AN OPEN LETTER TO wp HEADS OF INDIA INC
We are Kranti. An NGO housed in a rented three-bedroom apartment in suburban Mumbai. We are a family of 10 teenage girls, three teachers and three turtles. Walking in and out are our two cats — Puch and Richi. Richi was first lovingly named Richard Parker as a tribute to its astonishing clambering abilities. We adjusted the name when he turned out to be a she.
The girls were born to sex workers and raised in red-light districts. They were trafficked and abused. They came to me to escape the life of brothels. In me they have a home. In them I have a purpose: To empower them. I help them shed their ‘victimhood’ and become agents of social change.
Yet, no residential society wants us. Teenagers in the neighbourhood keep their distance. We are feared, loathed and hated. We have been asked to find a new home because we are a ‘bad influence’. We can Google Map all we want, but it won’t find us a street address where we will be respected.
We need a home we can permanently own. Otherwise we will have to keep moving at the whim and fancy of owners. But we don’t have the money to buy an apartment.
We read about corporate charity and social responsibility projects, but no such support comes our way. As if we are not just outcasts in society, we are pariahs in the world of philanthropy and social development.
Sex workers in our cities are routinely covered under HIV prevention and treatment and other health interventions. They inadvertently miss out the children. Most girls are sexually abused. They develop traumas and deep psychological illnesses. When we started out, we believed that education is the solution. In time, we have understood that it’s therapy. Sexual abuse in childhood has a mercilessly deep impact. To learn it’s not your fault and to forgive yourself are breakthrough lessons.
We stress not just on mainstream education. We also prefer not to train the girls in obvious and uninspiring chores, like tailoring and making dry foods. We find the girls internships with NGOs in different parts of India. They participate in social media events. They enrol in theatre and dance workshops. We bring to them a world of opportunities they would almost never find on their own. In this approach, we have been able to create a flagship model that activists in many African and South East Asian countries are replicating.
We even encourage the girls to visit their families in the brothels. They should be able to conquer their sense of shame and feel free in their own skin.
I am Sheetal. I am 19. My mother is a sex worker. She is routinely raped and abused. I grew up ashamed of her, ashamed of myself. Schools refused me admission because I did not know who my father was. I am older now. I understand my mother’s compulsions, the choices she was forced to make, the poverty she had to battle, the life she has resigned herself to. I have found my ground as a motivational speaker. I am a RISER in the global campaign One Billion Rising For Justice. It secures justice for women and girl survivors of violence. I travel across the country, talk about my past, reach out to marginalised girls, and inspire them to find their voice. In a day’s work, I possibly do much, much more than a girl my age from a ‘good family’. Yet, I am always seen as ‘that girl!’
I am Saira. I am 16. My mother was sold to a Mumbai brothel when she was 9. Several years later, she married one of her customers. He took her to Hyderabad, where my three siblings and I were born. My earliest childhood memories are that of being sexually abused by my father. I was afraid of all men. Now I live at Kranti. I study in an open school. I take classes in dance, music and yoga. I deliver public talks on child sexual abuse and sex workers’ rights. I have addressed over 10,000 people till date. When I am older, I want to be an activist. But how will I get there if people only see me as a dark-skinned, illiterate daughter of a sex worker?
I am Robin Chaurasia. I founded Kranti. I was born and brought up in the United States. I am a survivor of rape and child sexual abuse. When I was 12 or 13, I realised I am a lesbian. Because of my Indian context, my conservative family, I had to hide that part of me for a long time. I graduated in psychology and post-graduated in gender studies. Thereafter I joined the US Air Force. I was a first lieutenant. The idea of Kranti had been taking shape for some years during my India visits. It became a decision during a crisis, when I challenged the official US policy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ regarding homosexuals serving in the military. The policy forbade harassment of closeted homosexual, lesbian or bisexual personnel, but barred those who were open about their sexuality from joining the military. I was denied promotion to the rank of captain. I left the US, travelled a lot and worked in NGOs in Turkey, Brazil and Uganda. I came back to Mumbai and formed Kranti.
I teach these girls that all of society is trying to hold you down, telling you that ‘Randi ki beti randi hi banegi’. Challenge it, bend it, break it, and create your brave, new rules.
I am Shweta Katti. I am 20. My mother is a sex worker. I grew up in a one-room tenement in a red-light area. Three generations of my family have lived there. My younger sister and I were both sexually abused in our childhood. My life began to change after I enrolled in Kranti.
Today, I study psychology at New York’s BARD College on a full scholarship.
Look at me. Look at where I came from and where I am going. Look beyond the girls of Kranti. Look at the potential that every girl stuck in a bar or brothel is. Look at the force we could be. Look at the revolution we could begin.
Now tell me why we don’t feature in your developmental map. Tell me why we don’t qualify as your social responsibility.