Reflections on Shadhika’s 2017 Donor Trip to India

Screen Shot 2017-02-20 at 4.28.42 PMBy Monique Tuttle, Shadhika Donor and Volunteer

I was told that visiting India would be life changing. I had watched TV
shows and movies filmed and set there. Somehow nothing actually
prepares you for the mass of humanity, the chaos of the streets, and the
stark contrasts. Based on my limited time and exposure, India struck me
as a study in contradictions: extreme wealth and poverty, bright colors and
grey smog, strict rules and rampant corruption, sweet perfume of flowers
and stench of sewage and garbage, innovation and tradition, religion and
worship of gods and goddesses and lack of value depending upon caste
and gender. Perhaps most startling is how much “progress” and
development has occurred and yet how much seems not to have changed.
We watched an Indian movie set in the relative present, Dangal, about a
father’s evolving attitude towards his daughters, and its influence on his
community, and on the way home I watched two Indian movies, one set
around World War I and one set in 1938. Remarkably, while some things
have changed such as the addition of cars in the streets, many things still
seemed the same – such as dress, other modes of transportation, food,
traditions or restrictions, attitudes towards women and girls, class
entitlement.

Over two weeks, we visited four cities and four Shadhika grantees. In
Delhi, we visited STOP India. STOP’s goal is the eradication of human
trafficking and oppression of children and women. Estimates (as
unreliable as they may be) are that there are 30 million women and girls
being trafficked worldwide, with 50% of them in India. STOP rescues girls
and provides a safe home where they can heal and rehabilitate as well as
receive an education and life and job skills. Shadhika’s grant to STOP
supports job training and leadership development for 15 girls ages 15-24
on market oriented handicrafts/textiles and self sufficiency through
entrepreneurship.

Listening to the girls, I was struck by how long they have been at STOP,
for example – nine years, and how young they seem and correspondingly
how young they must have been when sold or kidnapped. The horror and
tragedy that they experienced is unimaginable and yet there they were
joyful, smiling, sharing their creativity and work with us, and inquisitive
about our lives. There was so much life and inspiration despite their
experiences. The damage is there, as starkly represented by one smiling,
sweet young woman gravely ill with HIV. There is no erasing their past
completely; only making it the less prominent or defining feature. The
value of the work done by STOP beyond the act of rescue was evident in a
new girl at STOP, rescued only 2 days earlier, pregnant, far from the home
in Bangladesh that led her to trafficking in the first place. For her there
was not yet any hope or joy, just fear, distrust and pain written all over her
face. Yet from seeing the other girls, how protective they were of her, and
how the resources provided by STOP would benefit her, I felt the hope for
her future and the future of other girls to be rescued.

In Mumbai, we visited VACHA . VACHA is an after-school program for over
400 girls living in the slums of Mumbai, who are disadvantaged by gender
bias, poverty, caste and minority status. Can you imagine living in a
community with only 4 toilets for 4,000 women and girls, where you may
have to wait over an hour in the morning to use a toilet? I live in a house
with four toilets and usually only two people. There is never a wait. How
can you think about achieving your full potential when your basic life
necessities are a challenge? VACHA seeks to empower girls through
education and participation in community life, including by advocating for
more free public toilets for women, and also to create male feminists
through education of boys. Shadhika’s grant supports secondary
education for 120 girls and 30 boys at 2 centers. The grant also supports
life skills and English training and rights’ education.

A number of girls from VACHA also receive college scholarships from
Shadhika. Those girls presented, mostly in English, their achievements
and how the support provided by VACHA and Shadhika has changed their
lives and is changing the minds of their parents and their communities as
to the value of educating a girl and providing her with opportunity. My pen
pal, one of the college girls, could not be there, because she had been
selected through a competitive physical and academic process to
participate in an Independence Day parade in Delhi. While I was sad not
to have the chance to meet her in person, I was in awe of her
accomplishment and so honored that we had been able to support her to
get there. From all accounts, her family, who once questioned the value of
her continuing her education, were incredibly proud and supportive of her
as well.

