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Sunil Desai: From Marine Corps to The Bindi Project

Sunil Desai: From Marine Corps to Bindi Project

On last week’s Forest Call we got to hear from a former U.S. Marine who's now spreading love and respect for women and girls in India!

Five years ago, Sunil came across a newspaper article about India’s missing girls. Curious, he read on, and learned about foeticide, infanticide, and other violent acts against women in India.

Having grown up with Indian heritage and culture (his father immigrated to the U.S. from India before he was born), Sunil felt a real connection to the issue. With the ratio of girls to boys decreasing (In 1961, there were 976 girls for every 1000 boys. In 2011, there were 914 girls to 1000 boys), he began asking questions and looking deeper at the social norms and mentalities that had created such gender conditions.

Gradually, he concluded that he had two choices: “I can either disavow and say I am American, or I can try to do something about it.”

At the time, Sunil was a new father. In thinking about India’s missing girls, he realized that he would one day have to tell his daughter about these problems.

“And if I didn’t at least try to do something about it,” he points out, “that [telling my daughter] would be even harder.”

So, he reached out to friends, got organized, and set into motion The Bindi Project, a nonprofit that fosters love and respect for women and girls in India by engaging men and boys through educational media.

As a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a 20-year Marine Corps vet, Sunil holds a commanding presence. Yet he channels that strength in a way that serves the communities around him:

“A lot of people believe that the fundamental problem, even more than the devaluation of women and girls, is the idea of machoism. I believe the problem is the misuse and abuse of masculinity, of being strong and aggressive. What needs to change is how these men channel this desire. It is not masculine to beat someone weaker.”

For instance, he elaborates:

“There is a gym and boys want to work out and be physical in the community center. Boys want to be strong and be police officers or in the military. What I share with people is that you can form an organization and do good things with strength. I don’t want to take away what comes naturally to them.”

Sunil carries an eye for these strengths and shines a light on them. While in India, he began speaking at high schools and colleges in Ahmedabad. Through his encounters, he met many men who embody a love and respect for the women in their lives. In one instance, he spoke with a father of an Ekatva child who expressed a wish for his daughter to find her future husband, because he trusts that she will find someone good for her.

“I want to highlight people like this. Create a profile in their own words, put these profiles online, and distribute them throughout the community to spread the positive message,” he explains. “I want to help facilitate men in their own communities.”

But that’s not to say that men are solely responsible. As one caller points out, “Working with men and inspiring them to be respectful is a great idea. But women have an equal responsibility to respect themselves first and teach this to their sons and daughters…Women have more of a responsibility than men.”

Sunil agrees that he doesn’t want to exclude women, and explains:

“I want to emphasize men because they are the main perpetrators… A lot of people say women are causing the violence themselves. I’m just not personally convinced of that…. What I am trying to do is something different—to reach men through men. I’ve talked with a lot of organizations that have regular meetings with women and said, ‘Have you tried to address the men?’

They say, ‘Yes, we do… but the men don’t come.’

I believe that part of that is that those programs are run by women. So men who fundamentally devalue or think less of women aren’t going to come and listen to women talk... But if men come forward and say, ‘Hey, this is a forum for men, it’s going to be led by a man,’ then at least the men cannot use that as an excuse for not being there. I agree, everybody has to be part of this, it’s not just men. But men have been left out of the equation...”

He sees a strong need to “provide alternative thinking for men in particular.” With such grand visions, Sunil also carries a heart of patience.

He recalls a conversation with a man who had expressed the view that there is no point to spend your time and money and resources on these issues when everything will self-correct over time.

“I don’t agree,” Sunil states. “I want to believe that if we look at it and push the idea, then we can reach tipping points… that completely reverse the trend. It’s definitely not a 1-year or even 10-year process, it’s going to take time, but I don’t feel like waiting around.”

Whether it’s organizing men and communities at the grassroots level, spotlighting positive role models, or starting a pledge of love and respect for daughters and sons, Sunil is definitely not one to sit on the sidelines.

With incredible energy, perseverance, and hope for the world, his actions also stay close to home. Towards the end of the conversation, he shares:

“I want to be able to look my children in the eye, my daughter in particular, and tell her that I tried to do good in this world… I want her to know that I tried. That’s my grounding in a way— her approval.”

Sunil Desai is the President and Founder of The Bindi Project. He served for 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel, and is a recipient of over 30 awards, including the Bronze Star. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a BS in mathematics and earned a MA in International Affairs from Catholic University of America. He currently lives near Philadelphia with his wife and two children.


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