Reflections from the Field


February 08, 2018


The cave is cool, a welcome respite from the heat and humidity. I listen as our guide describes the ancient stories carved into the huge granite stones before us. We are at the Elephanta Caves, a UNESCO site in Mumbai.

I am joined by a group of Shadhika college scholarship students from VACHA, our partner in Mumbai, and five Shadhika donors. Our tour is part of Shadhika’s 5th Annual Donor Trip to India. This year, our two-week trip took us to visit Shadhika’s projects in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Kolkata.

As the guide continues to explain these 5th century treasures, I find myself distracted by a conversation I had earlier in the day with a colleague about how change is made.


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There is a current buzzword going around in Indian philanthropy: scalability. As in, “that’s a great idea, but how are you going to scale that?” It has led some nonprofit practitioners to begin to package and distribute their curricula as a social franchise, in pursuit of bringing their ideas to the most people in the shortest time possible.

Though such a scalability approach may help create an idea “virus,” there is a risk these ideas may simply become fads. For lasting change to occur, these ideas need to be internalized, and that takes time.

At Shadhika we believe that to make a sustainable impact on the issues of gender inequality in India we need to invest in generational change. For us, that means educating and empowering the next generation of community leaders to address these issues so that they can become the living incarnation of this “idea virus.”

This is the strategy we’ve been pursuing since I joined Shadhika five years ago. And though there have been glimmers of the impact of this approach on my previous visits, on this last visit I began to see it everywhere.

I saw it at STOP India, our project in Delhi, where four years ago Shadhika provided seed funding to start a garment-manufacturing business so that the survivors of trafficking could learn a trade and become self-sufficient. This year, I watched with awe as those same women are now becoming trainers themselves and working preemptively to train new women who are at the highest risk for trafficking.

I saw it in our visits with Shadhika’s college scholarship recipients, many of whom will be graduating from college in 2018. Three years ago, these students had to convince their parents and neighbors to allow them to go to college instead of marrying them off. On this visit they reported that not only have their achievements inspired other parents to send their daughters to college, but now they have elders (previously opposed to them going to college) coming to them and asking for their help with banking and filing official forms.

And finally, I saw it during our home visits with students’ families. At Uddami, the student’s parents were moved to tears as they spoke of the impact their daughter’s success. “I never went to school,” her father shared, “but I am the old India. I want my daughter to be the new India.”

I recall these stories and many others as I focus on the massive stone statues before me. Here for thousands of years, they seem eternal. Yet when one looks closer, they can see how the weather and time have eroded their façade.

And that is our long-term path to change. Like water on granite, with every young woman we empower to lead, every young man who becomes an advocate for equality, and every parent who invests in his or her daughter, we are wearing down the cultural practices that discriminate against women and girls in India.

It takes a steady rain to wash away stone. But rain is inevitable and eventually even the hardest granite is reduced to dust. Five years in, we have begun to see the grooves of change.


December 14, 2017


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Kavita* is angry. 

We are sitting in a non-descript, corporate conference room where Kavita is currently doing a three-month accounting internship. Earlier this year, Kavita received her Bachelors in Commerce, and Baale Mane, Shadhika’s grantee partner in Bangalore, found her this paid internship, which we all hope will be a stepping-stone to her landing her first job. 

We’ve just had a meeting with Kavita’s supervisor, who gave an enthusiastic report of how Kavita has been doing, reporting that she is hard working, reliable, curious, and a good team player. This is everything

one would want to hear from an employer. Indeed, the company is so pleased with Kavita’s performance, they have offered to extend her internship for another three months. All of this brings tears to our eyes. Because we know the journey Kavita has taken to get to this point. 

Kavita came to Baale Mane, a home for girls who have been orphaned, abandoned or abused by their families, when she was seven, after being found begging on the streets of Bangalore, abandoned by her family.  

Kavita’s fate is similar to that of many girls in India, who, from the moment they are born, find themselves unwanted by their families. But with Baale Mane’s support, Kavita has been able to overcome her fate and chart a new life for herself.  And now, she’s taking the next step in her life, getting a job and becoming financially self-sufficient. 

It is during a discussion with Kavita afterwards about how she feels about her job and while we are counselling her about being responsible with her wages, that she begins to talk about wanting to use some of her earnings to go back to her village and confront her family. “I want them to see all that I have become. I want to show them they were wrong to throw me away like so much garbage.” Her eyes burn large with her anger.

