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Kranti Mumbai: Empowering Girls From the Red Light District (Part 1/2)

Children of sex workers face multiple challenges within India. 

In an interview with Fair Observer's Culture Editor, Anna Pivovarchuk, the co-founder of the Mumbai-based NGO Kranti, Robin Chaurasiya, talks about the disadvantages that children of India’s sex workers must endure in this patriarchal society. This is the first of a two part series

Anna Pivovarchuk: How did the Kranti project begin? What was the initial idea behind it?

Robin Chaurasiya: I’ll be very honest, I never say that I am the founder of Kranti — there are a lot of founders and a lot of people deserve credit for the ideas. One person doesn’t innovate on their own; ideas come from so many different people – experiences too.

I spent six months volunteering at the Rescue Foundation NGO in 2008, which is basically India’s biggest anti-trafficking organization. They apply the rescue, rehabilitate, repatriate model, taking girls out of brothels. They are in the works for a month, six months, one year and there’s no exit plan besides going home or getting married off – there’s nowhere else for these girls to go. Skills that are taught there are very stereotypical, based on the notion that girls are only capable of cooking, cleaning, and making jewelry. That is where I met Bani Das, who used to work for the NGO for five to six years; and I guess what really upset me about being there was that I just felt like I was sitting in a house full of wasted potential.

To me, the most thought-provoking aspect of this work was when I talked to the girls – 15-16-year-olds — who would say that they wanted to become activists, they wanted to lead organizations; and eventually I began to question why there isn’t an alternative model. So I went back to do my Master’s, and for my thesis, I came back to India and did my research on the different NGOs that all had the same model. And then, a few of us got together and we just said: “OK, let’s do it.” That was almost three years ago.

Pivovarchuk: So how do you tackle the social issues you are trying to combat?

Chaurasiya: We have created our own social justice curriculum where we look at 20 different issues in India, from class, religion, gender and sexuality, environment, capitalism, ability, mental health, and how these play out in the country. Most of our girls are Dalit – the untouchable caste – or Muslim, which are two most marginalized communities. So looking at how the system came to be, what the current situation is, what we can possibly do about changing it, and what you can do to change it.

One of our girls is attending Bart College in the US this year, and she is the first girl from an Indian red light area to be studying abroad. (She is studying psychology, and wants to come back to India to open a mental health clinic in the red light area, where there aren’t any.) So this takes us back to the issue of expectations. All of us who have worked with other NGOs have seen how low the expectations for these girls are. There is this mentality that their life is already heading down the wrong path, so this is the best you can do. We are going to teach you tailoring, we are going to teach you how to cook – all these unsustainable skills. Shweta was with us for a year and a half, and now she is off to a university in the US. Why has not a single child gone abroad to study in the last 20 years? What is missing in those people’s expectations that they don’t actually think these girls can accomplish anything?

Pivovarchuk: How does this reflect on the general situation in India concerning women?

Chaurasiya: Patriarchy looks different all over the world. But the way it looks here, is basically that a girl is born and throughout her entire life she is socialized to clean and cook – those are the most important skills for her to know. Since a young age, she is taught that one of these days she'll get married, and go to go off to her husband’s home and that's it. There is never an investment in girls as someone who might have to take care of the family, to be an economic asset. If we spent the same amount of energy that is currently being spent on preparing girls for marriage as on preparing them for an independent life, everything would change overnight.

The truth of India is also very different from what they try to teach kids. For example, Bani, one of our staff members, was married off at the age of 18. Her husband brought her to Mumbai from Calcutta, and when she had her first baby, he just disappeared. She took the baby back to her parent’s home, and came back to Mumbai to work. Within a year of that happening, her father passed away and she brought four of her younger sisters, her mother and her daughter to Mumbai and has supported them for the past seven or eight years. Her sisters, who are all younger than her, have all got jobs, and they are earning decent wages — and that is something a woman has accomplished. When we see the reality of India, there are a lot of women like Bani; and yet India still teaches girls that all they will be expected to do is take care of a household. We, at Kranti, don’t discourage our girls from getting married, but we try to create a deeper understanding of patriarchy and to be able to challenge all these societal norms – the caste system, religious discrimination, birthrights.

