At the Innovation and Knowledge (INK) Conference, 2013, at Kochi, activist Robin Chaurasiya asks a series of questions. “What if you grew up with a mother who was busy battling schizophrenia? What if you are a victim of childhood incest? What if your father left behind a legacy of domestic violence? What if after surviving all this abuse and violence, you left your home at the age of 16, joined the US Air Force, which kicked you out the day they learnt you were a lesbian? What would you do in these situations?”
Robin took these circumstances as an opportunity to fight back. For one year, she campaigned to end the policy of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’, which prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US military. Along with dozens of activists she handcuffed herself to the White House fence. “We stopped highway traffic in Las Vegas and staged demonstrations in New York ,” says Robin. The policy was finally changed by President Barack Obama on September 20, 2011, several months after Robin was kicked out.
Robin had no misgivings about being sacked. “I travelled all over the world — East Africa, Central and Latin America, the Middle East and India,” she says. “The more I travelled, the more I realised that I cannot bomb people. In the Air Force they brainwash you — ‘Oh there are terrorists everywhere, and we must kill them all’. Everybody was so excited about killing people. The aim was to destroy our enemies because America is so superior and perfect. Unfortunately, that is not true at all. It was a lonely time for me in the Air Force. As a lesbian too, I felt that I did not belong.”
However, Robin experienced a sense of alienation from the time she was a child. One summer, when she was three years old, she had come, from Seattle, USA, with her mother and father, an engineer with the Boeing Company to spend time with their extended family in a town called Sihora in Madhya Pradesh. While there, she was sexually abused by her uncle. “It changed everything,” she says. “You find it difficult to trust people. I did not tell this to anybody for years.”
Interestingly, 80 per cent of the abuse that Indian children suffer takes place within the family. “I hate large Indian families and what they do to the lives of children,” says Robin.
Meanwhile, when Robin was 12, she realised she liked girls more than boys. “I always felt that there was something different about me,” she says. “And that has been the case with all those who belong to the gay or transgender community. One day, I heard the word, ‘homosexual’. I looked it up in the dictionary and realised that it defined me correctly.” The years went by. Robin did her master’s in gender studies from the Central European University in Budapest. Then, in 2010, when her mother relocated to India, following the death of her father, Robin came to Mumbai and began working for a NGO, ‘Rescue Foundation.
“They take girls out of brothels, keep them for six months, and did not provide any opportunity to attend school or undergo training, except maybe to do a course in papad-making, and then they were sent home,” says Robin. “It was a house of wasted potential. I felt that even if the girls were far behind in school, they could always play catch-up. I also knew that these girls were desperate to improve their lives.” So, in November, 2010, Robin started a NGO of her own called Kranti. “There are 10 girls, three staff members, three cats, and three turtles, all living in a small flat,” says Robin. The girls, aged from 12 to 19, are the children of sex workers, and grew up in red-light areas.
Naturally, all of them felt a shame about that. “Indian society is cruel,” says Robin. “They would be abused on the streets and called the ‘children of whores’.”
Many girls suffered from psychological problems because they had been raped many times by their own fathers, family members or their mother’s customers. “We have a psychologist who does therapy with them,” says Robin.
In order to speed up the healing process, the inmates do dance and art therapy, karate, kung-fu and singing. “We teach them to be proud of their moms, because they have made the ultimate sacrifice of being sex workers,” says Robin. After six months, the girls feel comfortable enough to talk about their origins. “But they do it only in safe spaces, like at our NGO, or in the homes of friends,” says Robin.
The girls are also encouraged to go to school. And the results have been exciting. Shwetha Katti became the first girl from a red-light district in India to secure a full scholarship to study at the prestigious Bard College in New York. Pinky went to St.Paul’s University at Minnesota to do a six-month programme on dance. Sheetal is now a motivational speaker who travels all over India and trains NGO leaders.
And Robin is happy that she is making a difference to lives that have been blighted by pain and suffering. Just like her own.