Teaching Underprivileged Girls To Fly Like a Free Bird
What made two women in their mid-twenties decide to take the unconventional step of opening a residential school for the children of sex workers? Not only did they start a school in Mumbai under the name of Kranti School but these gutsy women, Robin Chaurasiya and Bani Das, have in the last eight years succeeded in empowering eighteen girls between the ages of 13 and 21 years of age who had been living in red light areas.
`These girls are young and extremely vulnerable. Many of them suffer from schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness. What we have tried to do is give them a chance to heal themselves by providing them with an emotionally stable and supportive environment, ‘ said Robin who grew up in the US and started working with NGOs in South Asia and Africa from a young age.
During one such visit to India a decade ago, she worked with survivors of trafficking in a shelter home in Kamathipura. The girls came from different states including Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Bihar. These girls were intelligent and possessed diverse talents.
`But they were all being taught achar making, papad making and stuff like that after which it was expected they would be married off. I felt it was important to allow their talents to blossom. I felt that if these girls were given the right opportunity, they too could make a success of their lives. That is when I had the idea of starting a residential school. I spoke to mothers of some of them. They were delighted that their daughters could grow up away from these brothels. My co-founder Bani Das and I found a flat and that is how it all got started,’’ said Robin whose radical work is getting appreciated worldwide and earlier this year, her NGO was shortlisted for the $ one million Global Teacher Prize.
Robin has devised her unique curriculum for the girls which includes yoga, meditation, writing, geography and music. This is followed by evening classes in English, theater and health education. Of course, when Robin went looking for a flat to house her residential school, she told her landlord that the school was being run for orphaned children but the minute the landlord realized these were `randi ki betyein’ as they were referred to in every neighborhood, they were asked to move out.
`We have had to change residence three times already. We have lived in flats in Kandivali East, Andheri East and now in Santa Cruz East. Housing is the biggest discrimination we have faced and continue to face because people believe these girls will corrupt the morals of the neighborhood,’ admitted Robin.
Robin, Bani and her team of two other women treat these girls as their daughters. Like indulgent mothers, they go out of their way to provide them with the best. Since most of these girls have had traumatic childhoods she has arranged they be given therapy on a regular basis. ` But I’m not one of those women who believes that therapy is something that has to be given to a child once a week. We have to draw them out of their shadows and I make sure that we have three therapists visiting our home practically every day with each child attending at least three therapy sessions a week,’’ Robin explained.
The children are all put into private neighborhood schools which are not very expensive and their study is supervised very carefully. `We are willing to adopt all kinds of unconventional strategies to ensure a child does well. We have a 13-year old deaf-and-mute child who had never been to school. But she was keen to study. Using my American contacts, I managed to ensure she got a six-month scholarship to a boarding school for deaf-and-mute in Utah where she mastered the sign language. She has come back a transformed person. Now I am trying to help her get admission to a school in Washington,’ said Robin.
The money for her admission was raised primarily through online donations. But for Robin, it is not the money that is significant. `For us, what is significant is to see the inner transformation that takes place with each of these girls,’ she said.
Robin recalls how a prostitute came to her along with her four daughters. She wanted her elder daughter to do an undergraduate course in English. `We managed to send her to Israel to attend a three-month preparatory course in studying English,’ said Robin. People in the west are more open-minded and do not indulge in the `bechari’ `bechari’’ syndrome that is prevalent in India. They are more willing to walk the full length to mainstream them.
No attempt is made to hide their mother’s profession. Said Robin candidly, ` We encourage the daughters to respect their mothers and gradually, we have found that the relationship between the daughter and mother has improved.’’
This is not to say that they have not faced several challenges including being at the receiving end of police lathis. Robin recalls, ` Some years ago, a girl had run away from an NGO because she was being beaten up by them. She must have heard about us because she arrived at Kranti at one am in the morning. Soon members of the other NGO arrived and accused us of having kidnapped her. They called the cops and Robin was arrested and had to spend a night in lockup, recalls Robin who refused to get intimidated. Next morning saw her complain to senior police officials resulting in those cops who had arrested her being taken to task.
The girls are encouraged to attend exhibitions and volunteer to work with different NGOs. Robin and her group conduct workshops, have delivered 11 TEDx talks around the world and have toured the US staging a play about their experiences in the headquarters of Facebook and Google.
This team sees itself as being agents of social change. Robin likes to cite the example of one of her young girls who was musically inclined. The principal in the school she was studying also encouraged her talent and she now plays the drums and works with underprivileged children in Pune using music therapy to cure them of mental ailments.
We managed to send this girl for a nine-month course to study music again in a college in Washington, she said.
`Of course being in an alien country was difficult for her and she had to struggle. But it was a life transforming experience and she now wants to get a full scholarship so she can do a two-year course in music.’ Said Robin.
Another young girl Shweta Katti has been given a fresh lease of life after joining Kranti. The open environment encouraged her personal growth and her personality blossomed. She started to believe in herself and began to harbor ambitions of going abroad to study. Through Kranti’s help, she secured admission and scholarships to go to New York’s prestigious Bard College. Shweta is currently doing a semester at Watson’s University, an incubator for social entrepreneurship. Her project is to create a community space for an underprivileged community where members can help improve the life of those around her.
Robin now has four co-workers. It takes no money from the government and depends entirely on private donations. It is not easy . We struggle to make ends meet but we are a family and that so, we support one another.
That is why I keep saying, you support these girls and see how quickly they get transformed. They are all ready to fly and that is the way it should be.