by Emily Bild, GoPhil Regional Program Manager India/Nepal

GoPhil recently hosted an enormously successful and inspiring Journey to India, where we were able to ‘listen and learn’ – and ask many, many questions! – to our Indian partner NGOs, all doing incredible work in human rights and education.

The trip was very moving for all of us – GoPhil staff and travelers alike as we now better understand the challenges faced by huge numbers of women and children in India. Most importantly, our travelers were able to discover the innovative responses being applied to face these ongoing issues.

As the Regional Program Manager for India and Nepal, I am so fortunate to work closely with our partner NGOs in the country and I feel very privileged to be able to get to know their approaches, successes, difficulties and needs. This was my first experience hosting GoPhil travelers at our Indian partners’ programs and it felt wonderful to be able to share my love of these organizations with them and see the travelers’ interest and excitement at meeting these inspiring programs. The travelers, all of whom come from different backgrounds themselves, asked so many thought-provoking questions that I learned a great deal of new information myself!

Preventing Gender-Based Violence at Shakti Shalini

Our first visit was to Shakti Shalini, where we were able to learn about their preventive and response mechanisms for dealing with gender-based violence – a huge issue in Delhi where many women face violence at the hands of their husbands or other family members. GoPhil has been supporting their new start-up initiative, an innovative skills development program that provides women with essential skills to either enter the formal workplace or earn money from home, while weaving in messages around gender equality and gender-based violence. For many women simply coming to the center is a huge step as it is the first time they have engaged in a program outside of their homes. GoPhil travelers had the opportunity to see the computing, beauty culture and tailoring classes first-hand, and talk to both the trainers and the participants to understand what their experience at Shakti Shalini means for them and how this has changed their lives.   

Protecting Children in Delhi’s Red Light Area

Our next visit was to G.B. Road, the heart of the red light district in Delhi, where thousands of women have been trafficked from all over India, Nepal and Bangladesh and forced to work in brothels. Meeting the enormously courageous Lalitha at the SMS Center, who set up the center for the children of sex workers at the request of their mothers over 25 years ago, was very moving. We met with the children, who are provided with education, protection, healthcare, nutrition and psycho-social support at the center and had a long chat with Lalitha who filled us in on the situation in G.B. Road and some of the successes and challenges she faces running the children’s center. Her ambition and dreams for the children’s future made a huge impact on us all — she works tirelessly to make sure they get an education and an opportunity to forge a career and life far away from the red light area, and many of her children go on to become nurses, teachers, hotel employees and enter other professions.

Giving Vulnerable Children a Bright Future

After the squalor and desolation of life in G.B. Road, we all welcomed the chance to visit one of TARA’s incredible child protection programs, a small home for girls in South Delhi. Children are placed in their homes by the government’s Child Welfare Committees because of abuse, abandonment or other severe vulnerabilities. Being shown around the lovely home by the very confident 12 year old Noorjahan and chatting with TARA founder Pascal, we saw how the children benefit from being mainstreamed into some of Delhi’s top schools, speaking fluent English and most importantly feeling safe, happy and proud of their home. Pascal shared his plans to open an outreach program in a slum community as well as GoPhil’s support of this work, which aims to provide essential services to families, help keep them together and prevent more children from ending up in need of residential care (always a last resort for any child).

Tackling Child Marriage in Rajasthan

We then left Delhi and flew to stunning Udaipur, in Rajasthan, where we spent an unforgettable day with Usha, Yogesh and their team at Vikalp Sansthan. GoPhil has just completed a very successful pilot grant with Vikalp, a fantastic NGO fighting to promote gender equality and prevent child marriage in the state with one of the highest levels of child marriage. Almost 60% of women in Rajasthan were married before the legal age of 18. Our visit to a tribal village in Gogunda, just outside of Udaipur city, allowed us to witness first-hand the incredible role Vikalp’s team plays in motivating communities to educate their girls, keep them in school and delay their marriage. We had the opportunity to hear first-hand from the girls about the impact Vikalp’s ‘Sports for Empowerment’ program has had on their confidence and their lives, and we spoke to the local teachers about the increase in school attendance and fall in drop-out rates. Language proved no barrier as we all interacted freely with the children, parents, community leaders, teachers and Vikalp volunteers and staff – and it was one of those incredibly powerful days that reminded us that deep down we are not that different and all want the same things for our lives and our families.

Engaging Boys for Gender Equality

The next stop was in Pune, Maharashtra to visit GoPhil’s newest partner in India, Equal Community Foundation. After seeing so much amazing work with women and girls, it was refreshing to learn about ECF’s approach of engaging adolescent boys to promote gender equality in their families and communities. Following a discussion with the team, we walked into a slum where ECF has been running programs for several years and had the chance to meet the boys who have been attending the program as well as some of their parents and siblings. This is a slum where levels of violence are high and the rights of girls and women rarely respected. Being invited into a family home and hearing from a mother about the changes she’d seen in her son since he’d started attending ECF’s programs was very moving for the group. At a meeting with 15 boys, we enjoyed a wonderful discussion where it was evident that this program is certainly working. The boys were excited to share examples of how they were working to improve their community, including intervening in cases where girls and women were being harmed.

Fighting for the Rights of Girls and Women in Maharashtra

The final visit was to Kolhapur, south of Pune, where we met the incredibly inspirational Anuradha, who has been fighting tirelessly for the rights of women and children for many years. Given that her NGO AVANI/WCRC now runs so many different programs in the city and surrounding areas, we had a hectic but exciting couple of days trying to see as much as possible. We had a very moving visit to their women’s shelter, where we learned about their alliance with health and legal professionals to rescue women from the streets, many of whom have severe psychological problems. At their shelter, each woman makes a contribution, whether that be food shopping, sewing or chopping vegetables – a key step in helping them achieve self identity and dignity on their road to a healthier future. Another highlight was visiting the different components of Anuradha’s innovative new waste management program which helps to provide a safe and steady income to women who were formerly picking trash in the streets as well as improving the environment for the whole city.

Our Journey to India was an intensive eight days of action and certainly not for the faint of heart! This was the first time a GoPhil trip has visited six partner programs in India but the feedback from the travelers was wonderful. They all appreciated being able to see such a huge range of varied work and meet so many inspiring activists and community leaders.

For me, this was a truly unforgettable week. I felt very lucky to be able to share these experiences with a group of travelers who were so engaged and interested in everything we saw and I can’t wait to host another trip to India next Spring!

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