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

Second Chances: The Ritinjali Experience part 2

With the hot season still in full swing, after I finished much of the initial tasks that both Ritinjali and the Pallavanjali School had for me, I focused on the boys of the Second Chance School. Ritinjali’s Second Chance School focuses on the young people of Delhi who, due to familial expectations and urbanization, have fallen through the cracks of society.  The 36 boys currently residing in the Mahipalpur hostel are between 16 and 25 years old and range drastically in education level; from never getting the opportunity to attend school, to attending for a few years but having to drop out in order to work.  After spending just moments with the boys, their potential and desire to succeed becomes evident. Ritinjali strives to harness that positive energy and give these boys the tools for
success.  In the meantime, the boys provided me constant entertainment and source of incredible inspiration. I began a project to create a profile for each boy at the request of the new director who did not know all the boys and wanted background information on each of them.  Creating the profiles was simple, as I was really only seeking the basics, which proved to be good English and interviewing practice for them and good Hindi practice for me.  But usually it segued interestingly into a more complex story, a deeper conversation, a greater understanding of how the boys ended up here on the steps of second chances.  Getting to know the boys, hearing their stories, their challenges and their ultimate desires was eye opening, inspiring and often provided me with interesting insight     on an anthropological scope, as migration and cultural context proved to be apparent in many of the boys’ stories.


My favorite story

All of the boys are fantastic, hardworking and many of them have interesting stories and have already begun to attain success. But this one is my personal favorite.  Tsering Dukar is one of the 21 Tibetan boys residing at Ritinjali. The nature of the Tibetan boys in Ritinjali is a bit different, as Tibetans are dealing with the additional challenges of living in exile and being a refugee, which often leaves them without opportunities like education and employment. Dukar’s struggles began long before that. He was born in Tibet, and at the age of 7 was sent to a monastery to become a monk. But being a monk in a Tibetan monastery in Tibet is nearly impossible in the true and traditional sense. With Chinese occupation, monasteries in Tibet are forced to abide by the state sanctioned Chinese Buddhism and are punished for practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Dukar was unable to worship His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, and in fact any one found possessing a photo of His Holiness or worshipping him secretly, would be seized and then inexplicably disappear.  After years of frustration and hiding his devotion for His Holiness, Dukar left the monastery, his family and his homeland. At seventeen years old, he walked for over three weeks to Nepal where he lived for a couple years, but with both Nepalis and Tibetans alike struggling for employment and livelihood, Dukar found no work so he moved onwards to India. Due to political status, lack of educational opportunity, racial prejudice and communication issues, many Tibetans struggle to find success in India, and countries all over the world. Dukar is a prime example of that. Lack of education and job experience held him back from employment, but on a more basic level he also spoke neither English nor Hindi comfortably. Today, five years after he left his home, he is living at Ritinjali’s Second Chance School and truly getting a second chance for success. He is enrolled in a job ready academic program, getting up to speed on the education he missed out on, and now has an internship, which is helping to fulfill his dream of becoming a (49)

The first day I met Dukar, he sat smiling at me but was unable to talk to me, besides stating that he came from Tibet. After five short weeks of working with Dukar, this hardworking young man is now able to carry a conversation. Dukar is one young man who truly inspired me during my time at Ritinjali, as he worked hard every day and never let his struggles defeat him.


For my final weekend in New Delhi, a Painting Carnival was planned at the Second Chance School. The new director of Ritinjali wanted fresh paint to cover the old and tattered walls. We coordinated with volunteers to arrive with liters of paint, prepared to volunteer alongside us and the boys to paint all of the twelve rooms in the four story building.  Two very hot and sweaty days later, all the rooms were fresh with a new coat of paint and all they boys and volunteers celebrated with a big dinner.






The director of Ritinjali and I after a long day of painting

The Second Chance boys, who by the end really became more like my brothers, reminded me everyday to stay positive, work hard and most importantly enjoy the life we live. The inspiration they imparted will stay with me forever and I only hope I inspired them even just a fraction of the amount they inspired me.



My farewell from Mahipalpur

Welcome! An Introduction to our Fellows

Welcome to the Brandeis-India Initiative blog! This is a space for news items from the Brandeis-India Initiative, as well as updates from our India Fellows during their time abroad. (More info available about the fellows program under the menu pages.)

At the moment, four Brandeis students are in India. Here’s a little introduction:

  • Hannah Diamond ’14 is participating in the Delhi-based SIT program that studies the relationship between human rights and health in a field-study context. She plans to spend her independent study period in India advocating for the rights of the elderly population, working with HelpAge India.
  • Jeremy Goodman ’14 is also in the SIT program in Delhi, studying the relationship between human rights and health. He is especially interested in Indian health policy, ramifications and existing disparities.
  • Ellie Kaufman ’14 is studying with the IES semester abroad in Delhi and also plans to volunteer or intern with an NGO in Delhi.
  • Marlee Rosenthal ’14 is participating in the The Alliance for Global Education’s program “Contemporary India: Development, Environment, and Public Health.” Her internship will either be 1) BSSK – working with childcare and foster children exploring attachment patterns, nutrition, and medical care or 2) Ether Yoga – evaluating the effectiveness of yoga on chronic diseases.

You should be seeing some updates from them soon! We’ll also be migrating some older blog posts from the Global Brandies 2.0 blog where previous fellows had shared updates. In the meantime, find some here: