Girls empowered

Girls empowered

This is the safest place in the world for me. Every sex worker here in Kamathipura is like my mother. It’s the outside world which looks at it as a dark space. I was raped at 10 and later abused repeatedly. But my past abuse can’t stop me from doing what I can do. My background can never be my weakness,” declares 21-year-old Sandhya.

Rani (16) emphatically says, “I lost my father when I was 11 and my mother brought another man the same evening and told me that he was going to be my father from that day. From the very next day, he started to physically abuse me. But I have forgiven both of them because I have learnt that the biggest gift you can give yourself and others is forgiveness.”

There are 16 such horrendous tales narrated boldly by girls who faced traumatic times — times of violent sexual, physical, verbal abuse and discrimination. They are daughters of sex workers, who were earlier living in Kamathipura (the famous red-light area of Mumbai), but are now residents of Kranti, an NGO which shelters them in Mumbai.

An unlikely home

“Kranti is like a university where we learn everything about life, how to face it, how to overcome our adversaries and live our dreams,” says a chirpy 22-year-old Kavita Hosmani, talking on the phone while relaxing on a short vacation in her grandmother’s home in Kamathipura.

A haven for trafficked girls and daughters of sex workers, Kranti provides them with the required education and empowers its residents, a total of 16. While other NGOs teach what they think is a must for women to learn — cooking, stitching, papad making, etc, Kranti is different. If one dreams of becoming an astronaut, singer, journalist, photographer, or an academic, Kranti tries to fulfil their dreams. Presently,  five ‘Krantikaris’ are in the USA studying Psychology, one girl is in the UK studying in a special school, one is in Mussoorie, and three girls have packed up to leave for Bengaluru on a fellowship to study community centre and functioning at Make A Difference NGO (MAD) and Ashoka NGO. 

It’s this story of their survival against all adversaries despite their background which caught the attention of BBC when the group was touring the UK with their play Lal Batti Express 2. The play was placed in the top 10 slot at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in July, where more than a lakh plays from all over the world were staged.

The girls enact and talk about their horrifying experiences and discrimination in society and schools. One of the girls who toured the US two years ago with Lal Batti Express states, “Firstly, I am a dark-skinned girl who came from a red-light area, and second, I was abused. In school, I was given a broken bench in the last row, and no one spoke to me.” Explains Kavita, “While Lal Batti Express was about ‘giving a message’, Lal Batti Express 2 is about ‘being a message’!”

Through the play, the girls try to erase the stigma attached to them and their mothers. “So what if our moms are sex workers? As long as there is no exploitation and abuse, it’s like any other work to earn a livelihood,” say the girls to the interviewer from BBC.

The catalyst in their journey from abuse to their present-day life is Kranti, founded in 2009, by four women who were also victims of abuse. “In this world, who isn’t abused?” asks Robin Chaurasiya, one of the main pillars behind the formation of Kranti. “I am a product of violent physical abuse at home. At Kranti, we don’t consider ourselves as victims. We are strong survivors of these abuses,” says the lady from Indore, who grew up in the US and served with the US Air Force for some years.

On one of her stints, while volunteering with an anti-trafficking NGO, first in Uganda and then in India, Robin met Bani Das, who was then working at the Rescue Foundation, a Mumbai-based NGO involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of victims of human trafficking from countries like India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Bani from West Bengal, then a mother of an eight-year-old daughter, was herself a victim of cheating and was deserted by her husband. Robin and Bani decided to become change-makers.

With two other victims of abuse, they decided to reach out to more such victims and thus founded Kranti. Now seven years old, at this registered NGO, not only the girls but even their mothers get help. Girls have the freedom to go and spend some time with their mothers at Kamathipura for a few days, and even their mothers have the freedom to come and spend time at Kranti. Kranti also has two counsellors who come in and talk to the girls, the founders, and even the mothers who come on a visit.

Managing to do it all

Robin and Bani have set up a strict daily timetable at Kranti. At their ‘Kranti School’, the morning session, each of 40 minutes duration, starts at 8 with prayer, yoga and meditation followed by General Studies, where they are taught Geography, History, Science, etc, sometimes with the help of the Internet, and sometimes with the experiences of Robin. Sometimes, a volunteer also steps in to teach them. These girls are avid watchers of TEDx talks.

Then, it’s time to leave for their respective colleges, tuition, special training sessions, etc. Initially, twice a week, they had counselling sessions with therapists Saloni Sawnani and Sadia Saeed. “Seven years ago, when we first started counselling these girls, they were scared, traumatised, had suicidal tendencies, would harm themselves, fight with each other, and generally had severe behavioural problems. Today, they are a changed lot, extremely confident, and though they still need a little bit of counselling, they have moved on in their lives,” opine the therapists. 

The success stories of some of the girls are unbelievable. There is Pinky Sheikh, a dyslexic who loves to draw and dance, attended US-based summer camp, ‘Song of Hope’, which is attended by children from all over the world. Shweta Katti attended the Bard College in New York and was conferred with the UN Special Envoy for Education for the Youth Courage Award. Her mother, a former sex worker, cooks the meals and mothers all kids at Kranti. Sheetal Jain did a six-month percussion course, specialising in drums, from a music school in Washington DC.

“At the Foundation, no doubt the girls are rescued and trained, but once they cross the age of 15, they are sent back home. After a while, they return to the profession as that is the only means of livelihood they know of,” reveals Bani. Bani generally stays put at home to take care of the kids, while Robin travels, meets with people, talks about the girls, raises funds, arranges to crowdsource with the help of her friends and contacts in the USA. Sometimes, funding becomes very difficult as the fees, clothes, food, hostel stay, travel abroad and the rented apartment in Mumbai to house residents have to be paid. It comes to a whopping Rs 4.5 lakh per month. “But Robin somehow manages to get it!’’ says Bani with a smile. At present, they are getting funds from Global Giving and a few other organisations and individuals who read about them.

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