Sanjoli and Ananya Banerjee, the activist sisters from Karnal, have been taking part in various rallies, campaigns along with taking initiatives for the underprivileged sections of the society. Despite various challenges, they are selflessly working to bring a change.
A few kids, studying in the only public school at the small Bhoj Darara village of Haryana, have now started taking part in various co-curricular activities like delivering speeches and giving performances. The confidence of taking part in such activities is usually lacking in the kids of rural areas. But, all thanks to Sanjoli and Ananya Banerjee, the activist sisters from Karnal, and their initiative of running a free mobile school under the name, ‘Susiksha’ that many students are interested in different activities to refine themselves and are exploring more of their personalities.
With an idea to ensure the holistic development of children and provide quality education, the sisters had visited this village back in 2018 to understand the needs and requirements of students. They observed that the kids needed to be involved in various other activities, apart from the regular studies. Soon after, in December 2019, they started the mobile school for the kids where they could dance, and learn through art, all at temples, Gurudwaras, and courtyards. Even though the Principal of the school was not ready to provide the space for such learning, he ensured that the students attended this unique school, which turned out in favour of the sisters, who also conducted social awareness sessions with the kids.
Not only this, but the duo has been active in social work involving various other campaigns since their tender age. Sanjoli Banerjee, the 23-year-old and the elder sister in the family, has received Diana Award from the UK, the highest accolade for youth in social action, and the Young Global Changemakers Award from the Germany Secretariat, making them the only Indian to receive it this year, among 16 other awardees globally. However, the beginning of her selfless acts was not very pleasant.
Incidents as turning points
Sanjoli was just four and a half years old when she saw her mother being pressurized for an abortion as she was expecting her second daughter. The reason was simple. A few relatives of the family felt that the child would be a liability on the family and that her father would have to become a bodyguard for the daughters, contrary to a son, who would be a support to the family. But Sanjoli’s parents, who are teachers by profession, resisted the pressures from their relatives and delivered the daughter, Ananya in the year 2003. “Little did we know that her birth would give me a purpose in life,” Sanjoli says.
Sanjoli’s father, Mihir Banerjee, who is the founder of the NGO Saarthi, initiated the campaign, ‘Beti Bachao, Desh Bachao’ in 2004 with the celebration of ‘Lohri Beti ke Naam’, a ritual to celebrate the birth of a daughter, which is otherwise held to rejoice the birth of a son. On the occasion of Lohri, parents of girl children were invited and were honoured with cash prizes. “This step ignited a spark in me, and I never looked back. I went on to recite poems in Hindi and English at public places, performed road shows, street plays, visited villages, etc. I would mostly participate in these activities because that was the ‘normal childhood’ for me, and I didn’t feel I was doing something different or extraordinary,” Sanjoli adds.
As time passed by, Sanjoli felt there was a strong connection between females and nature, and hence, in 2009, she made a short documentary called ‘Earth in Flames’ with her parents and went on a 4500 km road expedition across 7 states of India. This was part of the ‘Save Daughters, Save Earth’ campaign, appealing to save the two lifelines of humanity. Sanjoli participated in plantation drives and other conservation activities, and by 2015, when her younger sister Ananya had also grown up, the duo wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was about to visit Panipat for ‘Beti Bachao Andolan’. They outlined 14 pragmatic solutions to curb female feticide on the macro level in the letter, which later got acknowledged. On whether those solutions were followed by the government or not, Sanjoli says, “A few steps were considered like banning of the sex determination activities, opening of women police stations, even though not because of the letter.”
The home calling
As Sanjoli went to The Australian National University to pursue a degree in Bachelor of International Security Studies, she got a chance to attend a semester exchange at the University of Sheffield, UK, and also an opportunity to volunteer for 100 hours at her university. In the same year, in 2018, she also happened to visit a school for Rohingya refugee children in Selangor, Malaysia, at a Harvard Conference, which impacted her mind. “I observed that I enjoyed giving back to the society, educating and advocating for the causes I strongly believed in,” she says. Later, Sanjoli decided to return to India and work for humanity.
After coming back, Sanjoli, along with Ananya, dedicated her time to the ‘Project Susiksha’ until March 2020, when the lockdown was imposed in the country, and the schools got shut, bringing closure to the sister’s mobile school. However, it was not for them to sit idle, and as 18-year-old Ananya sensed the anxieties and fear among people during the second wave, she launched an online series of “mental health sessions and interactions” called ‘REvolve 2021’ in June to encourage discussion around mental health. “We invited professionals including psychologists and psychiatrists to talk about various issues like COVID-19, social media, relationships, etc. The best part about the campaign was that a few people felt the need to take professional help from the experts,” says Ananya, who is going to pursue her Bachelor of Psychology from the same university in Australia.
Even though this campaign ended in June itself, the sisters conducted ‘March for Mental Health’- a walkathon/peace walk in Karnal, Jaipur, and Delhi to remove the stigma around seeking professional help. The initiative was joined by 300 people where the sisters took part in the Karnal’s walk, and the volunteers of NGO Sarthi carried the activity in Delhi and Jaipur.
Last month, the sisters also initiated another project named ‘Buland’ where they conducted workshops for girls studying from class 6th to 10th in government and low-income private schools in Karnal to raise awareness on menstrual hygiene. They along with the help of a sponsor and Raho Safe sanitary napkin brand distributed 7,000 pads to adolescent girls. On managing the expenses for the campaigns, Sanjoli says, “Our parents help us in every single step and we request people, who want to contribute to our cause to give their bit in ‘materials’ instead of cash.”
The activism, however, has never been easy for Sanjoli and Ananya as they have to face various shortcomings of society at each step. From lack of support from the authorities to not being taken seriously due to their age, the sisters also fight with the patriarchal mindset of the people who very often also neglect them due to their tender voice unlike that of men. “We have also come across some notions that Ananya and I want to contest elections, because of which we are involved in the social work,” Sanjoli says remembering how their campaigns for sanitation awareness were also rejected by the Sarpanch of a village every time they approached the authority.
Apart from this, the duo has also observed the lack of interest among citizens towards education. “Very often, we encounter people coming just for the meals and gifts but completely ignoring the major objective for which the campaigns or rallies are organized,” Sanjoli adds. Nevertheless, the sisters are keen on working for the betterment of the society, where Sanjoli is planning to add the ‘Skill Development sessions’ in the ‘Project Susiksha’ while Ananya is working on collaborations with schools and educational institutions to spread awareness on mental health among students.
Currently, more than 200 people are associated with the NGO Sarthi and Sanjoli is looking forward to expanding it to youngsters, who she believes, could be the “changemakers for setting examples”. “I have observed that Indians lack the urge to volunteer unlike in other countries and I want to contribute towards inculcating this kind gesture in people,” she says, thanking her parents for helping her sister and herself find the meaning of life.