Fellow Since 1990
This profile was prepared when Sunita Satyarthia was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
Sunita Satyarthia, a lawyer from Jaipur, Rajasthan, is using strategic combinations of the law, the press, and institutional reform to change ancient patterns of discrimination and brutal behavior against women.
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.
India, almost unique in the world, has more men than women in its population. Even more striking, the men live longer on average that the women. Moreover, the proportion of men in the population has been increasing over the last several decades.Female infanticide and systematic neglect of girl children are key explanations. An Indian woman's problems only begin with infancy. Dowry and death are another extreme outcropping of the underlying problem, the failure of so many Indians to value women as equal beings.
Women fear approaching the courts. For most, the legal process results in public humiliation. Most lawyers are men and insensitive to the abuses carried out against women and the state of victimization in which they live. Only a handful of individuals in the legal community are addressing this particular aspect of women's oppression. However, if women fear losing their privacy in court, those who harass them are equally afraid of the publicity that a case generates. Sunita brings the public attention generated by these cases to bear on the perpetrator of the crimes, rather than on the victim.Because she has a reputation for fighting difficult cases, women in trouble, once afraid to voice their complaints, increasingly come to Sunita on their own and ask her to present their cases to the courts. To the extent she and her colleagues can, she tries to help.Her biggest impact, however, comes from her use of India's newly liberalized rules for public interest litigation to press cases likely to set important precedents. She spots and defines an outrageous pattern of abuse against women, typically exemplified in a vivid case example. She pins it down in court and spotlights it in the press. The perpetrator loses the anonymity that previously cloaked the abuse, and Sunita (backed by press attention) prevents the male dominated courts from viewing the offense as perhaps acceptable in the light of community standards.Sunita's methods not only discomfort the defendants she is after; they build the self-confidence of the women who are her clients. To realize that the full sovereign power and majesty of the law will stand behind them is profoundly empowering.The safe shelters Sunita is now about to set up will also make a major difference. In addition to helping protect the complainants in these key cases, these shelters will provide a second home for women facing the consequences of trying to stand up in the male world. In such moments of stressful change women are often ostracized by their families and other normal support systems. The centers will provide the missing housing, physical protection, and psychological support.
Both Sunita's grandfathers were active members of the progressive reform Arya Samaj. Their values gave her a childhood unlike most Indian girls; she was respected and encouraged to go to school.She went to the University of Rajasthan and was drawn into student activities, quickly emerging as the first woman vice president of the student union. This experience helped her develop her organizing skills and endowed her with a contact network across the state that she puts to good use.After finishing her legal studies, she served as a junior to a senior advocate at the high court, handling the full range of legal matters. As she matured professionally, she took on an increasing proportion of public-interest matters, and will now devote herself entirely to her public work. "Anything that infringes on human dignity, anything that is unjust moves me strongly," she says. Her whole life is testimony to that.