She is a Canadian politician who has served as a Member of Parliament to the House of Commons, a social rights activist and was a beauty queen in her earlier years. Meet Dr Ruby Dhalla, a woman of Indian origin, from Canada. In a candid conversation with WCRC Leaders Asia’s Manvi Sethi, Dr Dhalla shares her experience and her take on women’s empowerment
From a 10-year-old kid who wrote a letter to then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 to a successful politician and activist – how would you describe your journey so far?
The journey has been extremely surreal, exciting and beyond imagination. Many people usually say that sometimes in life, God has a dream for you that you don’t have for yourself and he makes you live that dream in some way or the other. God has given me that dream and with the blessings of God and support from my family, I am enjoying every moment and living my dream.
The adage – ‘Beauty with Brains’ best suits you. You finished second in the Miss India Canada pageant in 1993 and then went on to graduate with a Doctor of Chiropractic degree in 1999. What has been your life’s philosophy?
God gives you a gift – your life; what you do with your life is your gift to God. This has always been my underlying philosophy. I am a firm believer of living life to the fullest and making the most of every moment. Many people speak about my achievements and milestones that get featured in newspapers or they hear about the same from somewhere but the reality behind achieving these milestones is that the journey has been filled with a lot of challenges, struggles and sacrifices. I have been able to achieve these milestones because of the person that I am from inside. These achievements have been due to the various learning experiences that I have had during this journey.
What was your motivation to get into active politics?
When I was about 10 years old, my mother used to make my brother and me watch the news every night. During one such occasion, I remember seeing visuals of mothers crying over their dead children and a lot of violence and devastation. Seeing this I was deeply moved and told my mother that I really wanted to do something to help those people. I wrote a letter to the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, requesting peaceful means to tackle the violence in Punjab. I suggested that every one should sit around the table and discuss their problems rather than resort to violence. To my surprise, a few weeks later, I received a letter from Mrs Gandhi. She had actually responded to my letter. It was at that moment that I learnt that it does not matter whether you are young or old, rich or poor, what part of the world you belong to. If you have a dream that you wish to turn into reality, everything is possible. I would say that it was this response from Indira Gandhi that changed my life.
As a woman parliamentarian yourself, what is your take on the pending Women’s Reservation Bill in India which proposes a 33 per cent reservation for women in all seats in the Lower House and all state legislative assemblies?
I think it is incredibly important to have the voices of women incorporated in the political process. I firmly believe that when you have the voice of women coming to the fore, it is the voice of our mothers that is being represented. A mother is the element of cohesion that holds together every family. When women get involved in the political process and their voices are heard, there is just a different type of perspective and sensitivity that is brought to an issue. So for me, there is not any one particular issue that is a woman’s issue but every issue is a woman’s issue and requires her involvement. Whether it is dealing with the economy of a nation or it is dealing with infrastructure development, everyissue needs a woman’s perspective. When we talk about the Women’s Reservation Bill, it is very important to not only have women elected but it’s equally important to get them involved in the political process as volunteers, policy makers, etc.
India has been witnessing a rise in cases of crimes against women. What is required to make India a better and safer place for women?
Whenever there is a case where a woman has been violated in any way, shape or form, it is a matter of absolute tragedy and injustice. The incident does not only affect the girl but traumatises her entire family and well-wishers. It haunts her and her family for their entire life. According to me, there needs to be a multi-faceted approach to ensure that there is zero-tolerance for crimes against women. First, from a legal perspective, a no tolerance consequence policy needs to be drafted to punish such offenders.
The second aspect that should come into existence is promoting gender equality in schools and public institutions.
Thirdly, a public awarenesscampaign should be functional 365 days a year, advocating safety for women and it should not be situational that whenever any untoward incident happens, hordes of people protest for weeks and then the situation goes back to square one. It should be a constant process.
Fourthly, it is very important to have more women in politics – at the panchayat level, state level, federal level or at the back-end. One has to ensure that there is considerable representation from women. Lastly, one has to ensure that the work place environment is inclusive and conducive to women.
There are stories abound of Indian women from the villages and smaller towns of Punjab getting married off to NRI grooms. Many of these women have been cheated by their husbands who have abandoned them shortly after marriage. How do you wish to address this issue through your charity Dreams4U?
The issue of fraud marriages is something that I became aware of when I was elected as a parliamentarian in Canada. Many women started coming to me with their problems and, to my surprise, a few men also came to me for their sister, niece or someone they knew who had been a victim of fraud marriages. I visited Punjab quite a few times and turned it into a political agenda. Through this, we were successful in getting a couple of policies implemented. The first policy decision taken was to mandatorily get all marriages involving NRI men legally registered. As a second policy, any man who abandons his wife post-marriage, may get his passport confiscated and even get arrested the next time he visits India. This is when I decided to start a very unique charity – Dreams4U – whichfocusses on providing help to all the victims of fraud marriages. Through this charity, we provide the girls and their families proper counselling, making them aware of their rights and assist them with legal services. We also try to empower the victimised girls with vocational skills and training, helping them to become independent and being able to fend for themselves.
Last, Dreams4U wishes to develop public campaigns to educate families not only in villages but also in cities across India, asking them to conduct proper background verification before marrying off their daughters.
You have seen the world from the top. What special message do you wish to convey to our women readers? International Women’s Day was just celebrated on March 8.
I always see the world bottom-up, as I started at the grass root level. I always look up and never look down in life. The message that I want to convey to all the women around meis this: God gives you a gift and that gift is your life. What you do with your life is your gift to God. So make the most of it and never take ‘No’ for an answer. Set goals for yourself, always create a roadmap to achieve these goals and while doing this, surround yourself with positive people. Work hard, keep faith and keep moving forward to live your dreams.