On the 8th March, International Women’s Day, I attended the second annual awards ceremony organised by the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW). The ceremony recognised people who had gone out of their way to help the cause of women in India.
I tried to slip into the Constitution Club without being noticed. This didn’t work because I am a man, and a white man at that. I stuck out like a sore thumb. An official from DCW recognised me, and even knew that I was from MSF. She frog marched me from my unobtrusive seat at the back, to the very front row, which was reserved for VIPs and award winners.
I didn’t last long here. The organisers apologised and put me in the second row, right in the middle. Unfortunately, I did not bring my camera, so all these photographs were taken using my cellphone. One of our national doctors accompanied me on her day off, translating for me when necessary.
The chairperson was the chief of DCW, Swati Maliwal Jaihind. She is extremely passionate in her battle against sexual and gender based violence. Check out Michael Safi’s article in The Guardian on 4th May, “Her pain should be our pain” – the woman tackling Delhi’s rape crisis.
One of the key speakers was the head of the Delhi Government, left-winger Arvind Kejriwal. He received rapturous applause from the audience. He announced some popular reforms but had to scurry away to sort out last minute changes to the budget.
The stories of some of the award recipients were very moving. Decades ago, Subhasini Mistry’s husband died because he could not afford medical treatment. She sold vegetables to finance her son’s medical school education and finally set up a small free “humanity hospital” in a village in West Bengal, with a branch in Kolkata. She was tiny.
The police were honored, one posthumously, for going beyond the call of duty when dealing with crimes against women. One man rescued children from a school bus trapped in a flooded underpass, even though the water was up to his neck and he couldn’t swim. Two male constables delivered a baby at a bus terminal. One constable cracked the case of a serial child rapist by exceptional detective skill, checking criminals with a similar modus operandi, finally leading to the arrest of Sunil Rastogi.
Sakshi Malik overcame discrimination, sexism and other hardships before winning a wrestling medal at the Rio Olympics. Other sports women were honoured, such as Suvarna Raj, the medal-winning disabled table-tennis player.
Shaheen Malik is an acid attack survivor who has worked with other survivors, promoting free care at private hospitals for other acid attack survivors.
Laila Shah and other transgenders blocked the gates to Trilokpuri when an angry mob wanted to wreak havoc. She was stoned but stood firm and even swept up the broken glass and bricks afterwards.
Bhori Devi Kumhar was brutally gang raped in front of her husband when she tried to stop a child marriage (the bride was one year old) in 1992. Her family was ostracized. The courts, police and doctors impeded her fight for justice. The court did not believe the testimony of her husband. The PIL led to the Vishaka Guidelines, outlining sexual harassment in the workplace, and the subsequent Act in 2013.
Several women were commended for fighting back when thieves tried to steal their handbag or mobile phones (one was a judo black belt holder!).
Neetu Singh started a school near Pragati Maidan for street children, mainly girls. She had no financial aid, no source of income and was harassed by local goons who wanted to use the children for begging. She now teaches 40 children and is being helped by some local volunteers. Another education effort was commended, the “Free School: Under the Bridge”, situated under an urban motorway flyover.
Head Constable Bharti has taught self defence to over ten thousand girls and women. “If you can bring together a group of 50 women, we will train them,” she said.
Doris Francis’ 17 year old daughter was killed at an accident black spot on the road in 2008. Since then she has been directing traffic and pedestrians at that junction between 7-11am each day. “No one should have to die like my daughter did.”
Female scientists, including Dr Anita Bhardwaj were also honoured. She provided “high altitude” expert clinical help during the recent Nepal earthquake, in a village at 11,400 feet above sea level. She has dedicated her medical career to humanitarian causes.
The ceremony was tremendously moving. At the end, a mob of university students dressed in black pyjamas invaded the stage, chanting and singing, drumming and dancing. This is street theatre in India. It has two levels of volume level 10 and 11. They depicted outrageous injustice in a series of sketches. The Asmita group were very impressive. And LOUD.
Lunch was in a marquee, with long queues of hungry ladies with sharp elbows. Being British, I couldn’t stop myself from queuing. Everyone pushed in front of me, probably wondering why I wasn’t starving. Finally, a group of students from the street theatre group took pity on me and shepherded me to the vats of curry, rice and dahl on another table.
I sat on the matting and had lunch with one of the award winners, a lovely girl with Down Syndrome. We managed to have a conversation with lots of gestures and mime. She really enjoyed her few minutes in the limelight. I left her to get us some dessert, gulab jamun, but when I returned she had gone. I am ashamed to admit that I ate her portion too. Delicious.