Breaking the Boundaries of Women’s Oppression in Rural West Bengal – By Sydney Skov

Recently I traveled to a community just outside of Kolkata, to an area called South 24 Parganas, to meet a woman who is promoting women’s rights from the grassroots. After driving through the lush greenery of palms and cultivated fields, a welcome change from the bustle and concrete of Kolkata, I was warmly greeted by a woman named Runu. She led me into a compound of several small buildings with a central courtyard criss-crossed by colorful laundry lines that was home to her and her extended family. I set up a camera and we began an interview that would shed light on the realities faced by women in West Bengal.

The area of South 24 Parganas is well known for being a source of trafficked children, especially young girls. The realities of growing up a girl in a rural environment in West Bengal are still bleak; many girls have no access to education or if they do, they are not allowed to attend because of prevailing beliefs that girls are an unworthy investment (destined to work in the home and be married off to live in someone else’s family) or they are forced to drop out due to social pressures, household responsibilities, or the myriad pressures of poverty. Families living in poverty can be persuaded to sell their children wittingly to a brothel or can be easily tricked by a trafficker, told that their child will be given a productive job in the city. Instead she is sent to sell sex. Girls who remain with their families in rural areas grow up with little exposure to various ways of life and believe that marrying young and working in the home is the only option for their lives. They grow up in an environment in which community members listen to a scene of domestic violence playing out in a neighbor’s house for entertainment.

Runu is an inspirational woman. Not only has she taken charge of and transformed her own life but she is leading community initiatives to help other women in the surrounding communities do the same. Years ago, she was involved in an abusive and violent relationship with the father of her son and was struggling to find a way out to protect herself and her child.

If a woman, alone, approaches a police station in South 24 Parganas and reports that she has been beaten, abused, or raped, she will be sent away. Completely ignored. Enter Jeevika, an organization promoting women’s rights and access to education and legal recourse across communities in South 24 Parganas. Jeevika is a collaborating parter of Kolkata Sanved, the NGO implementing culturally sensitive Dance Movement Therapy sessions for the psychosocial rehabilitation of survivors of trafficking and violence with which I am currently working. Runu came to Jeevika and found a way to file the appropriate legal documents with the support of Jeevika and the community. Now an independent and well established community action group called Alordisha supports women who are in violent or abusive relationships. Runu is now a leading member of Alordisha. Jeevika also conducts rights and gender workshops which offer knowledge of and exposure to other avenues and livelihood options for girls and women.

The video that Runu and I created together about her transformation and her inspiring work with Alordisha and Jeevika will be shown in two weeks time during the NGO CSW Forum. Her voice will be heard alongside those of Jeevika Executive Director, Dolon Ganguly and Kolkata Sanved Founder Director, Sohini Chakraborty during a parallel event titled, Breaking Boundaries, Building Lives to be held on March 17th. The parallel event is part of this year’s Committee on the Status of Women, Beijing 20+ at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. From South 24 Parganas to New York City, we must remember that the fight for women’s equality is far from over. However, I find hope in the stories of powerful and inspiring women like Runu who are shaking the ground beneath our feet.

Saving Lives Through Dance – By Sydney Skov

Nayani and I were wandering the streets of Kolkata, strolling languidly in the heat and chatting in a mix of Bengali, English and emphatic gesticulation. We stopped to purchase vegetable fritters popping in oil and Nayani asked me with an ironic smile what I wanted to be when I grew up. I grimaced self consciously; at 24 I was sure of my seemingly disparate passions for dance and global human rights but was unsure of my path. Without answering, I asked her what she wanted to be. “I wanted to be a dancer and I became one,” she said with a flippant shrug.

This friend of mine lives in a Muslim slum area deep within the crowded streets of Kolkata and was raised knowing that she would not gain an education like her brother and that, as a girl, she could not pursue her dreams. Despite the obstacles, she did it anyway, becoming a professional dancer and skilled dance movement therapist. At 27, I know undeniably what I want to do and what I want to become; Nayani ’s unapologetic confidence pushed me to believe in my passion to move against human trafficking and gender-based violence through dance despite the fear that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. She remains a guiding force to this day. I have returned to Kolkata to work for a second time with Kolkata Sanved, a non-profit organization which uses dance and Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) as rehabilitation for survivors of human trafficking and violence.

