Rani Dhavan Shankardass: Advocate for Women in Custody and Penal Justice

Rani Dhavan Shankardass: Champion of Human Rights and Penal Reform

Rani Dhavan Shankardass stands as a towering figure in the realm of prison reform and social justice, her life’s work resonating across the globe. As the Secretary General of Penal Reform and Justice Association (PRAJA) and the President of Penal Reform International, she has devoted her career to transforming the lives of the marginalized and advocating for humane treatment within the criminal justice system.

Early Life and Education of Rani Dhavan Shankardass

Born in Allahabad, India, Rani Dhavan Shankardass was nurtured in an environment that valued education and social consciousness. Her parents hailed from the North West Frontier Province, instilling in her a deep sense of cultural heritage and responsibility. She pursued her early education in Allahabad, Nainital, and Lucknow, where her academic prowess began to shine.

Rani’s intellectual journey is marked by an impressive array of academic achievements. She earned five graduate degrees across Social, Political, and Economic History.

Rani Dhavan Shankardass’s academic pursuits took her from the University of Allahabad, where she earned two MA degrees, to the University of Pennsylvania, Girton College at the University of Cambridge for her MSc and M.Litt degrees, and finally to the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where she completed her PhD.

Academic and Professional Journey

Rani Dhavan Shankardass began her career as a lecturer in Political Science at Kamla Nehru College, University of Delhi. Her initial focus on political history gradually evolved into a profound interest in social change and the dynamics that facilitate or hinder such transformations in colonial and postcolonial India.

During her tenure as a senior research fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, Rani’s research shifted towards critical social issues. Her groundbreaking work on debt bondage, a form of modern slavery prevalent across India, laid the foundation for her subsequent focus on prison reform.

Pioneering Prison Reform

Rani Dhavan Shankardass’s foray into prison reform has had a profound impact on the criminal justice landscape. Her research on the history and workings of the prison system in India highlighted systemic flaws and the urgent need for reform. Her commitment to improving the mental health and care of women in prisons and ensuring custodial justice has been a driving force in her career.

As a leading figure in prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation, Rani has designed and overseen numerous workshops to train judicial and law enforcement officials. Her work emphasizes the importance of human rights-centered approaches to the penal system, advocating for policies that prioritize the dignity and rehabilitation of prisoners.

Global Advocacy and Leadership

Rani Dhavan Shankardass’s influence extends beyond India. She is a prominent voice in international forums, regularly speaking at conferences, seminars, and the United Nations. Her expertise on punishment and prisons is sought after on various media platforms, where she raises awareness about the critical need for penal reform.

Rani Dhavan Shankardass’s leadership roles at Penal Reform International, where she served as Chairperson from 2006 to 2011 and currently as Honorary President, reflect her dedication to global justice. Under her guidance, the organization has advanced policies that protect human rights and promote rehabilitation over retribution.

Prolific Writing and Thought Leadership

An accomplished author, Rani Dhavan Shankardass has written extensively on social history and human rights. Her notable works include “The First Congress Raj: Provincial Autonomy in Bombay,” “Vallabhbhai Patel: Power and Organization in Indian Politics,” and “Punishment and the Prison: Indian and International Perspectives.” These publications reflect her multidisciplinary approach, blending history, sociology, law, justice, and gender studies.

Rani Dhavan Shankardass’s books, “Of Women Inside: Prison Voices from India” and “In Conflict and Custody: Therapeutic Counselling of Women,” launched at the British Parliament, shed light on the unique challenges faced by women in the criminal justice system and propose therapeutic interventions to address these issues.

Current Research and Impact

Rani Dhavan Shankardass’s current research focuses on “Children of Incarcerated Parents,” with a special emphasis on South Asia. Her work in this area aims to uncover the often-overlooked impacts of incarceration on families and propose holistic solutions to support affected children.

Awards and Recognitions

In recognition of her significant contributions, Rani Dhavan Shankardass was awarded the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 1996 for her work on “Prison, Punishment, and Criminal Justice.” This accolade is a testament to her unwavering commitment to social justice and reform.

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