Speaking for the Voiceless

Mar/18/2021 / by Seema Kumar

As an award-winning gender equality activist, economist and social entrepreneur, Dr. Shruti Kapoor is passionate about girls’ and women’s safety. 

As founder of Sayfty — an initiative to educate and empower young women and girls against all forms of violence — Kapoor has made it her mission to speak out about the otherwise unspeakable horrors of sexual assault and abuse. 

A successful economist at World Bank, she was looking for her next career role when the 2012 Delhi gang rape of Nirbhaya came as a wake-up call.

“I remember waking up and reading about it and just feeling a sense of anger, frustration and helplessness,” she says. Kapoor also vividly recalled an incident from her own life – abuse she had experienced as a teenage girl at the hands of a relative, which she had kept secret.

“It took me my entire life, to come out publicly and speak about the abuse that I had experienced,” says Kapoor.

Raised in Kanpur, a small industrial city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Kapoor grew up in a close knit family that put a high value on education. Her introduction to gender equality came early in life from her mom. Unlike many South Asian families, where boys and men get the best deal, Kapoor’s mom strove to ensure that Kapoor and her brothers got the same treatment.

“From an early age, I learned the concept of equality, equal rights,” Kapoor says. “Just because I was a girl didn’t mean that I couldn’t have access to something or that I couldn’t study.”

Kapoor graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Mumbai, and arrived in the U.S. to do a master’s program – and never looked back.

“I got a great opportunity to start working at the World Bank in D.C. It was very exciting,” she says. 

Kapoor eventually left the World Bank to do a PhD in economics at University of California, Riverside. Then, in 2012, Kapoor and her husband moved to New Orleans. She was looking for her next role when the gang rape happened in Delhi.

The Delhi incident not only enraged Kapoor, but drove her to action. She founded Sayfty a non-profit organization to teach women and girls how to recognize the difference between safe and unsafe physical contact from relatives and loved ones. 

“I spent the first 18 years of my life in India. I know what women and girls go through on a daily basis when it comes to their personal safety – the kind of harassment they … experience, whether at homes or on the streets.”

She knew that a much-needed conversation on women’s safety and sexual harassment was missing in Indian homes.

One in three women worldwide experiences some form of sexual abuse during their lifetimes. The prevalence of child sexual abuse is difficult to determine because it is often not reported, according to the National Experts of Victims of Crime. Most experts agree it is far greater than what is reported.

In the South Asian context, this is compounded by stigma, says Kapoor. 

“It’s our conditioning,” she says. “There is…shame and guilt associated with sexual abuse or harassment, and … we are not encouraged to talk about these things. It took me years to … publicly say that I have been abused…, [that] what happened to me was not my fault. Parents and adults can have conversations with children early on to prevent child sexual abuse from happening.” 

Child sexual abuse or sexual violence often happen close to home, research shows, and the perpetrator is often someone within the family.

Sayfty’s mission is to educate and empower women and girls against gender-based violence by getting them comfortable talking about their experiences. 

“When we experience sexual harassment or street harassment, we are often told to ignore it, to keep our mouths shut, to walk away from it,”says Kapoor. Sayfty encourages women and girls open up and understand it is not their fault. The organization also teaches parents how to have conversations with their children at a young age, awkward as they might be.

“I started teaching [my daughter] at the age of four about private parts of the body. We teach children to learn about eyes, nose, and ears, but we don’t talk about private parts… Teach children early on to distinguish between safe and an unsafe touch. Safe touch is something that feels warm and comfortable, and unsafe touches are something that you don’t feel comfortable with,” says Kapoor.

Besides guilt and shame, she says, children fear grown-ups’ reactions.

“[They wonder], Will they scold me? Will they say it’s my fault? But if you regularly have these conversations with your children, you are going to build the trust that will allow them also to share their experiences if ever that happens.” 

Given that in 99% of child sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is someone known to the victim, she urges parents to keep their eyes and ears open.

“Don’t assume that, you know, everybody in your family can be trusted,” she says. “It is often happening right in front of you, and you don’t even know it. Or you are in denial.”

COVID has exacerbated gender violence. Domestic violence cases have increased in many countries, including in India and the U.S., with the maximum number of cases being reported in 2020. Because victims are stuck inside and unable to get the help they need, “what has happened with COVID that is home is no longer a safe space for many women. Imagine being locked up with your family, in your own house with your [abuser],” says Kapoor. The lack of access to help and the lockdown has made it a tough year for survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

I think my message to each one of you, anybody who’s reading this, is that you can make a difference. You may feel, I’m just a person, I don’t have a platform, I don’t have an organization. What difference can I make? But I think each one of us are influencers in our own way.”

She advocates a zero tolerance policy towards violence against women and girls.

“Which means don’t send me WhatsApp messages that are sexist and nature, I’m not going to be laughing at these jokes, or consuming ads or movies that objectify women.”

She urges all influencers to use their voice within their own circles.

“I think that has a lot of power,” she says. “Don’t ignore violence against women and girls. Speak up against it every time you think about it.”

Read more about The Long Arm of Taboo.

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