Kolkata Sanved’s main program, Saving Lives through Dance, is based on the belief that all individuals should live lives of dignity and respect and that this sense of empowerment can be accomplished through DMT. In 2011 When I first visited a shelter home with dance therapy practitioners from Kolkata Sanved to watch a DMT session, I couldn’t help but be skeptical. I am a dancer trained in the Western cannon; I grew up doing tap, jazz, and ballet with every intention of becoming a professional. Despite my own love of dance, I couldn’t banish the thought that these children would think dance was a waste of time. The DMT practitioners working at Kolkata Sanved are themselves survivors of trafficking and violence and have undergone the organization’s healing and recovery program and engaged in a two year training program to become skilled dance movement therapists, earning livelihoods as facilitators, artists, and activists. They were completely confident walking into the empty, cement-floored room that would be our dance space. As they began to dance, with 40 children copying every movement, my skepticism fell away and I saw that dance was not frivolous. On the contrary, dance was everything.

The organization’s founder, who has worked with survivors for two decades, has a deep understanding of what regional rehabilitation programs for trafficking survivors are lacking: trained counselors and a focus on mental and emotional health. Many programs offer tangible assistance such as food, clothing, shelter, and sometimes education and skills training. What is forgotten is the immense physical and emotional trauma experienced by many of these youth that is locked within their bodies. Especially in cases of sexual exploitation, the body becomes a source of shame; disassociation occurs between mind and body. The power of Dance Movement Therapy stems from the fact that the body is the tool for transformation, helping individuals reclaim their own bodies, build self confidence, and mend the mind and body connection. Through physical, cognitive, and emotional skill building and expression, DMT provides a non-judgmental and non-threatening environment in which youth living in shelter homes can heal and feel free. The use of DMT in group settings and for the express purpose of trauma release and healing is unique in India as well as across the world. Expressive arts therapies are utilized globally and more attention is being paid to their effectiveness as part of holistic healing programs. However, dance and Dance Movement Therapy are rarely mentioned.

Kolkata Sanved’s work is groundbreaking in the fields of rehabilitation, reintegration, social development, and international development at large. As the organization grows, their ability to make a global impact increases.

I don’t see dance only as an art form or as a tool for rehabilitation, I see it as an untapped force connecting humans across the globe that could change the way individuals and development practitioners alike approach empowerment, child protection, and peace building. It is not the academic jargon, horrifying statistics, or nightmare inducing stories of exploitation I hear daily that propel me to work for justice, women’s rights, and social change. It is the happiness, hope, and unadulterated power that dance and creative expression evoke in once victimized survivors of trafficking and violence that show the power of this work to change lives and that this is the work I must do.

Learn more about Kolkata Sanved at and my own project based on their work at

Kolkata Sanved

Thoughts from Pune: Part 2 – By Katherine Zheng

Hi again,

Previously, I mentioned that I researched tourism in Pune. More specifically, I was assigned to work with the local and only bus tour company, the Pune Darshan Bus Tour, with the help of the development NGO, Janwani. The goal was to determine how the decisions of actors involved in the tour (the public relations officer of the bus company (PRO), tour guides, bus drivers, tourists, and site owners) shaped local history as a tourist commodity, and specifically financial motives such as profit and budget takes priority over cultural heritage and local history. The results were as follows:

For site owners, I got to interview the director of the Kelkar Museum (a museum devoted to the display of Indian artifacts of everyday life, from combs to musical instruments to toys and so forth) and the director of the Ambedkar museum (a museum devoted to the life of Dr. BR Ambedkar, who wrote the Indian constitution).   The museum director was very keen to tell me the operations of his museum and his future plans. He repeatedly emphasized the need for funding from the local government and associated NGOs to update facilites and expand the museum so it could house the entire Kelkar collection of artifacts, most of which are in storage at the moment. Something that stuck out to me was that he specifically mentioned the maintenance of his toilets, that he always makes sure the washrooms are kept clean so that if the “Prime Minister” of the United States were to visit tomorrow and use the washroom, he would notice how clean it is. Curiously, he said that most visitors are from outside Pune, and that few actual people from Pune visit the museum. I asked him if he had a theory as to why and he said that most people aren’t aware of it because it lacks presence as a space. Also he doesn’t know completely why either, and would like to find out. Also, at the end of the interview, he extended an invitation to me as a member of the family of the Kelkar museum and asked if I had had any means of contributing to the museum from the US, I should do so. I don’t know if it is within my power, but it was rather nice of him and I also wonder if he does this to all the foreigners he works with.

