The other day someone asked me a question relating to why I do what I do for a vocation and asked me to dig a little deeper and explain my motivations for fighting against the injustices I do each and every day of my life. For those of you that know me, you’ll understand that I have been privileged enough to travel the world and visit some unique, desolate and remote regions during this time. I know that I offer tidbits about these people and encounters I have experienced; mainly through my writing. But I have come to understand that I don’t speak enough about these things in my everyday life. So in order to convey all of the things that lie within my heart and have driven me for all these years to do the work I do, I am going to tell you some stories. Some wonderfully uplifting, motivational and heart warming. While others are confronting, terrifying and traumatic beyond belief. Whilst these may cause discomfort and have some turning away or closing the browser, I believe them important to be told nonetheless.
I want to tell you a story about a young man from a village in Gorakhpur, Eastern Uttar Pradesh.
On making the visit to this young man’s home, we wound through dusty backstreets in which even myself someone who doesn’t struggle with mobility impairments was finding it difficult to simply stay upright with every step. It was explained that these areas were ones which had been allocated to the lower caste members of the Dalit group, also known as the Untouchables. This section of land is lower than surrounding areas and thus highly flood prone. The soil is much less arable which makes growing any kind of crop almost impossible. Thus reinforcing the reason as to why this area had been cordoned off for the lower caste within this community; the opportunities for growth and success are minimal.
When we finally made it to house we were visiting I was met by an affable young man, with the biggest and most genuine smile I have ever seen. This person, who I will refer to as Rohit* was explained to be the main participant of this project. He had been visually impaired since birth and as life had gone along he had lost his sight entirely. Rohit himself explained that being born into a lower caste family as a person with disability meant that most wrote off his existence and classified his potential as little to none. He himself did not value his being or believe that he had the prospective to offer the world anything, reinforcing the negative taboo and stigma associated with living with a disability in his community.
However as time went on, Rohit was approached by a local NGO and offered the opportunity to join a Self Help Group and later a Disabled Peoples Organisation. It was identified that he was a talented singer and musician and his membership of these groups grew in him a confidence to share his gift. At the time of meeting Rohit, a multitude of community members approached us wanting to share their stories of what a talented, committed and strong leader this young man had become through simply being supported to believe in himself.
As Rohit began to sing I found myself mesmerised in that moment. As I looked into the distance, with smoke wafting over from roasting corn on a nearby open flame led me to a near dream state. This young man was the unyielding example of perseverance, of fight, of belief and all in spite with crippling societal stigmas and entrenched barriers blocking his growth.
Now in the same breath, let me tell you another story. One also associated with poverty, with caste discrimination and oppression but also with ultimate distress.
In another visit I made that same year I came across a strong grassroots activist organisation in Ranchi, Jharkhand. When I met with the leader of this organisation I was immediate taken aback. She was a feisty, outspoken woman who conveyed a sense of sisterhood in merely her initial embrace. Whilst I felt the fight and drive instantaneously in this woman, at the same time I sensed a spirit of unease. At the time she explained that she was on her way to the district hospital to assist a young woman in giving birth.
The initial sensation you encounter upon hearing of such a case is usually one associated with hope, of light as a brand new human being enters this world. But this particular case was far from that and would become more and more distressing as the details were revealed.
I came to understand that the young woman about to give birth was not a young woman at all; at 14 years old she was actually a child herself. She was from one of the poorest households within a rural area of town and lived within a single parent household with her father. Let’s refer to this young woman as Sunita* who alongside being from a lower caste also had intellectual disabilities. It turns out no one even knew Sunita was pregnant until her 6th month in. She had been deliberately targeted with a sexual assault due to her family’s low socio-economic status and her belonging to the Dalit caste. Intersecting, or adding to this was the association that as a young woman with a disability she was a soft target who no one would believe anyway.
It gradually came to light that Sunita had become pregnant from being gang raped by 5 young men within her village. They were of a higher caste and had assumed that they would easily get away with their crime. Not just because Sunita was unable to convey the details of her abuse due to her speaking impediments, but also because they thought that no one would believe that anyone would want to rape her or have sex with her at all due to her disability. In addition to this the lead assailants father was a member of the police which meant even filing a complaint would have been near impossible.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that if this local activist entity hadn’t have been around, no justice would have been served in this case. Sunita would be just like one of so many women, and women with disabilities around the world subjected to heinous crimes simply by virtue of her gender and disability. Her case would most likely never have been heard because apparently society places no value on her life. She would have been just one of the statistics that indicate that women with disabilities are 2-3 times more likely to be subject to violence, and sexual violence at some point during their lives. Her story would have gone untold because the intersection of her family’s standing in society and her position as a young woman with a disability would have automatically disqualified her from being afforded to respect and any kind of justice.
Sunita’s case, even while being able to seek justice, have her assailants jailed and Government compensate her family is nowhere near a good ending. She will forever be traumatised by the events of that day. As will all of those who hear her story be haunted by the sheer injustice of it all.
I wanted to write this piece today not to dishearten or depress you. I wanted to compose it so that the stories of these resilient human beings who I have encountered don’t get lost in the chaos and absurdities of everyday life. I needed convey their truths because their voices, their experiences matter. I need to stand in solidarity with them and assure them that their lives are valued and that their strength is a beacon of hope for us all.
Ending note – Earlier this year I was sadly told of Rohit’s tragic passing. He left this world much too early but the impact of his existence during his short stint walking this earth will never be forgotten. Within just under 30 years of his life he served as activist for all of those who are marginalised. I know that he is now at peace looking down on us all and humming the sweet melodies of the songs he was so fond of with that hauntingly beautiful voice.
*Rohit & Sunita are not the real names of the people I encountered but instead pseudonyms to protect their identities