INTERVIEW Actor Nandana Sen says often our instinct to distance ourselves from the child on the street is deeply disturbing
Actor-activist Nandana Sen was recently in Mamallapuram to talk at the Global Call To Action Summit For Child Survival organised by USAID and Ministry of Health, and raise awareness on child protection and the need to prioritise gender sensitive communication. In an email interview, the actor shared her insights on the issue she feels strongly about.
How and when did you first get involved with the cause of creating awareness on child protection?
I’ve always been horrified by the disregard we show as a nation to the health and safety of children. For years I’ve been working closely with RAHI as its cause ambassador to stop child sexual abuse and as ambassador for the global children’s NGO Operation Smile; I collaborate regularly with organisations such as NCPCR and TDH Foundation in the fight against child trafficking. It is deeply disturbing that so often our instinct is to distance ourselves from the child on the street, the child working hazardously, the child who has been raped, the child who has been sold. As if she is not our problem, as if she belongs to an alien universe. We must recognise that every child is our problem. Protecting the children of India is every citizen’s responsibility.
What was your agenda at the Global Call To Action Summit For Child Survival?
In the last 10 years, the ratio of girls to boys under six has fallen alarmingly due to female foeticide. Gender-based violence is disturbingly on the rise; the majority of our youth believe husbands are justified in beating wives. This bias is manifested in persistent crises such as child marriage, female illiteracy, sexual abuse and child trafficking. It is reinforced by our laws and practices (such as marital-rape impunity or the two-finger test) and our popular culture (such as films that objectify women and glorify heroes who stalk them). It is reflected in the tolerance for gender-based violence in all social strata — affluent families who condone sexual abuse, khap panchayats that justify honour killings, leaders who publicly blame a gang-rape and murder victim, functionaries who mishandle and don’t report child abuse. Prioritising a gender focus is imperative for promoting equity in all areas of child development. We cannot afford to assume that gender sensitivity is not a matter of life and death; or, that the problem is so immense that we can’t make a difference. We can, and we must. All of us are accountable.
As an actor, do you think it's realistically possible to use cinema and other mainstream media to create awareness?
I've always found it significant that ‘actor’ and ‘activist’ share their root verb. To ‘act’ is, essentially, to ‘do’ — and to engage or compel others to ‘act’ as well. In my life, the two roles are often interconnected, as I have absolute faith in the transformative power of cinema. I’m opposed to violence in any form, and it’s no coincidence that many of my films condemn it strongly, whether it’s a critique of terrorism as The War Within , of cross-border violence as Tango Charlie , of apartheid as The World Unseen , or of religious fundamentalism, as Rang Rasiya (India) . More recently, I completed Chuppee on child sexual abuse, made by UN WOMEN and Madhab Panda, which is shown in schools and community centres. Madhab also explored child labour in I am Kalam , an inspiring example of how popular films can raise awareness about child protection.
Your father has contributed immensely towards studies on development. Are you sort of taking off from there, as the father's daughter?
My work is pretty hands-on, as I work with survivors of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and child trafficking — not necessarily my father’s focus, though, of course, he is also deeply concerned about these issues. No doubt the atmosphere I grew up in shaped my sensibility.
My parents have certainly taught me to build my own (if unconventional) path and be self-reliant in every way. And yes, I frequently discuss my child-protection work with both — they are as actively interested in it as they are in my film roles!