In Bangalore, we spent a day with girls from Baale Mane who are living on
their own and attending women’s college and then a day at Baale Mane.
Baale Mane provides long-term shelter and a loving home to girls ages 6
to 18 years of age who faced exploitation in the streets, forced labor, and
child marriage due to being orphaned or from backgrounds of domestic
violence and abuse. It has grown to be a permanent home for up to 50
girls. Shadhika’s grant supports enhanced life skills training for 32 girls
ages 10-24 and stronger English training to help the girls transition to
college and independence. Warming all of our hearts, the college girls
called us “sister,” held our hands, told us about their classes and their
lives, and asked us about ours. They danced in the aisle of the bus. They
struggled to use silverware for the first time to eat, rather than their hand,
at the restaurant. They took such pride in showing us their rooming house,
their dream journals, and their books. They wanted to show us every inch
of their college and introduce us to their teachers and administrators. And
on the weekends they truly “go home” to Baale Mane.

At Baale Mane, they welcomed us with a stirring drum performance. They toured us
around the facility. They read from their journals and told us about how the
life skills sessions have impacted them. And they danced. We heard
about and met one girl who had been taken from the home, against her
will, by her stepfather and was to be married. Her brother helped her
escape the wedding preparations and she figured out how to get back to
Baale Mane (and the stepfather is in prison for other reasons). As she
shared her hopes and dreams from her journal, I couldn’t help but think
about how, because of Baale Mane, and Shadhika’s support, she has the
ability to grow and thrive as a whole person, rather than being viewed as
“less than” and forced into an early marriage.

Lastly, in Kolkata, we spent the day at Uddami Computer Centre. Uddami
provides free practical computer training, English lessons, and life skills
sessions to women and men without economic means. The training
provided is so well regarded that applicants have faked poverty in order to
attend and the staff must screen applicants carefully. Shadhika’s grant
helped Uddami launch the soft skills training and hire a professional
English teacher. The grant helps 45 women and 18 men ages 19-24. We
spent time with Uddami’s leader, Rabia Khatoon, a graduate of Uddami,
some of the teachers, who also are graduates of Uddami, and some of the
students and former students. We heard first hand from the students, in
English in part due to the English lessons, about the valuable knowledge
that they have gained in the soft skills training such as how to
communicate effectively and how to interview for a job. We also visited the
home of one of the teachers, who is a former student. She lives with her
sister, mother and father. They all sleep in one room, two on the floor and
two in the bed. As a wage earner, she now has the privilege of sleeping in
the bed. Because she has demonstrated that a girl can do more than be a
burden, her sister has opportunities to continue her education as well.

Throughout the trip, I read the Indian newspaper provided by the hotels
where we stayed. Every day there were stories about girls and women
being kidnapped, beaten and raped. There was controversy over alleged
molestation of women in the streets of Bangalore New Year’s Eve and
whether the women were to blame because of their Western dress and
late hours. And like with all of the other contradictions I started with, there
also were signs of change. For example, a column argued that child
marriage should be considered trafficking. Another story told of a village,
inspired by the story in the movie Dangal, where each household placed
the name of the eldest daughter on a plate on its front door to honor her.
There also were billboards and advertisements raising awareness and
promoting the value of and respect for girl children.

To the extent I didn’t know it already, the trip affirmed the following for me:
just like the cars and the rickshaws sharing the same road, and saris and
jeans sharing the same sidewalks, the attitudes and traditions of India’s
past with respect to women and girls co-exist, in tension and open conflict,
with evolving views, regardless of any constitutional rights and laws in
place. The hard work of the dedicated staff at each of Shadhika’s grantees
and the passion, courage and resilience of the girls participating in the
programs is critical to continuing and accelerating that evolution. How
inspiring to know that I am a part of an organization that is making an
actual difference and to witness that difference first hand.