For the director of the Ambedkar museum, it turns out that as it is owned by the local college, the Symbiosis society, upon which it is heavily dependent for funds. As the museum is a non-profit institution, they haven’t changed the arrangement of displays and objects since its founding in the 70s.

As with the PRO, it was a shorter interview as he was busy and people constantly came in to have him sign documents and he answered phone calls throughout. Also, a man walked in and talked to him for 15 minutes about salary matters. In asking him about the operations of the bus tour, he disproved my assumptions about the tour being a for-profit business, but rather it receives funding from the government for their services. The inadequacies on the tour wasn’t because they didn’t plan on adding A/C buses or updating the company website for public access information, it’s because there is no funding to do so.

For tour guides and drivers, their main concerns about the tour was the operations itself: sometimes the bus had to be driven without proper maintenance, due to lack of funding, putting stress on their jobs. Also, they cared a lot about local history, citing that that was the reason why they applied to work on the tour, and in addition, the PRO said it was a requirement in hiring. They all said if they were to make any changes to the job, it would be to have better buses with A/C and maintenance, a tv set, and complimentary snacks for tourists.

As for the tourists, they all held middle-class occupations such as teacher or engineer, and interestingly, came from outside Maharastra. The ones I interviewed had a mild interest in Pune, in that they don’t know too much about the city and were “passing through”.

From this, the largest lesson and conclusion I came to draw and learn was that in some ways critical thinking is a first world privilege, or at least it comes easier to those who can afford to have free time and energy to themselves to ponder: the women in Velhe were not taught philosophy, sociology, or literature as we would in our education, and according to my classmates who intern in Pune private schools, the children who attend these institutions are either in the middle to upper class of society or their families are poor and put all that they have so that their son or daughter will have a better life at their expense. Similarly, museums and tourism as institutions can only come about once there is enough money to support it: the Kelkar museum director and the PRO were quite keen on expanding their respective businesses, but cited that funding was the biggest problem. Particularly, the Kelkar museum director said that museums are “not in the blood of Indians” because most Indians just live day-to-day and don’t really think about cultural preservation or history. Ultimately, this serves as a testament to how post-industrial of an institution the museum is.

I suppose if I had more time, or if I could go back again, the scope of this study would include far more representatives of each cohort I interviewed to provide more of a representative picture of tourism in Pune, which I guess I’ll keep in mind for the future. But it’s been interesting.

