Rishi, Nishi & Ravi Kant
Global Partnership to End Violence Against Women
Global Leadership Awards
Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards 2013
"There are many of us and we're fighting together."
Shakti Vahini is an organization that works for the rights of women and children in India. It was co-founded by the Kant Brothers in 2001. The organization is headed by Ravi, its president, and has been strongly supported by Nishi, its executive director, and Rishi, who is a social activist. “Shakti is the mother goddess, the goddess who has fought injustice,” says Ravi, explaining the name. “Vahini is a brigade. There are many of us, and we're fighting together.”
For more than a decade it has been a leading voice in the debate about violence against women in India. For much of that time, the Kant brothers have fought hard to get the country to notice the plight of women who have been abused, trafficked, attacked, and enslaved. The organization has been a leading voice on policy and legal changes to combat violence against women and children in India.
"People said: 'I need to do something.'"
Then in December 2012, in a story that shocked India, a young woman was raped in New Delhi by several men in a bus. “We had been seeing lots of stories in the media about crimes against women, about human trafficking, about forced labor, child labour, rape,” says Nishi. “It was slowly boiling but it was high time for more outrage. It touched each and every one of us. People said: I need to do something. My sister, my daughter, my mother could be in such position. I need to do something. That was what everyone felt in their hearts and then there was a huge uproar.”
But, says Ravi, “All this media hype is in Delhi and in the big cities. In the large rural hinterland of India there is less awareness and that is where we need to fight it out. The challenge ahead of us is all about implementation of the law.” And no one knows more about that than the Kants.
Shakti Vahini's cross-sectoral approach
For more than a decade they have been proposing legislation, demanding that laws be enforced, improving access to services and empowering victims to take action. They have taken on violence against women, honor killings, human trafficking, child labor, slavery — a cluster of connected problems that are deeply entrenched.
In large part, their work means dealing with the police. “One big challenge is working with law enforcement agencies,” says Ravi. “They are the first response agency whenever there is a crime against women. They need to be sensitized day in and day out. They need to be sensitized at a mass level. The mindset has to be changed. This is a major challenge.”
The Kants have plenty of experience with what it takes to make this happen. The organization has been involved in training of more than 6,000 policemen across India, and has developed specialized training units and intervention teams to work closely with the police.
Kants also work through the law courts and through political advocacy. Shakti Vahini has prepared a report on honor killings for the National Commission for Women, and Ravi has been a member of the Central Advisory Committee to Combat Trafficking and in 2011 was appointed by the Supreme Court in a panel to rehabilitate victims of sex trafficking in India. He is also an advocate at the Supreme Court of India and has worked on public and pro bono litigation cases.
Voice to the voiceless
The group is supported by a strong professional team is best known for its work on rescues, interventions to repatriate victims who have been trafficked and give them back their lives. Over and over again, it is the concrete sense of human suffering and human potential to which they return. “When we rescue a girl child, she expresses her willingness and desire to have a happy life,” says Rishi. “That is what makes us feel so motivated.”
“Every girl you rescue has a story, how they were exploited — personally, sexually, physically, mentally exploited. A trafficked girl has no ability to express her emotions. You have to stand with her. Our responsibility is to give voice to the voiceless.”
Sharing strategies globally
In 2010, Vital Voices Global Partnership, the Avon Foundation for Women, and the U.S. State Department launched the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Women. The Kant brothers are important partners in this initiative, with great experience, energy and imagination.
The brothers bring a mixture of skills and outlooks. “Ravi is the motivator. Nishi gives us administrative infrastructure and implementation,” says Rishi. He works on media, where the organization has been very successful. Its hallmark is building partnerships, engaging with other groups — government, police, judges, prosecutors — even while trying to change the way the country works.
"We have to work with the system while fighting the system," says Nishi.
They are under no illusions about the scale of task they face, or the opposition. “We are fighting an organized crime and will be attacked. These groups are very powerful and they have the best of lawyers to defend them. Human trafficking after all is organized crime. We have been attacked, threats have been made, legal attacks have been made. But we know that once we're on the right path we have to go ahead,” says Ravi. The brothers feel that the best response to these attacks by organized crime is persistence and transparency.
“When I talk about patriarchy — law-enforcement, administrative officials, the state government, the law makers, they all have the same patriarchal views,” he says. “We have to fight the mindset of society.”