Sarbjit Singh and the We for WE mission …
I first heard about Sarbjit Singh around a year ago, from Carmine Martinez, a dear friend and colleague of mine. In the past, myself and Carmine have collaborated on a number of projects, mostly connected to photography and the model business. We understand each other perfectly and there is a proven mutual trust between us so, when she asked me if I was interested in working and participating in a campaign against human trafficking and for women empowerment, I was ready to listen. I had just gone through a taxing period of study which had somewhat drained me, so a totally new challenge was just the tonic I needed to restore my normally combative character. She eventually introduced me to Sarbjit, naturally with the help of online media, and the collaboration commenced from that moment.
I started interesting myself on the many issues relating to women empowerment and the upholding of women’s rights. The more deeply I delved, the more horrified and shocked I became. It is no news to anyone that such problems have been with us since time immemorial and, unfortunately will most probably remain with us for a long time. Until greed, envy, abuse, religious fanatics and lack of education and basic human rights remain predominant in humans, this shameful scourge will not be eradicated. Putting everything in a more focused context, the fight is mainly against the unending abuse of female human rights and gender inequality. The main aim behind Sarbjit’s group, aptly named We for WE, is to attempt to alleviate such problems in all their forms. Although established in India, the group has a global vision and this is rightly so, as these issues are definitely not only present in India, but, alas, all over the world.
I eventually started corresponding with Sarbjit and began to try and help in any manner that I could. We found a lot of mutual respect for each other and, when he told me if I was interested to join a group of other international campaigners on raising more awareness of such issues in India, I accepted. My job was to photographically cover the whole awareness campaign as well as help in any other useful manner in my capacity. It was easier said than done, as I had to get time off from the Malta College of Arts, where I teach photography, as well as take a marathon of inoculations that were recommended for my visit to India.
Sarbjit is a tall, imposing man with an extremely responsible and demanding job. He is the Commandant of the first Battalion of the Punjab Police Force. He is directly in charge of over 4,000 staff and his volume of work can be assessed by his use of his mobile phone – which is constantly ringing! A taxing job indeed that Sarbjit handles very well, showing no apparent signs of stress. When young, Sarbjit studied Aeronautics, gaining a Degree in the subject and was reading for a Masters in Engineering, when he was selected to join the Police Force, were he steadily progressed to his current position. Sarbjit is married to ‘Rozi’ Ripandeep Kaur and they have two delightful boys.
It is remarkable how Sarbjit finds the time to contribute on such a demanding project and NGO, outside of his normal Police work. He is, in fact, also the President of the Indian Association of Health and Fitness. His wife Rozi has also been busy with other NGO work and in fact it was she who steered Sarbjit towards establishing the We for WE Group. Rozi and Sarbjit’s everyday contact with people made them conscious of the many issues that females face not only in India, but globally. Their wish was to work for women empowerment and all the issues that stem from inequality and abuse. The practice of ‘arranged’ marriages is also still very much a scar on those Societies which still condone it. Sarbjit and Rozi were motivated to help on problems faced by the female gender at ground level: problems such as lack of education, health, employment, slavery, arranged marriage, sexual and domestic abuse.
Being for so many years active in the police force, Sarbjit has encountered these problems first hand. The exploding population of India, which has trebled over the last 50 years , has given the authorities a great deal to handle and, as always, the help and commitment of NGO’s is not only most welcome, but definitely needed. The initial start up of We for WE concentrated on raising public awareness on the related issues – attempting to vitally make females aware, at grass roots level and particularly in rural areas, of their rights and learn about the tools they have to protect and improve their lives. The initial push was done through establishing various leaders in international countries who are striving to promote the empowerment of women. Most of these Leaders come from the ranks of former Beauty Queens – the idea being to show that women can take control of their own lives and move forward. The modeling, showbiz and fashion community is also notorious for having its fair share of harassment and stories of molestation and exploitation – so these same Leaders could, through their own personal experience, possibly grasp better the problems faced by females.
I pushed Sarbjit to further elaborate on what motivated him to launch this NGO, and he replied:
“At my job, I have witnessed a lot of crime and abuse against women. Girls, under age or not, being molested and raped. I felt that they do not have a real practical platform to fight for their legal rights so, sometimes, their grievances are not addressed properly. Particularly in outlying and remote rural villages, victims find it very hard to obtain redress and lack of education does not help. Furthermore, at times, some village heads might also be swayed to cover up crimes because they are committed by influential and powerful people. All such factors made me and my wife more determined to help in any way we could.”