Cheers again,

Kat Zheng

Thoughts from Pune – By Katherine Zheng

Greetings all,

Over this summer, I had the chance to go Pune, Maharastra to research tourism in the developing world, using Pune as an example. It wasn’t exactly easy, but in all my studies and adventures, I bring the following notable observations and lessons: Billboards and advertisements promising shiny new lives stand next to piles of trash and improvised housing; the Gokhale Institute for Politics and Economics, which is where we studied, there have been power outages despite it being rather clean; there have been minimal restorations to colonial residences and everything is a bit dingy. It’s hard to tell if a structure or building is decaying or being developed sometimes, making an interesting juxtaposition. Most notably, on a visit to the Pune Okayama Friendship Garden, a public park with manicured lawns complete with a lake and a pavilion, there was a slum neighborhood in clear view in the distance overlooking the garden. The slum itself is called Parvati, and consists of bright pastel­painted buildings about the size of Tokyo low­rise apartments (although in Tokyo they would cost vastly more). If you had to have a picture about the aesthetics of development, this would be it. There is poverty, but people still manage to live and thrive despite it, and with support. We went to a village two hours away from Pune, called Velhe. The purpose of this two­day excursion was to give us a look into how “real Indians” lived. The first day, this involved meeting with the local microfinance NGO and a visit to someone’s house in the village. The NGO worked with the local women, loaning them money to start new businesses, or teaching them new skills such as sewing or drawing mehendi so that they could leave the village to start a life in the city if they so wished. Their work in gender empowerment was not without challenges; one of the women had hitmen sent after her by some of the men in the village, and even the head of the NGO had men try to drive her out with machetes. Some of the women, although they received education from the NGO, still had to stay on the farm to work because familial obligations were too strong to pull away from. However, their successes seemed to outweigh all the conflicts, as the organization has held its foothold since its establishment in 2006, and classes have around a 70% graduation rate. Furthermore, as India is largely an agrarian society, most places have access to fresh produce. Some farms don’t use pesticides because it’s expensive. Our idea of the farmer’s market is just regular markets in Pune, which greatly outnumber supermarkets in the city. My host mother would walk to one five minutes down the road daily to buy vegetables. I asked the lecturer for our Contemporary India course, why are there no lawnmowers in India, in reference to the fact that the grass on campus was cut by workers using sickles and no power tools. He replied that it’s because labor is cheap enough in India so that employers can hire a large human staff, and automated devices are expensive by comparison. Maybe that’s partly why familial and communal relations are so strong there, because a lot more people are involved in a workplace? Anyways, the lack of automation was prevalent throughout the trip: back at Velhe, we also visited a carpenter who made tabla drums, almost completely by hand (he had a gas­powered lathe), and our host mother took us to see a glass artist, who shapes small glass sculptures by holding two glass rods over an acetylene flame wearing only sunglasses for protection.

There are street dogs everywhere! More so than street cats. Apparently, they’re protected by Indian law and it is illegal to poison or cause physical harm in any way to them. Also they’re a species of scavenger dogs that have been around for centuries. Not that they seem to live easy lives, though: many have missing limbs or ears, patchy fur, look infected generally emaciated. There was one who slept at the front of our house everyday, that we named Sam. The thing is though, there are owners of actual pet dogs, but the only way you can tell they were pets was that they had a collar and leash. Also, it seemed kind of amazing the way the dogs could just fall asleep serenely on a busy sidewalk, with light­speed traffic whizzing just mere inches from them.

Overall, I would say these observations feed into the larger lesson about travel in the developing world: it’s not so much that things are better or worse than things back home in the States, it’s just that they are different. For India, or at least Pune, I would say that although some infrastructure is missing, life is just simpler.

Happy Independence Day – By Teleah Slater

August 15th, 2014

Happy Independence Day! Today was the day that India finally broke free from Great Brittan back in 1947. It is so interesting seeing how much Independence Day means to the people here. There is so much more patriotic spirit here in comparison to the US. There are flags everywhere and buttons with India’s colors and everyone is dressed up, even the shopkeepers near my house. One of the older girls at the school even helped me put on my sari, which was surprisingly comfortable. I suppose that because India got its independence relatively recently, I mean there are still people alive that remember what it was like when the country was still under British occupation. I tried explaining what the fourth of July was like for us here to the kids at the school, but all I could really think about was barbeque and fireworks.

Even though it was a holiday, students still came to the school I work in but there were no classes. Instead there was an assembly, and the different classes all put on cute performances. There were some songs, some dances, and even some speeches in English! The girls from the hostel, who live at the school, all sang the song they had been practicing for the past two weeks, and everyone loved it! I was so proud of them! It was so nice seeing the joy on their faces! This was definitely my favorite day here.Slater Post 1 Slater Post 2 Slater Post3 Slater Post 4

Starting at the Grassroots Level – By Teleah Slater

June 28th, 2014

After being in India for about two weeks, today I finally started doing the grassroots community work I came here to do. I attended HIV workshop with the rickshaws with my supervisor, Abhinav and the foundation’s event coordinator, Bharat and it was an incredible experience. We traveled to the residential slums of Varanasi early in the morning before most of the men had to leave into the busier part of the city for work. I was informed that the brick and concrete structure I arrived to was very recently built, and up until six months ago the inhabitants of it had been living in essentially an empty lot, camped out there while they were in the city for work. Upwards of fifty people lived in this comparatively small space, with some individual rooms on the ground floor that seemed to be reserved for the oldest among them or those with families, but most of the men lived together in an open space on the second floor that seemed unfinished, as it only had three walls.

