Shweta Katti, who grew up in Mumbai’s red light district of Kamathipura, had her first breakthrough when she made it to the Bard College in New York last year. Now, there is another reason for the 19-year-old to celebrate: She has been selected by the United Nations Special Envoy for Education for the Youth Courage Award, given to girls from around the world for showing exemplary courage in promoting the cause of girls’ education and dignity of women.
The award also brought fresh excitement in the lives of a group of young girls in a suburban Mumbai flat, where the NGO Kranti offers accommodation and educational assistance to daughters of sex workers. Shweta’s education was funded by the same NGO.
Despite many hurdles in getting a passport and securing funds for her education, Shweta made it to Bard College last year to pursue a degree in psychology. Since then, she has used various public platforms to speak on how to overcome adversity, and has emerged as an icon for youngsters in similar circumstances.
An email Shweta received from a UK-based charitable organisation reads: “We have just been informed by the Office of the United Nations Special Envoy for Education that you will be one of their 2014 Youth Courage Award recipients. The envoy’s office will be in touch briefly with a formal notification.”
According to Robin Chaurasiya, the founder of Kranti, Shweta is the first girl from Mumbai’s red light district to have been picked for the honour.
But amid the excitement, a hint of uncertainty looms over the girls supported by Kranti. For one, Shweta is worried that funds for her education may dry out — she has not managed to raise money to pay for her education and allied expenses this semester.
Moreover, the NGO has only been able to raise a quarter of the total money for another girl, Sheetal Jain, to go to Levine Music School in Washington DC for a course in drumming.
While Sheetal requires Rs 12 lakh, Kranti has so far raised Rs 3 lakh — mostly through word-of-mouth and social media campaigning.
But these girls are no strangers to stumbling blocks. Apart from Shweta, three others, Sumaiya Sheikh, Pinky Sheikh and Rani Patil — all of them daughters of sex workers — have travelled abroad for various educational programmes in the past.
While Shweta intends to study in New York till June 2017, Sumaiya (13) completed her Wanakee Leadership Camp (survival skills programme) in New Hampshire from August 3-10, 2014. Before that, she went to Sidwell Summer Camp (for English, arts and science) in Washington DC from July 22 to August 1. Pinky (17) attended a 45-day ‘Songs of Hope’ performing arts camp in Minnesota in 2013, and Rani (13) attended the same this year. Rani also went to the camp in New Hampshire with Sumaiya.
“The Songs of Hope programme costs USD 2,000 for the summer. For Pinky, they reduced the fee to USD 500. We raised the money for her airfare and living cost, which came to about USD 2,000,” Chaurasiya said.
For Shweta, the NGO raised USD 18,000 a year for the room and an additional USD 2,000 for other expenses. “So, it comes to around USD 20,000 a year,” said Bani Das, a member of Kranti. Shweta has also taken up a part-time job there to support herself.
Explaining the emphasis on trying to send the girls abroad, Chaurasiya said, “People always want to know why the US. First of all, we believe everyone, not just us, should travel. It is important to experience different people, food, cultures, beliefs, etc.
Studying, living, travelling abroad is not just about being abroad, it is about a new level of independence, problem solving, stretching your limits, and living outside your comfort zone.”
Elaborating on this, Bani said Sumaiya was terrified about flying, and was almost in tears at the airport. “However, she managed everything — immigration forms, stopovers and transfers,” Bani said.
Rani missed a couple of connecting flights, but managed to talk to the airline and got her flight changed, added Bani. “She had to spend three days in Boston between camps, and a friend of mine from Kyrgyzstan took her to museums and parks,” said Chaurasiya.
Sheetal is slated to board a flight that has a 21-hour stopover in Egypt, where she will get a chance to stay in Cairo and see the pyramids.
Chaurasiya said this is meant to teach the girls that they can overcome anything, including their past. “So, while most parents will not be keen on sending their 13-year-old across the world alone, it is basic requirement here,” said Chaurasiya.