by Robin Chaurasiya
“She is always raped . . . Since my childhood I have seen her being beaten. . . . But this is not her job, to let herself be beaten!”
Sheetal, 18, sobs as she talks about her mother for a campaign to end violence against women. There were many tears in the 500-member audience as Sheetal shared a personal—but daily—occurrence from her childhood.
Shweta addresses a group of graduate students at a university in Mumbai, “I always felt bad about my dark skin.” Shweta saw it as a sign that she wasn’t beautiful and as a marker of social status. The point hits home further, when the students look around and realize that in that room of privileged Indians, none had particularly dark skin.
“Di, the boys always tease us when we go downstairs, what can we do?” Saira asks staff at her home. “Nobody says anything about the other girls when they wear shorts,” she rightly points out. Facing constant harassment and a separate set of standards compared to more affluent children has been a harsh reality for Saira.
This is a small sample of the difficulties Sheetal, Shweta, and Saira have faced. As if simply navigating the road from childhood to adulthood wasn’t challenging enough, the threat of violence and rape, and the lack of opportunities are very salient for many girls around the globe. India is no exception, as we’ve been shockingly reminded with the recent gang rape of a Mumbai journalist.
While the battle may well be uphill, it is certainly under way and is being tackled from all angles. Kranti empowers girls from Mumbai’s red-light areas to become agents of social change—it is an exciting home full of courage, dreams, and amazing adventures! Kranti’s core belief is that marginalized girls, if provided with the same education, resources, and training as privileged girls, will not be just as good leaders, but far better leaders—more compassionate, innovative, and resilient, due to their life experiences.
A necessary and welcome change from traditional models, Kranti gives girls from Mumbai’s red-light areas every opportunity possible to live a full, free, and informed life. Each Krantikari (Revolutionary) is provided with tools to reach her personal goals, including educational support, regular therapy, extracurricular activities, and leadership training. Kranti encourages the girls to be open about sharing their past pain and daily struggles in addition to their happy stories, because these are the most important parts of the healing and empowerment process. All the Krantikaris also participate in Kranti’s social justice curriculum, a program that teaches them leadership and community organizing skills.
The Krantikaris have shown tremendous success in the past two and a half years. Overcoming a string of abuse and oppression, as well as practical challenges, such as getting a passport, Krantikari Shweta Katti is living her dream. She has just started studying psychology at Bard College in New York. A captivating, articulate public speaker, Shweta has earned a full scholarship to Bard, one of the nation’s most recognized liberal arts colleges. Immersed in college life in a new country, and with a string of speaking engagements coming, life is busy for Shweta. After completing her studies, she wants to return to Mumbai’s red-light area to start India’s first counselling center for sex workers and their daughters.
Another Krantikari, 16-year-old Pinky Sheikh, recognized her dream as well—she recently returned from a performing arts camp in Minnesota, called Songs of Hope. Sharp, funny, and hard working, Pinky wants to be a dance teacher for AIDS orphans and other marginalized kids in Africa. Kranti also struggled to get Pinky a passport due to bureaucracy and Pinky’s lack of documents. But a huge, last-minute push, and applying lessons learned from getting Shweta’s passport, meant that Pinky made it to the six-week-long camp only a couple of days late. Despite the last minute finalization of plans, and having never been out of Mumbai by herself before, Pinky took it all in her stride and has come out of the experience more confident than ever. She has now performed for an international audience and has made friendships with young people from Iran, Russia, and Vietnam.
Earlier this year, 18-year-old Sheetal opened her heart and shared her thoughts and experiences of living in Mumbai’s red-light area in a raw and touching speech. Sheetal prepared diligently for her first big public speaking event. The process of writing and then giving the speech was an important chance to reflect and push through the shame associated with talking about the abuse she experienced. Sheetal left the stage smiling after her speech, feeling more at peace with herself and with a renewed commitment to study. She has since been flown to two cities (her first flights!) to speak at trainings and give motivational speeches to groups of marginalized women.
Saira Sheikh has recently talked about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her alcoholic father. Her mother is a sex worker, meaning she spent a lot of time in Mumbai’s red light area. She missed a lot of school growing up, and has been taught in various languages. It is not an easy road, but Saira manages to focus on her future. She wants to catch up on her education so she can help poor people be happy and rich.
Sumaiya Sheikh, Saira’s sister, is infatuated with China. Sumaiya joined Kranti when she was young and is on track with her education. Curious, witty, and sharp, 12-year-old Sumaiya excels at school and in Kung Fu and sprinting. She hopes to study Mandarin and visit China someday.
Change, empowerment, opportunity, and success are all on the cards as the Krantikaris continue to fight for a better life for themselves and their communities. Today, all of these girls attended a protest in Mumbai for the journalist who was raped last week. Tomorrow, they will be leading change across India!
About the Author
Robin Chaurasiya grew up in Seattle, the daughter of immigrant parents from Indore. As a feminist, woman of color, child of immigrants, and also a lesbian, she experienced many forms of marginalization and became an activist for social change at a young age. A survivor of abuse, Robin’s interest in girls’ and women’s issues led her to volunteer at NGOs around the world for 10 years before completing her maste’s in genders studies from Central European University in Budapest. It was while volunteering in Mumbai that Robin started envisioning an NGO that challenged the status quo—where high expectations for education and leadership were the norm, for girls who had been “counted out” by most of society. She later founded Kranti (www.kranti-india.org), which empowers girls from Mumbai’s red-light areas to become agents of social change.
Prior to Kranti, Robin was an officer in the U.S. military and a well-known activist for gay rights in the military. Along with dozens of activists, Robin organized civil disobedience protests and spoke at dozens of rallies to fight for the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which forbade lesbian, gay, and transgender people from serving openly in the military. Before joining the military, she worked on veterans’affairs in then-Senator Barack Obama’s office.