Abhinav and Bharat brought T-shirts for the men, which we handed out to the audience of over forty rickshaws. They featured facts about HIV/AIDs and HIV prevention in Hindi and began teaching about HIV by using the information on the shirts given out. The rickshaws reacted very well to this, as the meeting leaders engaged them by having all in attendance wear the shirt and called several up to the front to show what they were saying corresponded with their T-shirts. Even though I couldn’t really understand the workshop or really talk to any of the rickshaws, I was so excited to be there because I actually got to meet the people the foundation serves and witnessed their work while learning about an unique educational technique that I had never seen before. This has been the most satisfying thing that I have done since I got here and I really hope to do more work with it in the future.

Little Things in a Big Place – By Jake Cohen

Often when people go to a new place they first observe how different it is from their home. That was certainly the effect that going to India had on me. But because India is such a different place from anywhere I had been before, I focused on all of the major differences: the big things that immediately stood out and made me realize I was not in Kansas anymore (I mean Boston). I think this was understandable. After all, watching monkeys climb on buildings while cars whiz by on the left side of the road and a delicious curry sits not so comfortably in your belly it is hard to look past the obvious.

But now that my program has come to a close and the whirlwind of adventure has slowed down enough for me to have a chance to stop, breathe and think about what I have experienced, I realize that what really made India… India, was not the big differences. What really defined each day were the little things, the small differences that make daily life in India feel different from the U.S. When I was busy taking in the big things like the elephants and the temples and the food, it was the little things underlying those experiences that really defined my India experience, even if I did not realize it until my time was over. So in no particular order, here is a brief list of some of the little things in a big place:

1) Things happen when they happen: it’s hard to call this a little thing because it was very apparent in certain situations. Setting up for my program took weeks once I got to India because of all the paperwork and bureaucracy and traveling between cities in India takes an extremely long time because it is such a big country. What I didn’t really notice however was that “Things happen when they happen” did not only apply to those particular instances. It is truly a state of mind that seems to apply to everything and everyone. In the U.S. we cannot get places fast enough, cannot get things done quickly enough. The best example I have is that in America if a web page does not load on my computer in one second then I am furious but in India it took me thirty minutes to turn on a computer, plug in my USB, and print a document off it and I can honestly say I did not get frustrated once. When you live in India you start to realize that waiting for a rickshaw, or waiting for food, or just waiting to cross the street because traffic is always insane just isn’t that big of a deal because at the end of the day you will get that rickshaw and that food and get across the street… and if you don’t then you just try again tomorrow.

2) You gotta do what you gotta do: This may seem to contradict the previous little thing, but when something does need to be done, you just have to do it. The best way to illustrate this is that one time I was biking to the post office and I needed to cross a busy road. As I mentioned before however, traffic is very intense in India and there was no opening. Finally someone came up to me and asked why I wasn’t crossing. I pointed out that I was afraid of the traffic and he said, and this still sticks with me to this day, “You will never get across the street if you wait for the flow to change.” So I sucked up my worries and lo and behold I was able to move across the road by going with the traffic. In the U.S. people are always trying to build a better mousetrap, trying to find solutions to problems that keep people from having to really do anything, and that just isn’t the way life is in India. There aren’t any washing machines so clothes are done by hand; if you stay at a hotel and you ask for an extra key card they just tell you to come downstairs if you get locked out; if your commute to work is too far to walk but too close to rickshaw then you just have to bike there. All of these seem like really small things but you gotta do them because India is not really about “waiting for the flow to change” as much as just diving into it.

3) Life in India is all about extremes: It should seem strange that the other two little things contradict each other. On the one hand you have to be patient, on the other hand you can’t just wait for a simple solution to reveal itself. People talk a lot about India being a land of extremes where a wealthy international mall can be literally across the street from a neighborhood made out of cardboard; food is either so spicy it destroys your mouth or so sweet it may as well be straight sugar; and on and on it goes. But what I think I showed above is that in a less obvious way day-to-day life itself is all about extremes. Every day in India feels like an adventure in a way that living in the U.S. just doesn’t. Whether it is going to work, getting lunch, walking through the park, or even just sitting in your room there is always this feeling of knowing that at some point something different will happen that will make the day unique because there is simply no middle ground in India. This is not always a good thing and it is certainly not always a bad thing. It is just… India.