I find myself conflicted by her intentions and uncertain how to respond. On the one hand, I meet her anger with my own. Overcome by the injustice that she has faced, for a moment, I have the urge to buy her the train ticket home.  But then I am struck by the sad realization that such a journey would no doubt be a wasted effort, not producing the result she desires and more probably only serving to sharpen her rage. 

So instead, we all begin to discuss the pros and cons of her taking this action, honoring her feelings but also helping her to work through what action would make the most sense and enable her to understand her past, but not to continue to be a victim of it. Through this discussion, she begins to calm down. As she looks down at her hands folded into her lap, one can see the quiet realization spreading over her. Her past, while still a half-healed wound, is not her fate. That’s hers alone to choose. She can keep revisiting the past, or she can look forward. She looks up at us and breaks into a smile, “Can I show you my desk?” 

And we get up for a tour of the office. 

* named changed for safety


November 28, 2017


The time difference between India and Denver, Colorado, where I live, is twelve and a half hours. That means when I wake up in the morning, the first things that greet me are often “breaking news alerts” on my smart phone. Having left for India right when the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal broke, on this trip, it has seemed that every day my daily news alerts are full of additional stories of brave women and men who are calling out their harassment and abuse at the hands of other, powerful men. #metoo.

I am thinking about all of this as we make our way to a community meeting room in a slum in Pune where Shadhika’s newest grantee partner, Equal Community Foundation (ECF), is doing its work. ECF provides an after-school program for boys and young men between the ages of 14-18 in over a dozen slums in and around Pune. ECF’s program focuses on addressing gender inequality and violence against women by engaging the young men in discussions of gender roles, rights-based training, anti-violence training, and community action. Their 30-week curriculum takes the young men through a progression of awareness building, starting first with themselves, then with their families, and then within their communities. In this final stage, the young men work together to identify and take action to address a gender issue in their own communities.

We enter the community room and spend the next few hours learning about the program and the boys’ experiences. The boys are boisterous, jockeying for the chance to be called on to share their stories and impressions. They share how they are increasingly helping with the chores in their homes, taking on tasks such as sweeping, doing dishes, and fetching water – tasks that were traditionally reserved for their mothers and sisters. They discuss the value they are taking from these sessions and their strategies for dealing with their peers who tease them for coming. They speak eloquently about how girls should be allowed to finish their schooling, wear whatever they want, and travel freely in their communities – all restrictions commonly put upon girls where they live – and how they are starting to advocate for these freedoms.

It is heartening to hear how these young men have become allies for their sisters, girl friends, mothers, and aunts. It is even more encouraging to hear how they themselves are becoming empowered to challenge their own limiting gender roles. After awhile, the boys turn to us and ask us questions. “Where are we from?” “Do we have sons too?” “Do men also help with chores in America?” They want to know.

One young man raises his hand and asks if we have a course like this for boys where we come from? For a minute, we are taken aback, recalling the recent events in America. “No,” we reply after a moment. “But we should.” The boy smiles and nods, “Yes,” he says. “I think we need this class everywhere.” We smile back in agreement, our two worlds no longer half a day away, seeing our common struggle – #metoo.


November 13, 2017



When I was younger, I used to play a game where I would ask people what superpower they would like to have – the ability to fly or the power to be invisible? I always chose the power to fly.

But Savita* wanted to be invisible. It was clear from the first moment I met her, three years ago. It was during an early Shadhika site visit with our partner STOP India, in Delhi. STOP focuses on the prevention, rescue, and emotional healing of young women in India who have been victims of trafficking, either for sex or child labor.

I first met Savita when she was sixteen and living at STOP’s residential home for trafficked survivors outside of Delhi. She had come to STOP two years earlier after being found alone in a park by the Delhi police. She had been severely beaten. Though to this day she refuses to discuss her past, the few details we know is that she was trafficked, possibly by her family, from Nepal to Delhi for domestic work, and was routinely mistreated by her employer. To this day, she remains estranged from her family.

I initially met her during a group discussion with the young women who are living at the home. She was withdrawn and didn’t engage in the conversation. Instead she stared skeptically, her anger palpable. Like a wounded animal, she was both vulnerable and ready to fight.

This first encounter is etched in my mind when I see her today, three years later, on my current visit. Now nineteen, for the last three years she has been part of the project that Shadhika has been funding at STOP that is training survivors to manufacture and sell clothing and accessories. I’ve watched her progress through this project, learning patternmaking and stitching, discovering her talents in finishing work and quality control, and gaining confidence in herself.

