Three years ago Sonal Kapoor was like many up-and-coming Delhi professionals. With a promising job in advertising Sonal had a great corporate future ahead of her where a rise through the ranks would make her a leading businesswoman in India. Little did Kapoor know a chance encounter with one mother and daughter who lived in a slum in Delhi would completely alter her course in life.
During a corporate film shoot in one of Delhi’s slums that Kapoor was working on she met and befriended a woman who had six children and was pregnant with her seventh. The woman told Kapoor if she had a son she would raise him to look after the family. If she had a daughter she would strangle her to death. There were already too many mouths to feed.
The woman’s oldest daughter, Julie, earned money to take care of the rest of the children by working in a local brothel, something her mother forced her to do. Julie didn’t go to school. She worked.
Most of the girls in Delhi’s slums do not go to school. Rather they help their family (who are often migrant workers) scratch out a living on the streets whether it’s selling vegetables with their parents or in a worst case scenario, working in a brothel.
One day while still working on the shoot Kapoor saw Julie heading towards her mother, barely able to walk. It was at that moment that Kapoor decided she would help Julie and other at-risk girls who live in Delhi’s slums who are often victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse, are forced to work in brothels, or are victims of drug abuse.
Kapoor started Protsahan, a small NGO school that educates at-risk girls through the arts. Many of the girls who come from situations of abuse don’t talk for months when they enter her school, but the arts help them trust again and open up.
Seeing the loving interaction on my visit between Kapoor and the girls leaves no doubt that what she and her team of teachers created is working. One girl came up to us and showed how well she could calculate using an abacus. All of the girls' smiles showed that their time at Protsahan is a welcomed respite from the harsh alleys of the slum.
Through art, photography, digital stories, and design Protsahan teaches the girls a curriculum that will allow them to eventually matriculate into a government school. Most of the girls in Delhi’s slums do not go to school. Rather they help their family (who are often migrant workers) scratch out a living on the streets whether it’s selling vegetables with their parents or in a worst case scenario, working in a brothel.
Using the arts, Kapoor and her team teach the girls about reproductive health and teach them the difference between good touching and bad touching. Her team helps the girls make their own menstrual pads when otherwise they would use a banana leaf, sand, and a rag that often causes vaginal infections. Kapoor also teaches them about basic health and uses arts exercises to increase the girls’ overall sense of self-worth.
Throughout our stay at Protsahan that started with us walking in during their peaceful mediation time to sitting with them as they participated in a creative exercise that helped them express their feelings through writing, I never once saw a frown or even a sad face. Despite the harshness of the girls’ lives Kapoor and Protsahan are making their lives worth living.
For more information about Protsahan visit them at www.facebook.com/ProtsahanIndiaFoundation.