and more immediate help as well.