The NGO’s chairperson, as stated before, is actually Sarbjit’s hard working wife, Ripandeep Kaur. Being a husband and wife team with the same goals facilitates their work in the NGO. A female chairperson is also vital in order to inspire confidence and trust, as females seeking help, particularly in sexually related cases, can usually relate much better with a woman than with a man.
One of We for WE’s first practical moves was to set up a Call Center, based in Jalandhar, India, to cater for any issue which females find difficulty in addressing. The Center uses trained female operators to guide and give practical advice on how victims can acquire redress and justice. The main priorities of this call centre, which is sponsored by benefactors, are secrecy and a friendly, sympathetic approach – an approach which is not always found in Government operated call lines. Government has been regularly addressing these issues by launching more adequate laws and policies, yet, at grass roots level, in such a huge country with so many people and levels of education, implementation takes time and is fraught with difficulties. Yet, the current Modi government seems to be on the right track and has done its fair share of legislation that aims at empowering women even in base, practical matters, such as making a determined push so that adequate toilet facilities become available wherever females need them. NGO’s have been also encouraged to come forward and help in the implementation of this policy, hopefully soon making such facilities mandatory in the whole country.
We for WE is also trying to help with micro industry such as making available sewing machines and ancillary material to females who cannot afford to buy them. Instruction is also given to enable these women to learn the trade so they can eventually become independent through their own work. This is being done with the help of various private businesses, well wishers and sponsors who believe in such causes and who are helping out with donations both in hardware as well as monetary. These initiatives are mainly being established and maintained in rural villages and the idea is to also help facilitate the marketing of products manufactured with the proceeds going to the girls themselves. Naturally, the NGO keeps track of these initiatives so as the girls are constantly monitored, given encouragement and ensuring they are not exploited. Women must help themselves but in many instances, particularly where poverty is rampant, they need channels and tools that can improve their situation. The We for WE motto is ‘Education – Health – Employment’ – the implementation of all three is essential if progress is to be made.
Being head of Punjab Police, Sarbjit is also ideally positioned to ensure that complaints coming to his department are dealt with in the right manner. Special refresher courses on female related issues are now being regularly held for police officers. It is now part of police policy that whenever a female is involved in a complaint or a report, a female officer is present. After a recent horrific Delhi rape case, which unfortunately made the headlines all over the world, the Government has taken steps so as such serious cases are now being ‘Fast Tracked’ in order that justice can be achieved in the least possible time and ensure that cases are not bogged down or sidelined. Expediency is important as ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’
Forced prostitution is also another stigma for society and Sarbjit believes that much more can be done here to protect victims of this terrible form of modern slavery. Another initiative by We for WE has been the organizing of ‘Medical Camps’ where people can ask for assistance with health problems and even get some basic free medicine. These camps are specifically for females and are supported by some doctors and various pharmaceutical associations. Government also gives help but at times, again mostly through lack of knowledge, some would-be beneficiaries have no idea of how to apply or get help. These medical camps act as an information centre for guiding people in obtaining their rights. Understandably, these camps are not easy to organize, and so are not yet so regular, but a start has at least been made. Although We for WE was initially born in India, it now has delegates and group leaders in a number of international countries, such as Sierra Leone, Serbia, Venezuela, Canada, Ecuador, Singapore, Malaysia, Nigeria, Namibia, Japan, Malta, Romania. This is necessary, as the issues being tackled by NGO’s like We for WE, are not restricted to India, but exist, perhaps in other forms, in most other countries. Thus the push for addressing women’s rights is global. The recent campaign, in October, specifically aimed at raising awareness on these issues was conducted for a whole month all over India. It was an exhaustive but successful campaign which managed to obtain substantial media coverage that, without any doubt, helped in further exposing the problem and predicament of women’s rights in all spheres of the general public.
Here I must applaud the Indian media’s help in covering and diffusing the campaign in a very encouraging and enthusiastic manner. The power of the media is extremely vital in getting the message over to both the general public and to the authorities.
Working with Sarbjit and his wife for a whole three weeks, (I photographically covered the campaign for media purposes), has made me see how dedicated they are to their chosen cause. They are determined to make a change for the better.
As Sarbjit said in his own words: “Even empowering one girl makes the whole exercise worthwhile!”
Let us hope that many such girls can benefit from the work of NGO’s like We for We.
We for We website: http://www.weforwe.org/
© Kevin Casha