Change agents emerge from Mumbai's red light district

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 6 February 2015

It's not often a girl from Mumbai's red light district gets the opportunity to study at one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the United States. In fact, the case of Shweta Katti, who attends Bard College and recently won a 2014 UN Youth Award for Courage, is likely a first for the young women of Mumbai's Kamathipura area, thanks to a ground-breaking organization called Kranti. The city's brothels are home to an estimated 100,000 women, many of whom have children who stay in the district with them. The girls raised in these circumstances deal not only with deplorable conditions but also with physical, mental, and sexual violence. NGOs working in these areas provide education and skills training to the children to try to break the cycle of prostitution, but few have their sights set beyond traditional work. Kranti aims to change that.

Kranti, which means "revolutionary" in Hindi, rescues girls from a potential future of sex slavery and turns them into agents of social change. This goal is no easy feat. Kranti's girls face challenges of caste, class, and gender, as well as the social stigma of coming from Kamathipura. But Kranti believes that it is exactly this marginalization that will make the girls into compassionate, thoughtful leaders — or "revolutionaries," as they are called at the home Kranti runs.

Kranti goes to great lengths to develop the young women at their shelter home into leaders. The program involves mental health services, skill-enhancement trips around India and abroad, a safe, supportive home, and an emphasis on education. In fact, Kranti's belief system challenges the country's current education system, reinforcing the need for a curriculum that includes social justice and the view that the purpose "should be to develop leaders and empowered communities rather than supervisors and corporate employees." The girls are encouraged to take subjects such as psychology and sociology and test classroom knowledge in real life. The girls are also taught public speaking skills, and many of them have shared their personal stories with large audiences for their own personal growth and to inspire others who may have come from difficult circumstances.

Most recently, Kranti was raising funds to send one of their girls on the selective U.S. college program Semester at Sea, while another group went to the Himalayas for a retreat. At 16, Pinky Sheikh, another "revolutionary" at Kranti, went for a performing arts camp in Minnesota called Songs of Hope. Kranti co-founder Robin Chaurasiya says that Pinky wants to be a dance teacher for AIDS orphans in Africa when she grows up. These are exactly the types of aspirations Kranti hopes to inspire in its young women.

Kranti's unique approach to building leadership and change agent skills in the girls of Mumbai's red light district goes beyond the typical job-training programs that characterize many initiatives working with poor youth in the city. Kranti believes these young women have inspiring individual capabilities and unstoppable collective power. If this potential is unleashed, Chaurasiya said recently in an interview, "everything would change overnight."

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