New Delhi: Much of the focus on the BBC4 documentary India’s Daughter has dwelt on the “mind of the rapist"—banned in India, its depiction of a convicted rapist and his defence lawyers has been taken somehow as reflecting a mindset shared by all Indian men.

Yet, lost in the din is the film’s portrayal of a quite another sort of man— the father of the 23-year-old woman who was brutally gang-raped and who died of her injuries in December 2012 in a crime so horrific its ramifications continue to echo over two years later.

Badrinath Singh is bemused when asked if he is a feminist: “It never occurred to me to treat my daughter any differently from my two sons," he said in an interview. He says he has always been convinced that education is “the key to changing our thinking".

One of six siblings and the son of a farmer, Singh says his father told him after he had completed his Class X that he was now on his own. “But the land I owned, just two bighas, was too small to sustain us," he says.

There was no choice but to move out of the village and take up a series of jobs ranging from working in a factory to a security guard’s post at a Delhi hospital. It was at the hospital that an encounter with a patient led to a permanent job as a loader at Delhi airport.

While Singh worked double shifts, his bright daughter, the eldest of three children, gave tuitions while still in school to help with the family’s expenses. By the time she was in Class IX, she had made up her mind to become a doctor.

“I said to her, ‘I don’t have the money for a medical education,’" says Singh.

What about the land back in the village, countered the daughter. And so, Singh took the unusual step of selling that land—not for his daughter’s dowry, or even the education of his two sons, but to fulfil the dreams of his daughter.

“I told my wife, ‘Whom are we earning for?’" he says. “My brothers thought I was crazy, but for me there was never any question that my daughter had the same rights as my sons." Moreover, he adds, the sons themselves looked up to their elder sister and were convinced that once she had set herself on an educational goal, they too would be able to follow. “She was clearing the path for them," says Singh.

India’s record of treatment of its women is not a secret. The sex ratio stands at 940 women per 1,000 men. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, every 20 minutes a woman is raped in India. Crimes against women in 2013 increased 26.7% compared with 2012. The government’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign seeks to improve the sex ratio at birth by 10 points every year. At its launch, Maneka Gandhi, minister for women and child development, had said female foeticide claims the lives of 2,000 girls daily.

But just like Singh, and despite widespread prejudice against girls, fathers and mothers across India are leading an unsung movement as the quiet and unheralded enablers of their daughters’ dreams.

A music video, Baap wali baat, which shows a man in rural India educating his daughters, was released last year by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) on 11 October, the International Day of the Girl Child. With its catchy tune and rap-lyrics, the song is about a father who encourages his daughter to go to school and pursue her dreams. The video is part of the #ItStartsWithMe campaign by Unicef India. The aim of the campaign is to make an example of men who stand up for the rights of women.

“The aim of the song is to create a positive mindset among men. So when boys see their fathers respecting women, they are likely to do the same when they grow up," Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, UN Women representative in India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka, was quoted as saying by a Rediff.com news report.

UN Women is a United Nations entity that works for gender equality and empowerment of women.

But some men such as Mahavir Singh Phogat need no prompting. A resident of Balali village in Haryana, he is not aware of either the campaign or the music video, though he could easily be on a poster for it.

A former wrestler, Phogat is the father of Geeta and Babita Phogat, among the brightest stars in Indian women’s wrestling. Wrestling runs in the family—he is also the uncle of Vinesh Phogat, who won a gold in the 55kg category at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last year. Babita too brought home a gold in the 48kg category. And while Geeta missed out on a medal, she became the first Indian woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics in 2012. She’s also the winner of the first ever gold for India in women’s wrestling in the 55kg freestyle at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Mahavir Singh Phogat’s determination to make champions of his daughters took root when Geeta was just 10 and Babita 8. The sporting world is replete with tales of parents who go to extraordinary lengths to nurture their children’s talents, so why should Phogat’s tale be any different? Perhaps it is because the family comes from Haryana, the state with the worst sex ratio in the country and the place chosen by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to launch the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign in January.

While wrestling has long been a popular and prestigious sport in Haryana, it remains a male bastion—as elsewhere in the world, the ultimate men’s sport. “I have been called mad to my face, had arguments with people, been told that I should be ashamed of myself and constantly heard the refrain ‘who will marry your girls?’ flung at me, but none of it mattered," says Phogat. “I have used every trick in the book, from cajoling to anger, to bring them where they are today. I used to tell them ‘struggle now, baad mein thaat honge (there will be laurels later)’."

