On Tuesday evening, when Vice President Biden takes the stage at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards, he’ll honor a certain kind of humanitarian working to end violence against women: men.
At the nonprofit organization’s annual Kennedy Center event, Biden will introduce three brothers from New Delhi — Ravi, Rishi and Nishi Kant — who have seen women burned alive and pre-pubescent girls married off to the highest bidder. They know that rescue missions in Delhi’s brothels aren’t over until they’ve rapped on the ceilings, where little girls are likely to be hidden.
Yet, in 2001, when the brothers Kant started the nongovernmental organization Shakti Vahini — named after the Hindu mother goddess who fought injustice — they encountered great resistance from female advocates.
“Getting women’s groups to accept that men are leading our organization was a challenge,” said Ravi Kant, 45, a Supreme Court advocate in India and president of Shakti Vahini. “But we continued our work, and the support from women’s activists came.”
In both India and the United States, men are often silent on issues of violence against women — a phrase used to describe a multitude of crimes. The brothers are hoping to change that.
Vital Voices is hoping to change it, too, which is why the group will honor the Kants with a “Solidarity Award” for their decade of work combating violence against women. It’s a bold statement for the Global Leadership Awards, which are usually a Beyonce-thumping —“Girls! We run this” — celebration of women leading the global charge.
Like the conference TEDWomen or the glitzy Glamour Women of the Year Awards in New York, the famous faces of women’s issues — the Hillary Clintons and Arianna Huffingtons — come out to present awards to unsung heroes around the globe. The crowd is typically packed with young women who work for NGOs and nonprofit groups.
But the presence of the Kants — and the vice president, who was chosen to present the award because of his work on the Violence Against Women Act — is indicative of a broader call for men to speak up. Cindy Dyer, vice president of human rights at Vital Voices, says men’s silence is one of the greatest obstacles that women’s advocates must overcome.
“The fact is, it ain’t girls and women who are perpetrating violence against women,” Dyer said. “Men and boys think that being nonviolent themselves is sufficient. It’s not enough.”
Vital Voices, which was started by Hillary Clinton in 1997, upholds Shakti Vahini as a glowing example of how a group of men can — and should — work on women’s issues.
Leading a staff of 45, the brothers are a public face of an issue that came to the forefront of international media coverage when a 23-year-old woman from Delhi was gang-raped while traveling on a bus with her boyfriend in December. The crime has drawn attention to legal deficiencies and treatment of rape victims in India. The woman died of her injuries.
The Kants believe they are witnessing a sea change, not only for victims of violent rapes, but also for victims of human trafficking. India’s Parliament passed a broad law last month making stalking and sexual harassment a crime.
“When we saw the mass uprising, we said ‘This is the moment we’ve been waiting for,’ ” Ravi said. “It’s been a turning point, not only for us, but for women’s groups around the country.”
“People thought: This could be my sister. This could be my daughter,” Nishi said.
“I compare it to the O.J. Simpson” murder case, Dyer said. “For whatever reason, this incident grabbed the attention of people who previously did not care or think about violence against women.”
Vital Voices is hoping that the brothers’ presence at the awards will encourage female advocates to embrace their male allies — and encourage men to take the initiative.
“We are honoring them because of the great work they do,” Dyer said. “They were doing it long before violence against women was front-page news.”
Vital Voices is also holding Shakti Vahini up as a model NGO, one that addresses legal, advocacy and rescue missions simultaneously.
As a Supreme Court advocate, Ravi works on legal issues regarding honor killings and trafficking of girls. Nishi, the executive director, is a licensed social worker who now runs the rescue missions along G.B. Road, the red-light district in Delhi. Rishi, the youngest, is adept with a camera, and works to steer media attention to their work in the slums and in the courtroom.
Over the past decade, Shakti Vahini has rescued more than 2,000 people, 70 percent of whom were children. It has responded to more than 600 victims of honor killings, which are becoming more common in the northern provinces.
From Steubenville to Washington’s own legislative battle over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, violence against women is also at the forefront of the domestic agenda. And the Kants, all three of whom are fathers of daughters (no sons, yet) have words for American men:
“Men should take up this issue. It’s half of our population, and women are the priority,” Ravi said. “Women build families. They build children and generations.”