From being born in Kamatipura, India’s biggest redlight area, to studying in best universities abroad, daughters of bar dancers and sex workers have risen to great heights. All this because of Robin Chaurasiya who was forced to quit the US Air Force because she is a lesbian. Sangeeta Yadav talks to Chaurasiya & the girls she has mentored under the NGO, Kranti
Kamatipura, the infamous redlight area in Mumbai, is bustling with entirely different stories — the success stories of teenaged daughters of sex workers pursuing their dreams, making a mark for themselves and studying in the best of universities abroad.
All this is happening through Kranti, an NGO that empowers girls from Mumbai’s redlight areas to become agents of social change.
Started in 2011 by Robin Chaurasiya, a 30-year-old woman who was forced to leave her job with the US Air Force because of being lesbian, returned to India to start a new life for herself. She came across a friend working with an NGO that exposed her to the plight of sex workers’ daughters. To bring about a change in the perspective of people towards them, Kranti was born. Run by Chaurasiya and co-founders Bani Das, Trina Talukdar and Maya Jhaveri, the efforts of Kranti have become the talk of the town.
“Five years ago, I met my co-founder Bani who was working in a Mumbai-based NGO. There were many NGOs who take out these girls from brothels but they didn’t know what to do with them after that and how to give them value education. The shelter homes were crowded with more than 100 girls. One of my Kranti inmates was born and raised in a brothel. Her grandmother used to be the brothel keeper. A co-founder is from the brothel too and looking at the plight of these girls, we decided to set up Kranti,” she says.
Born and brought up in US, Chaurasiya had a tough life back. “I grew up with a lot of domestic violence and abuse in an Indian-American family. My mother has schizophrenic. To escape that, I joined the forces at a young age and worked with the US Air Force for eight years. I knew early in life that I was a lesbian but didn’t share this with fellow troops under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy which means you can be lesbian or gay but you can’t ask anyone or tell anyone about it.
“As time passed, I got tired of being a second class citizen in the forces. So I decided to tell everyone that ‘I am a lesbian and have decided to get married.’ I became the first person in the history of US military to marry in the same sex and still serve in the forces,” Chaurasiya says. The news didn’t go down well. After various campaigns and a change of policy, she was kicked out of the air force.
Chaurasiya left the US and came to Mumbai where she found her purpose of life. “With Kranti, I got to experience a lot of things. It’s up to you how you take discrimination. The world will discriminate against you but you have the option to live the way you want to. From being a victim to becoming a survivor and an agent of social change today I am genuinely happy. As activists, we sometimes spent a lot of time being angry about how the system is and what’s wrong in the world. I realise that I can change that mindset and instead of thinking with anger, start approaching activism to seek and spread happiness,” she says.
Chaurasiya calls her girls revolutionary leaders. “We have mentored 18 girls till now who are daughters of bar dancers and sex workers of Kamatipura. They don’t have access to education or any other facilities. We encourage them to think about how they can have a positive impact in the world by making them able enough to live a dignified life and get a good job,” Chaurasiya tells you.
For her, every girl is a success story in their own right. “There are four girls who are currently studying in the United States. Shweta Katti went to study at Bard College in New York under a full scholarship. She was the first girl from an Indian redlight area ever to study abroad. She was also awarded the UN Youth Courage Award for Education and won a full scholarship to Semester at Sea in 2015. Her mission in life is to build a community centre, café and school in Kamatipura for the development of sex workers society,” Chaurasiya says.
The second girl is Amrin, a special child currently studying in the United States. “Amrin is deaf and mute and studies at Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Colorado. Before this, she was at the Bombay School for the Deaf. Her three sisters stay with us at Kranti. We run campaigns to raise funds for their education and seek scholarships so that they can study in the best possible universities or schools. One of them has got through a fellowship programmme in Washington for a year.
Another 19-year-old girl is interning at Ashoka University in Bengaluru. Yet another is studying Arabic and English at an Israeli university for the past six months and is all set to volunteer for six months in a refugee camp. She plans to go to Chicago for further studies,” Chaurasiya says.
Indeed, it has been an uphill task to provide a safe environment to girls who had grown up watching their mothers servicing clients while they were made to hide under the bed or in the next room, or being sexually assaulted themselves and surviving under the danger of trafficking.
This year, Chaurasiya got nominated as one of the 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize from over 8,000 entries across the globe. Though she did not win the prize, her star moment was when Stephen Hawking announced her name as one of the finalists.
At Kranti School, Chaurasiya created a unique education model titled 5Cs that stands for communication skills, creative thinking, critical analysis and community organising and compassion. These girls get to learn music, dancing, painting and theatre through innovative concepts like Music Mondays, TED Talk Tuesdays, Worldly Wednesdays, Thinking Thursdays and Field Trip Fridays.