Phogat dismisses queries about defying the norm. “It is parents who make a child weak or strong. As a parent, all you want is for your children to be self-sufficient—gender is irrelevant," he says.

There have been initiatives worldwide, including UN Women’s HeForShe campaign, that aim to involve men and boys in the campaign for gender equality. In an interview last year, United Nations Population Fund deputy executive director Kate Gilmore had spoken about the need to “invite men and tell them we want them to be a part of the change".

Despite India’s disturbing record, there are men such as Phogat who leave no stone unturned in order to ensure that their daughters get an equal shot at life.

Salim Khan is a karkhana (workshop) owner in Ahmedabad. His 13-year-old daughter, Pathan Sanofar Bano, is the apple of his eye the one for whom he has severed ties with his extended family. “We had enrolled her for swimming classes; when I heard about judo for girls, I enrolled her for judo for primarily security reasons, but she is enjoying it immensely," he says.

On his daughter’s insistence, Khan even enrolled her for wrestling classes. “I get a lot of flak from people who give me all sorts of arguments ranging from religion to gender, but I say my daughter will do what she wants to," he says.

Khan accompanies his daughter to her classes daily after school and is immensely proud of the local and inter-state competitions she has won. The government has given her cash prizes, too, which Khan says he has put away in a separate account for her. “That money is for her future. All the expenses of her training, travelling, etc., for competitions come out of my pocket," he says.

Last year in June, the G(irls) 20 Summit (a take on the G20, but about encouraging skills in girls and women through investments) in Australia launched an initiative called Fathers Empowering Daughters to celebrate the role fathers can play in the advancement of their daughters. Closer home in Ahmedabad, Indian-American Sunil Desai is attempting something similar with the Bindi Project. The non-governmental organization aims to build more awareness about daughters and their potential through community efforts. “If you tell someone their way of doing something is wrong, they will either walk away or they will argue. So I get men, who are very involved in their daughter’s lives and value them immensely, to tell their stories, to talk about why they think the way they do, to talk to their neighbours, the community. It’s done in a way so as to lead the other person to a realization," says Desai.

From teachers to daily wage earners, the Bindi Project works with fathers from a wide socio-economic prism. “This is an issue which transcends all boundaries and the different ways in which people view themselves," says Desai.

Perhaps no one exemplifies this better than B.P.S. Dhaliwal of Patiala. A senior manager in a government bank, Dhaliwal has been a pillar of support for his daughter Gazal who, in 2007, underwent a sex change operation. Since her childhood, Gazal had felt like a girl in a boy’s body and shared her apprehensions with her parents at the age of 13. “I can’t even begin to imagine what I would have done if my parents had not supported me. My life is what it is because of my father," says Gazal, an engineer-turned-scriptwriter.

Adds Dhaliwal: “There were periods of struggle, the difficulty to understand whether it was something that could be addressed with counselling, etc., or whether she should go for the operation, but all of this was in the initial years.

“I am a very practical man. If we have taken a decision about something, then we have, why should we question it time and again?" he says.

Today Gazal lives in Mumbai and her parents say they are very proud of her. “She was always very confident, but ab toh jaise rang aa gaya hai (it’s as if colour has suffused her life)," he says emotionally.

While the importance of a father’s role cannot be overemphasized in supporting and encouraging a girl child, some advocate caution. “It is a tricky situation, for the minute we say we need men, it can be mistaken for reinforcement of patriarchy. But less opposition leads to more empowerment and this message needs to be shared," says Sona Sharma, joint director (advocacy and communication) at Population Foundation of India (PFI), a think tank that deals with population issues.

PFI has tried to spread this message through the series Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hun, which traces the journey of a woman doctor with a supportive father. Now, with Bollywood actor Aamir Khan getting ready to play the role of Mahavir Phogat in his next film, star power could help take the message further.

Tragically, Badrinath Singh’s daughter’s dream of becoming a physiotherapist was cut short on the night of 16 December 2012. But, he says, he has never regretted selling his land, standing up to his family’s opposition or educating his daughter. His elder son is well on his way to becoming a commercial pilot and the younger one is giving his Class XII exams.

For the parents, the daughter’s dream lives on through a trust they have established in her memory, the Nirbhaya Jyoti Trust, whose aim is: “To work for the realization of human rights and freedoms, equality and dignity of the individual, particularly women, children, the aged, the disabled, the poor and other weaker sections of society." For this father, the dream lives on.

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