by Arun Bhansali
Shweta is an amazing story. This is the stuff movies are made of. Pain and abuse have been part of her life as long as she can remember before she emerged triumphant. Shweta was born in Kamathipura, a red-light area of Mumbai. She is a love child and she does not hesitate to admit it.
Her mother was a Devdasi and had an affair with a man whose marriage was arranged, so she could not marry him. But she wanted a symbol of their love and that’s how she was born. It would be years before she would discover this truth.
Shweta is one of the girls who were rehabilitated by an organization called “Kranti,” an NGO that works toward the rehabilitation of girls from Mumbai’s red-light area. Kranti is the brainchild of Robin Chaurasiya, an American of Indian origin, born and studied in Seattle, and now has lived in Mumbai for last six years, (see her article, “A Success Story: 3 Girls from Mumbai's Red Light Area”). Robin remembers meeting Shweta at the office of Apne Aap, an NGO that works with children in Mumbai’s red-light district. The Young Professional Committee of the Share and Care Foundation™ has supported Apane Aap for a long time. Shweta was introduced as a potential person. When asked what her goals were, she said she wanted to study and become a chartered accountant.
Robin and her friends did not have a shelter in their mind when they started Kranti. Most of the shelters focused on girls either to get them married, teach them sewing, or make “papads”and pickles. The girls eventually end up working in canteens or as janitors. Kranti wanted to make a bigger difference in the lives of the girls they touched. Founders of Kranti wanted to give them as much opportunity as we would have liked our children to have. Food and clothing is fine, but the real issue in their mind was that every child has potential, and to focus on developing their talents.
Shweta is an outcome of that vision. She began her term in September 2013 at New York’s Bard College, who offered her a scholarship of $30,000. She hopes to graduate in psychology so she can return and help others like her. We believe that would make her the first girl from Mumbai’s red light district to travel to the United States for their education. At 18 years old, Shweta more recently was listed in Newsweek as one of their “25 Under-25 Young Women To Watch” that includes woman like Malala Yousufzai who battled adversity, becoming a symbol of resistance. Recently she traveled extensively before coming to the United States and addressing young women in Nepal, Jharkhand, Bangalore, and Goa, and her subject was gender and sexuality.
However, life hasn’t been easy for Shweta. She has not forgotten her past. She is surprisingly open about her past. She talks extensively about her life in the Pila House area, her abusive father, and the circumstances of her birth. She is aware of the fact that the real world is wildly in favor of men. Her grandfather ran a brothel, died penniless leaving her grandmother pregnant with her mother. Years later her mother met another man in Mumbai who was willing to give mother and daughter shelter. That man had a last name Katti whose name she now carries. For most of her childhood, Shweta grew up thinking the man in the house was her father. But something did not feel right. Every day there was fighting, abuse, and beating, but that was her only world. It was her mother who jolted Shweta from her complacency. She ensured her daughter went to school. It was Radha, a sex worker and a neighbor, who one day sat down with Shweta and explained to her exactly where she would end up if she did not study. That was all that she needed. From that day Shweta worked hard. When the time came to change schools, she insisted on going to one that she knew was better. It meant taking on her stepfather, but she says it was worth the pain and tears that followed. Every evening she would go to a tuition class run by a local NGO, a fact that irked her father even more. Her real father died long before she knew of the truth. About six months ago, when Kranti was organizing her passport and needed her birth certificate, is when her mother told her the truth. Shweta completed her 12th grade from SNDT College.
Then of course, there is always the matter of where she comes from. She does not necessarily open about her past with everyone. But she feels comfortable and safe in an environment where she knows that people won’t judge her. Again Robin articulates that when people read about her going to the United States, they did not want to see her achievements. They seemed to think she just got lucky. When she requested her neighbors give her a reference for passport formalities, none came forward. Nevertheless, the U.S. trip has done wonders for Shweta’s confidence. She is facing journalists, cameramen, and interviewers all by herself. She is so thankful to Robin and her partners for doing such a fantastic job. She tells them she hopes to return and educate sex workers. However, her top priority is to give a comfortable life to her mother.
When we heard the story of Shweta and other girls and about Kranti’s mission, we were excited to offer Educate 2 Success – E2S™ and Educate 2 Graduate – E2G™ programs partnering with Kranti to focus more on those girls who hardly have any hopes of accessing quality education. The Share and Care Foundation™ is exploring with Kranti if we can join hands to provide quality education and skill training programs for their focused group.
Shweta joined the Foundation during our 31st Annual Gala in September and shared her thoughts on what could be an effective programs for girls.
About the Author
Arun Bhansali is the president of Share and Care Foundation.