For her, the biggest challenge is to change the perspective of society towards daughters of sex workers. “Their mothers couldn’t get to study and they don’t know who their fathers are. The mothers want to give better education to their children but don’t know how to do it. The schools refuse to take them in and even if they do, the attitude towards these girls is very discriminatory. They are told ‘you are a sex-worker’s daughter so you will also become like her one day.’ So many times schools have ousted these girls after finding out that their mother is or has been a sex worker. They would ask questions like ‘who is your father and what is his name?’ to which these girls had no answer,” Chaurasiya says.
“It’s really hard to bring about a change in society for the acceptance of these girls and not judge them on who they are. The schools need to be sensitive towards this issue and not discriminate against these children. We need more support from the community to help these children grow and progress in life and realise their potential to bring a change in the society,” she says.
DRUMMING AWAY TO SUCCESS
She was born to a bar dancer. At age 8, she was sexually abused by her step-father. In 2009, bar dancing got banned in Mumbai, rendering her mother jobless. She started servicing customers at home which made Sheetal Katti furious. What added to her misery was the constant sexual abuse by her step-father and a bad relationship with her mother.
But life had something good planned for 22-year-old Sheetal Katti, now the first woman from a redlight area to have travelled abroad for higher education. She is pursuing her passion of playing drums. “When I was a child, one thing that used to excite me was the beating of drums during Ganesh Chaturthi. I would groove to its beats. My mother was a talented dancer and I wanted to dance too. But she didn’t allow me to live that life. So I opted for playing drums. Kranti fueled my passion and I went to the US to study at the Levine School of Music on a scholarship for a year and a half. I currently work as a drum circle facilitator in a company called Taal in Pune. I also host therapy workshops for underprivileged children from Flow NGO,” Katti tells you.
Before coming to Kranti, Katti went through a rough phase. It all started when her grandmother was sold to a brothel by her husband. She got addicted to alcohol and drugs. “My mother was born there and instead of sending her to school, she was made to work as a househelp. My mother was a talented dancer. With the help of a friend, she got into bar dancing. She later got married to my father who cheated on her and married some other woman in his village.
“My mother took a divorce and I was born as a premature baby. While growing up, I would see her going with her customers to earn extra. She too got into alcohol and drugs. She started remaining disturbed mentally,” Katti says.
To keep Katti away from bar dancing, her mother sent her to a hostel school in Goa. “I used to study till second standard in one school and then switched to another. Everytime I changed my school, I had to start from Class I. After some time, my mother got married to my stepfather and my younger brother was born. The step-father used to show a lot of love for me. Little did I realise it was leading to sexual abuse,” Katti says.
When she was eight, she was sexually abused by him for the first time. He used to go to Goa to bring her back to Mumbai. “When he used to come to take me home, we used to stay for a night at a hotel as it used to get very late. Twice during those nights, I woke up with no clothes on my body. I didn’t know what he used to do with me. He would touch me inappropriately. It used to pain a lot and then I realised this was not the way to express love. There were other uncles who also abused me but I never told anyone. I just used to pretend was sleeping when it happened. By the time I turned 11, I started running away from people, especially my step-father,” Sheetal tells you.
As her mother loved her step-father Sheetal did not tell her anything. But all hell broke loose when her step-father left her mother and younger brother. “My mom and I started having fights. One day she threw me out of the house and I had to stay at her friend’s place. This friend would deprive me of food if I was unable to finish work. She beat me up a lot. I had no education. I thought of becoming a bar dancer or just getting married,” Katti says.
She returned to her mother’s house and soon her step-father returned too. They put her in a Christian hostel.
“There they had strict rules. We could not talk to other girls or be friends with boys outside. I got admission in Class VII. I did not meet or talk to my mother for four years. I felt like an orphan. My teachers used to discriminate against me a lot. When I was in Class X, there was a boy who I used to like. After knowing my story, he helped me get in touch with my mom who was then living with another uncle. I requested her to take me back. The hostel got to know about this boy and stopped my schooling. I so desperately wanted to study further and do something in life,” Sheetal recalls.
She stayed with her mother for five months but she too did not let her join a school. “There was a lot of anger in me for my mother. My peer group was doing well in life and getting good education but I was deprived from that. For every small thing I had to struggle a lot — be it for food, shelter or education. There was very little money to run the house and my uncle would fight with my mother,” Sheetal says.
It was when two of her friends joined Kranti and introduced me to it too. Her life transformed after joining Kranti. Here, she not only got an education but also pursued her passion of playing drums. She has given performances at various places in the US.