Visiting twice a year, I have been able to watch as she has gradually unfolded from her protective cocoon, allowing herself to become ‘visible.’ Last year during my visit, she took me to see her nearby flat, where she and three other STOP girls are now living on her own. This year, I learn that she is now working as a trainer/ supervisor for the next class of young women in the program and that she is slowly learning the back-office responsibilities of the business as well. She and the others share this news through a PowerPoint presentation they have made for our visit (their first one!), delivered in English – another accomplishment.

All of these developments alone are huge milestones, but what catches my breath comes at the beginning of my visit. I am sitting in the conference room, waiting for our meeting to start. She comes in, and where, in the past she would have kept close to the door for easy escape, this time she crosses the room and gives me a big smile. And then, for the first time, she gives me a hug. “How are you Didi (older sister)?” she asks. Holding back my tears I reply, “I am well. Very well. And so very happy to see you.”

*Name changed for safety


November 6, 2017


Jabala Site Visit 2

Their faces stare down on us, silently watching our work. Tagore, Nehru, Gandhi, and other Indian men of note whose names I do not know. I am sitting in a small second floor community room in the heart of the Bowbazar community, home to the largest Red-Light District in Kolkata. The space has been donated for use to Jabala Action Resource Center, Shadhika’s partner in Kolkata, for an after-school program for the daughters of sex workers.  The male leaders on the walls are leftover decorations from a political party meeting that has been held in the space earlier in the day.

With Shadhika’s support, Jabala launched this effort six months ago, so this is the first time we are meeting the young women who are participating in the program. They are a group of twenty young girls, between the ages of 14 to 18. All but five are the daughters of prostitutes, and only two still have fathers present in their homes. All attend school nearby, but keep where they live to themselves, fearful of being ostracized by their peers.

While the daily curriculum of Jabala’s program is to provide high-quality tutoring for the girls in English, computers, and math to help them complete their education, these are merely a means to achieve the core focus of the program which is to break the cycle of sex trafficking by teaching the girls about their rights, building their self-confidence, and empowering them pursue their own dreams for their future.

Unlike other students I have met for the first time, these young women are not shy but carry a bearing of those who have already seen much in their short lives.  While there’s a caution about them, their gaze is direct and intense. With little hesitation, confidently ask us about our lives, where we’ve come from and what is Halloween. We trade off singing American folk songs. We sing, “This Land is Your Land,” forgetting the second verse, and they sing “We Shall Overcome,” not missing a beat and drawing tears to our eyes with their earnestness.

We ask them about the men on the walls, and whether they think they should add famous women leaders too. “Who should we add?” We ask. They fall silent and it becomes clear they don’t know of anyone. “What about Malala?” I ask. They don’t know who she is. So, we tell them Malala’s story. They silently nod as I explain her journey. Together we decide that they will learn about other famous women like Malala and that next time we come to visit, they will make a presentation to us about those that inspire them.

After a while, it is time to say goodbye. We climb down the dark staircase and head out into the street. As we are walking towards the main road, the neighborhood lanes are lined with women waiting for their next customers. The evening ‘business’ is just getting underway.

I catch the eye of one woman who cannot be much older than those we just left upstairs. Her gaze is direct, but without life. I find myself overwhelmed by the realization of how thin the line is between one life and another. And how little it takes to make all the difference.


October 29, 2017


CC - Kim's Blog post“Do you have a uterus?” The question catches me off guard, but the young girl before me earnestly wants to know. We are sitting on the floor in a community room in a ‘basti’ (slum) outside of Mumbai, visiting with the young women and men who are participating in an after-school program supported by Shadhika. Though the rickety ceiling fan spinning above us is trying its hardest, the small room is stuffy, as it is crowded with over 60 eager young students who have gathered to share what they are learning. I am here for a Shadhika site visit, and this is one of nine visits we will make in the next three weeks.

We break into small groups and listen as the students walk us through the presentations they have put together on various topics. I am now sitting with a group of about ten young women, between the ages of 12 and 18, who have been learning about their bodies. And so they want to know, do I have a uterus? After answering in the affirmative, we go on to discuss our periods, reproductive anatomy, and boys. I am struck by the forthrightness of these girls and how at ease they seem with the topic, displaying none of the embarrassment one might expect from a group of teenage girls learning about their bodies.

But then, these are students at VACHA, Shadhika’s grantee partner in Mumbai. For the last three years, with Shadhika’s support, VACHA has run an after-school program for these students who come from one of the poorest slums in Mumbai. Through this program they have been learning English and computers as well as about their rights and how to take action to advance their rights.