Tips for Students Interesting in Working in India – From Farhat

Professionals working internationally often have a country or regional expertise. Employers seek this knowledge and experience for a variety of reasons, including cultural fluency, language skills and networks that make working faster and effective. For young professionals, this is often a double-edged sword because employers want that experience before they hire you and you need experience to get hired.

For those interested in working (or developing an expertise) in India, I offer my humble advice on landing an internship (often the first step) and making the most of it compiled from personal experience, interviews with Brandeis alumni and professionals in the field, and some research.

  1. Know what you want – I know this can seem daunting.  However, being clear about your professional goals (even if they will change) helps define the skills you are seeking to obtain in an internship and lends itself to articulating those goals to those to your network. It also gives you (and your employer) clarity as to what you are working towards – as opposed to doing busy work. Alumni cite this as being important to making the most of any internship opportunity.
  2. Network – For me, networking is more than finding connections for a job.  That is one part – but there is a whole other world of things to network for like learning about the culture, meeting up with locals, making friends when you get there, etc. Don’t be bashful. Let friends, family and former co-workers know where you are going and ask them to introduce you to people.
  3. Letters of interest – Send an introductory e-mail to those you would like to work for stating your professional goals, timeframe in India and be specific about why you are reaching out to them/their organization. Don’t hesitate to follow-up with a phone call or a second e-mail (in this case, send a new e-mail that does not mention they did not get back to you – they might have been busy and this helps them save face).
  4. Integrate – India is a cultural experience. The food, the people, the colors, clothes, movies (yes, Bollywood!), history – you name it – are extraordinary. When staying there make a concerted effort to meet with locals, stay with a host family, wear local clothes and go to offbeat places. Or take a dance class – this was one my most memorable experiences! These experiences will undoubtedly be enriching to you. And it will not go unrecognized by your colleagues and will likely be something you can bond over.
  5. Language – India is filled with over 200 languages. So keep in mind that this can limit some interactions on the ground. Learn a few phrases or take language classes.

These tips are only the tip of the iceberg, so here are a few websites that can also help you get ready (admittedly some are more off the cuff then others):

  • 30 things every American should know before moving to India:

  • For funding your internship in India, google “Fellowships in India” and you will come up with a myriad of opportunities. Also, some internships will provide a stipend and/or housing (just ask!).

Farhat Jilalbhoy Sends Highlights From the Field!

A full moon illuminated the Ganges River as I rolled up my pants, held my bag over my head and waded into the water to get onto the rickety wooden boat. As I crossed the river, I reflected on the day’s events. While trying to make the last boat to the remote rural island, we were forced to abandon our cars (and drivers) stuck in a 3 hour traffic jam for a tiny rickshaw that held our group of nine. Upon reaching the island, we walked in the darkness on the sandy shore, making our way through a stream’s broken bamboo bridge and finally reached the village. While on the island I only saw what was immediately in front of me, dimly lit by the small flashlight I had thrown into my suitcase as a last minute thought. I barely missed walking into a cow – and if a snake or person were nearby I would never have known. Life without electricity and the dangers, especially for women, is a reality for the residents both on the island and in 400 million households throughout India.

Sitting on the boat, I reflected on how the research and planning from headquarters was coming alive for me. I am currently working with the Rockefeller Foundation on a rural electrification and economic development project that is implemented through a number of Indian organizations. While I am not new to field work, it is always a humbling experience. It continuously teaches me to check my assumptions and reminds me that the devil is in the details (e.g. did I factor in that it takes field staff 2 hours each way to reach the island?). Moreover, it reminds me to be patient. Patient for the reports, patient for progress and patient with the process of getting things done. In fact, I was told by the CEO of TARA (a prominent Indian NGO) that patience is a top skill needed by development professionals and is quickly taught by working in India.

Here are some other things working in the field (re) taught me:

  • Field staff and beneficiaries hold a great amount of knowledge.
  • Eat all the food and drink the chai provided.
  • Take my time and open my eyes. A lot of things observed make sense later.
  • Learn (at least) a few phrases in the native language.
  • Dress appropriately or conservatively. For the ladies that means salwar khameez.
  • Most of all be flexible, be patient and be humble.