“At Kranti, what impacted me the most was the therapy workshop that helped me let go of my past and accept my mother as she is. I never used to express myself to my mom and share my background with others. When I saw other girls like me sharing their stories of and pain, I opened up. It encouraged me a lot,” she says.
‘I HELP OTHERS TALK OF CHILD ABUSE’
From age seven, 21-year-old Farah Sheikh was abused by her uncle. She and her sisters were often beaten up mercilessly by her aunt for not doing household work. Coming from a Muslim background, her mother fixed her and her sister’s marriage with her step-mother’s sons.
It was a year ago that Sheikh’s life turned around after she joined Kranti. “I grew up in a conservative Muslim family. When I was 10, my parents used to work in Delhi. My three sisters and I used to stay with my uncle in Gujarat. He used to sexually abuse me. I knew that something wrong was happening to me and that I needed to tell someone about it but was too scared to tell even my mother or sisters. When I eventually told my mother, she refused to believe me. But after my medical check-up, the truth came out. However, she didn’t take any action against my uncle. But she did break all ties with him,” Sheikh recalls. This was the most challenging and painful phase of her life.
Sheikh and her sisters were always considered a burden on the family. “My father, a train mechanic in Delhi, used to visit this bar where my mother was a dancer. They fell in love and got married. Soon after that, my elder sister was born and my mom was very happy. She wanted a son next but instead I was born. She was so disappointed that she even tried to kill me. I was saved by a nurse. The third time also a baby girl was born and the fourth time, it was my youngest sister who is deaf and dumb and special child. My father married again to have sons,” Sheikh says.
Her motto in life today is to give a better childhood to such children and she leads a movement as an educator. “I love to work with the children. As a teacher, I conduct workshops in schools. I don’t want other children to go through the suffering I underwent. In school, teachers used to discriminate against me because my mother was a bar dancer,” Sheikh says.
In 2002, her family lost their home to riots in Gujarat. “When the riots happened, we were in Mumbai. We returned to Baroda, only to find that the entire neighbourhood had been burnt down. All our documents were gone and I don’t know my exact age,” Sheikh tells you.
Life came to a standstill when her father died in a road accident in 2005. Relatives would not help and they were left to fend for themselves. “After his death, my step mother, who has five daughters and two sons, approached my mom with a marriage proposal.
“She said: ‘You get your two daughters married off to my sons.’ We started living with our step-mother. She used to beat us a lot. Once, we went to meet our mother. When our step-mother got to know about it, she threw us out of the house that night. We moved to another relative’s house in Gujarat and they too used to make us work hard. My elder sister tried to commit suicide but we saved her. It was then that we decided to move to a hostel,” Sheikh recalls.
It was a hostel run by Christian missionaries where the sisters spent eight years before joining Kranti. “I was in Class VII. One had to follow Christianity and read the Bible daily. On every small fault, we were punished and deprived of food. My elder sister completed her course in accountancy and the other did her BEd. When we went out to study, we realised life outside the hostel was much better. Once my sister decided to go out for a movie with her friends. When the hostel people got to know about this, they threw all of us out,” Sheikh says.
It was then they got to know about Kranti through friends. After coming to Kranti, within a few weeks I was asked to travel to Himanchal Pradesh for a workshop all alone, something I had never done. But travelling has now become an integral part of my life. Kranti has taught me a lot. There is no place like Kranti where you are brought up like your own child and in a happy family. They give importance to what we want in life and what makes us happy. My parents would not have given me such a good life,” Sheikh, who has travelled to Nepal, Dubal and the US, tells you.
Sheikh completed her Class XII from the National Institute of Open Schooling and did her teaching diploma from the JK Knowledge Centre in Wadala, Mumbai. She has taught many special children in schools and conducted seminars and workshops. She taught Class I students in a school at Bandra for a year and volunteered for Teach For India in Mumbai and the Eduventure Academy in Bengaluru.
Sheikh has applied at various universities abroad for an under-graduation programme in Child Psychology. Her mother currently works as a house-help in Gujarat and her eldest sister Nilofer is studying Hospitality Management in the US. Another sister Danish recently returned from Israel after a summer programme and has given her Class XII exam. The youngest one Amrin, who is deaf and dumb, studies at the USA School for Deaf Kids.
The biggest achievement for Sheikh was when she started sharing her life experiences at various conferences. “I feared to tell my story. My first speech was at Converges in Delhi and after I came out of the hall, there were so many people who praised me and some women told me how they, too, had faced child sexual abuse by relative but never had the guts to share it with their parents. That’s when I felt my story can encourage others to come out and talk about victimisation,” Sheikh says.
(The article also got published in Pioneer Newspaper – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/special/the-krantikaris.html).