The next small group walks me through their PowerPoint discussing the challenges of child marriage. They tell me about an incident earlier this year where, with VACHA’s help, they took action to stop the marriage of a 16 year old in their community. Another group tells us about their work to get the government to put in more toilets in their community. In their slum of 4,000, there are only eight toilets, of which just four are for women and girls. Each morning there is a long queue to use them and many girls must wait until they get to school to use the bathroom, which means they must hold their bladders for up to three hours.

They share how they are facing challenges in their efforts to put in more toilets because the criminal element that controls much of their community is opposing the move. But the girls are undeterred and they discuss the ideas they have to get this change implemented. “We will go to the media,” one shouts.  “We will get our parents to demand it,” another says.

As they continue to brainstorm ideas, they get more and more enthusiastic, and the teacher eventually steps in to get them to settle down. I reflect on my last visit, six months earlier, when they were just beginning to discuss this issue and if they should take it on, and how much progress they have made, not just in their work, but in their leadership and confidence.

As we end our visit and walk down the narrow alleyway back to the main road, I smile to myself, imagining the progress I am sure they will make between now and my next visit, and laugh silently at how much I look forward to using the inevitable new toilets these young leaders will stop at nothing to get.


May 18, 2017

Vacha Site VisitI love Spring. After six months of snow here in Colorado, the arrival of Spring, in the form of flowering bulbs emerging in my garden, makes me smile and gives me hope for the future. I also love Spring because that is when we receive our annual applications for Shadhika’s Scholars Program. Through this program, a group of Shadhika donors comes together every year to provide college or vocational school scholarships to young women from our projects who have shown themselves to be leaders on girls’ rights issues in their communities.

Like the daffodils and tulips in my garden, reading the applications from these amazing young women every Spring fills me with hope. As part of the application process, every applicant writes a personal essay and it is one of my great joys to read these essays and learn about their lives and dreams for their futures.

This year I had the honor to read essays from young women nominated by our grantee partners in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, and Kolkata. One of these applicants was Vaideshwari from Baale Mane in Bengaluru. Vaideshwari came to Baale Mane when she was very young after being found living on the streets. With our help, Vaideshwari wants to pursue a degree in journalism. In her essay, Vaideshwari explained why: “I choose journalism because it is a powerful weapon which will help people in society…I would like to encourage women to be aware of their rights and to solve women’s issues.”

Then there was Razia, nominated by STOP India, our partner in Delhi. One of six children, Razia’s parents never attended school but have always been supportive of their children getting an education. Razia applied for support so she can pursue her MBA. She explained her choice this way, “I have taken a decision to do an MBA because girls are ahead in every field, but in MBA, or the field of business, one sees extremely few girls. Most people think this field is only for boys. I want to be a trailblazer for girls in my community.”

I also read about the progress of our returning applicants, young women who have been attending college with Shadhika’s support over the past two years. It has been a great gift to be able to follow their progress navigating their increased independence and responsibilities and coming into their own. This year I was excited to hear how Poonam, one of our scholarship recipients from Vacha in Mumbai, was one of just four girls in all of the state of Maharashtra to be selected to participate in Republic Day celebrations in Delhi. This highly competitive process has earned Poonam newfound respect in her home and in her community – a great change from the resistance she encountered two years ago when she first made it known that she wished to go to college.

Then there is Sneha, also from Vacha. In many ways, she is emblematic of many of the young women we support through this program and why this program is so important. She’s been a youth leader at Vacha for nine years now, helping to organize activities to advance the rights of girls in her community. However, when she first came to us three years ago, she was very shy. Part of her shyness came from the challenges of mastering English and part of it came from her struggles to figure out where she fit in with this new “college crowd”, a community far removed from where she grew up. Over the past two years, it’s been moving to watch Sneha as she’s overcome these challenges, gained self-confidence and crystallized her vision for her future. In this year’s essay, she shared that, “This year I achieved various things. I have got a lot of confidence now.” Her knowledge of English has improved dramatically, witnessed by her essay written entirely in English, she’s made new friends, and she even organized an event at her college on women’s rights. It is inspiring to read her essay and the list of things she participated in the last year and to see how her world has expanded and how she’s risen up to meet it.

But the greatest ray of hope I take from reading all of these essays is not, ultimately, the accomplishments of these young women themselves; it’s their desire to help other girls behind them. As Sneha wrote,” The scholarship programme must be continued so that many girls like us can progress in their life.”

And so, like bulbs in a garden, Shadhika’s Scholars Program will continue to multiply and bloom year after year, sending many more amazing young women out into the world, enabling them to achieve their dreams and give hope to other girls behind them.

If you’d like to join the donor circle for Shadhika’s Scholars Program, email me: