(HN, September 28, 2010) - When the celebrity couple, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, spoke about a sex slave epidemic before an overflow crowd of journalists at the Clinton Global Initiative summit last week in New York, sitting quietly in the back of the room was an unassuming, 19-year-old woman from India.
While Moore and Kutcher described how there are “more slaves in the world today than ever before in human history” - 27 million globally, including 1 million in the United States - Tanvi Girotra’s mind was back in her native India, where untold numbers of adolescent women are forced into commercial sex work. Incredibly, their work is condoned by rural families and communities as a way to make ends meet amid grinding poverty.
“You have no idea how bad it can get,” said Tanvi, shortly after the press conference.
On her own initiative, Tanvi started `Becoming I' - a new youth-led organization to create a platform for young people to come together and make a positive difference in society.
It supports projects in India in the fields of education, women’s empowerment, and life skills development, among other issues. The project on women’s empowerment is called Project Fiza and works with a community of commercial sex workers using art, handicrafts, dance, music and theatre.
“We are striving towards providing them with an alternative source of employment and trying to break this cycle of prostitution in their village,” said Tanvi. “We work with three factions of society: the women involved in prostitution, the teenage girls who are the most vulnerable and the children of these prostitutes. We are trying to create a healthy environment for them to grow and push them towards education....Through life skills development, dance and art workshops we give these girls a platform to express themselves.”
Tanvi says the outreach has had a transformational impact on many of the girls. “They realize the world they are a part of isn't the only one they know of.”
Tanvi first realized the other world outside her own - she was lucky enough to be sent to school, she says - walking to and from school. Along the way, she would see street kids and then young girls working as commercial sex workers. “They are exploited to the extent that they believe their body is their only asset - it’s something I couldn’t comprehend.”
Many of the girls who end up as commercial sex workers enter the work soon after marriage, to help their families make ends meet. Tanvi’s NGO believes the only way to break the mindset is to reach them early - providing them with empowerment to say ‘no.’ “It’s become a very generational thing. Once you get to that level you believe that everything is normal,” says Tanvi. “They are pressed by their circumstance...they believe it is their duty.”
Adolescents constitute almost a quarter of India’s population and 50 percent of girls are married before their 18th birthday. Data on how many are forced into sex work is notoriously hard to come by, but several academic studies indicate that early marriage plays a role in potentially exposing girls and young women to severe reproductive health risks, including HIV.
Another important aspect of the intervention is that Tanvi and members of her group do not confront the practice head-on. Even though they are from New Delhi, they are seen as outsiders in rural areas and could easily be barred from entering the communities. “Speaking about the profession is one of the softest spots you can hit,” she says. “We proceed with very small steps.”
So remote are some of the villages that the foundation works in - Tanvi travels 2 1/2 hours in each direction, utilizing five different modes of transport - that there are no government offices, police stations or hospitals. This can make women and girls extremely vulnerable.
Tanvi says her parents have been very supportive of her work, but that some people ask her if her work really makes a difference. Social networking tools, such as Facebook, have helped her greatly to gain support locally as well as from around the world.
Apart from Project Fiza, the `Becoming I' Foundation runs two other outreach programmes: Project Broadway aims at providing life skills development through theatre - conducting workshops for underprivileged children and teaching them the basics of theatre along with day to day ethics and ways of living.
For street children, Project Sadak focuses on bringing kids of different ages together under one roof and teaching them things like painting, sketching, origami, sculpture making etc. The aim is to teach them and their parents the benefits of school and education. “As most of these children end up becoming beggars or thieves, we also, in a very subtle yet powerful way, show them the different occupations they can take up to earn money,” says Tanvi.
---HUMNEWS thanks the Nike Foundation for facilitating this coverage. Tanvi is part of the 'Girl Effect' - an example of a girl investing in her own community and making the world a better place.