Interview with Professor Sital Kalantry

Sital Kalantry is the Clinical Professor of Law at Cornell Law School where she founded the International Human Rights Clinic and co-founded the Avon Global Center for Women & Justice. She writes in the fields of comparative feminist legal theory, international human rights, and empirical studies of courts. Her works have appeared in the Stanford Journal of International Law, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Cornell Journal of Public Policy to name a few. Her opinion pieces have been published in the New York Times, Slate, the New York Daily News and various other newspapers. We want to thank Sital for all the work and efforts she has contributed to INTLAWGRRLS over the past several years through this farewell post. I had the honor of interviewing her. The interview is transcribed below.

Question: You have written expansively about Women’s Human Rights. What drives you to focus on issues such as Acid Attack Violence, Domestic Violence, Sex-Selective Abortion Bans etc.?

Answer: I have always been interested in gender inequality since a very young age. One of the biggest influences for me were some feminist classes that I took as an undergraduate student at Cornell University. Taking those classes helped me see the world through a lens where one could identify inequality and problems on gender issues. I also had an interest in these aspects because I was born in India and travelled India significantly as I was growing up. Visiting my relatives gave me a new culture. It helped me observe the different kinds of inequalities that are present. I witnessed that there is a difference in the inequality that takes place in India and the United States. This gave me further interest to seeing ways where I might be able to help by solving and rectifying some inequalities.

Question: Your book “Women’s Human Rights and Migration” mentions about the practice of sex- selective abortion and how it violates women’s human rights. This contradicts with the concept of exercising reproductive rights as guaranteed as mentioned in Roe v. Wade. What do you think about this contradiction?

Answer: My thesis in the book is that we cannot have universal solution to gender rights or inequality. In some cases, we have to contextualize the law. There are a number of feminist scholars/ activists in the United States who oppose restrictions on abortion in any way, shape or form. They particularly oppose it because there is a restriction or ban on abortion. In India, feminists initially thought that they have to restrict it because it is being used in a way that is discriminatory to women when female fetuses are being aborted proactively and disproportionately in comparison to male fetuses. My thesis is that each country has its own understanding and there is a different law to have different reasons, goals and consequences from gender inequality’s perspective. So, we need to emphasis more one the contextualized view. When I observe the laws related to abortion in the United States, I think about the scope of the problem. Do we actually have the same magnitude of a problem in the United States as it is in India? And the answer is that we don’t. What are the obstacles which make it more difficult for the women in India? Do they have to sign papers or are they asked questions? Looking at the US perspective, there is no benefit to having this law in terms of equality purposes. In the Indian perspective, it works as a balancing check. Even when considering reproductive rights, you are balancing the interests of the women and the state interest. There is a valid reason why abortion does not take place a few days before the due date. So, there is a balancing that people have to do in India and they have to do it in a different way. After twenty years of experience of Pre- Conception and Pre- Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT), we need to think whether the law is actually working or not. We need to see the positive and negative consequences of this law. There are different factors to consider and that is how I understand it completely.

Question: You have voiced your insights regarding the gender parity in Courts. What difference do you see when considering the Indian and US Courts in terms of gender parity?

Answer: When you look at the numbers of the Indian Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court and take the number of women as the percentage of the total number of judges, it is actually very similar which is less than 5 percent in both countries. The only difference is that in India, there are thirty judges with one woman and at times, they have two women. Currently in the US Supreme Court, it looks like the US Supreme Court has more which is 3 out of 9 i.e. 33 percent. But over time, it is the same. I feel that when we look at the lower courts in the US, the number of female judges has increased over time up to 20-25 percent but in India, the Supreme Court doesn’t seem to be focused on the gender issue. India is based on quotas and equalities but as observed in the Indian Supreme Court and High Court, the judges appoint the other judges and they are not subjected to any observation. I think this is the reason why the progress for gender equality in the Courts is stalled in India.

Question: What are some of the most memorable key findings of your scholarship in terms of women human rights till now? It could be related to domestic violence, sexual violence, acid attacks against women, human trafficking or any other issue that you have researched closely on.

Answer: It is a tough and broad question to summarize but I think that in the context of surrogacy which happens in India and the United States, I realized that it is important to look at the problems in each country. Based on these observations, one can solve these problems on the basis of the dynamics between the surrogacy and the intense trials of each country. Legislation should be adopted on the basis of the social or historical context within the country. In terms of the study, we frame it as a gender violence issue and can think of it as pick-pocketing, murder or battery but this crime is motivated towards women because of their gender. Often in India, it is perpetrated by men so we did data collection on who the perpetrators are. So, we often think of it specifically as a gender crime.

Question: Your scholarship provides a lot of fodder for the policy makers concerning the rights of women and girls. There must be instances where your work has made readers think about practically putting your ideas into use. Would you please share any such instances?

Answer: Students have been really instrumental in the human rights work that is being done and students have put together research that is done under my direction. This research has been cited at the Indian Supreme Court in the Acid Attack case. The Report on Surrogacy Law has been put forth in the Indian Parliament. It has been cited in many newspapers like The New York Times and various others. I think there has been real policy work related to gender issues with advocacy work. I try to combine data, empirical work and scholarship with activism. I think activists on the ground should open up and engage in certain depth of work and scholars are not speaking policy but are typically writing within their own fields. So, my call is to bridge the scholarship and policy gap.

Question: Lastly, how was your experience working as an Editor for the blog?

Answer: I have been editing the blog for seven years. I have enjoyed getting to know so many inspiring women. I particularly enjoyed it when people thanked me for my editorial comments.

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