Pivovarchuk: You encourage your pupils to give back to the community. What have they been engaged with?

Chaurasiya: One of our requirements is that each of the girls is required to create a project that is implemented somewhere. So last year, some of our pupils went to Nepal to teach marginalized girls about gender issues, self-esteem, sex education. This gives them the ability to understand that they can impact the world, make a difference in someone else’s life. We run workshops, our girls speak at NGOs about abuse, sex workers' rights, trafficking – things that they are experienced experts at. One of our girls has become well-known for providing training to people working with marginalized youths. She has been flown across India to speak at conferences, and this has done wonders for her self-esteem and her ability to travel alone.

Mobility is a major factor for empowerment. So many women and girls around the world are trapped in their homes. For the majority of girls in India — not the elite, upper classes urbanites — being a girl means you are not allowed to go out without your father or brother, and you have to be home by six or seven. We make a conscious effort to break all of those rules. Sometimes, when we invite our girls’ friends out for a movie, if we have a spare ticket, their parents never let them go out. This is the city they were born in and where they grew up; it should be their home, not a prison.

One of the things that we always do is take girls on fieldtrips to visit sex workers' unions, to see women who are sex workers, who are amazing illiterate leaders of their communities, really powerful leaders. To show them also that you don’t have to go to university – that is not the end goal here. The end goal is that whatever field you choose, whether it’s being an architect, or a sex worker — whatever it may be — that you do the job with a social justice lens perspective. 

Pivovarchuk: Tell us about how Kranti is run, and how it is different from the traditional NGOs?

Chaurasiya: Our vision, or core belief – I don’t really believe in those words – but our mission is essentially to empower girls from Mumbai’s red light areas to become agents of social change. We believe that if marginalized girls from these communities have access to the same education, opportunities, leadership training – not only are they going to be just as good as leaders as those from the upper- or middle-class, but they are going to be far better leaders. They are going to be more compassionate, more innovative, and more entrepreneurial because of their life circumstances and all the things that they’ve overcome. So basically, Kranti works to create those opportunities.

Our basic programs include different types of education: some of our girls have been out of school for years; we have a girl who is 15 and illiterate; we have an 18-year-old who has studied for only two years in her entire life, and so we have to be flexible with the type of education we offer. So aside from formal education, there are a lot of girls who are in open schooling, meaning they can take their exams separately and outside of school and prepare for them whenever they're ready. One of our girls has to catch up on five to six years of math in the next two years. One of our girls has studied in five or six different languages throughout her six years of education. So these are the common issues we battle with. Of course, most of our girls go to the local government school in the red light area, which is a disaster of a school. You know, there are kids from every single part of India, speaking every single language imaginable; yet you are expected to learn the local language here, which is not even Hindi but a whole different language altogether. That is very challenging for the children.

A big component of our curriculum is therapy; we have a part-time therapist and every girl gets a one hour session with her per week, plus the staff do a development session where we learn how to be good caretakers for girls who have faced sexual abuse and trauma, and learn to respond to their needs. Some of our girls are on different types of medication and some of them have personality disorders — things that are usually associated with childhood sexual abuse. And that has honestly turned out to be one of the most important components of our work, and probably the one that we focus on the most.

We used to think that education was the solution. But if I had to pick one thing that has made most difference, it would be therapy. Because for the girls, it is impossible to sit in school when they have a lot of other mental issues to deal with.

In the end, this whole process of no longer blaming yourself for your abuse, of becoming a leader rather than a victim, somebody who can take charge of your own life – the end of which, is therapy. When you come to love yourself, when you finally overcome your trauma, that is when you become someone who is really empowered and able to share your story and think of yourself as someone who can be an inspiration to others.

*[Read the final part on September 20.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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