Friday, 25 November 2011

Mami, hold my hand.

So here's the part where I tell you why I moved to Mumbai an entire month before my semester is over. I'm not sure if I told you much about the SIT program I'm enrolled in this semester but maybe I should start by telling you that SIT has a very hands-on, experience-based approach to learning. Hence the excursions, the one week workshop in Varanasi and hence my independent study project. For their ISP everyone has one month to research a topic of their choice in a location of their choice and write a 30 page research paper about it. A topic related to health and human rights, of course. Fun, no? Well, despite having to write a 30 page paper it's really pretty easy to spend a lot of time on your project if you have a topic that truly interests you. Something that you're truly invested in.

My topic: the female "rehabilitation" centers of Mumbai, Maharashtra. For those of you who don't know what a female rehabilitation center is (I hadn't heard of one of these before coming to India either), a female rehabilitation center in India is a shelter home where girls are taken after they have been rescued from domestic violence, sex trafficking and rape among other cases. Once at these homes, the girls are supposed to be provided with (if funding allows, which it usually doesn't) shelter, medical care, education, life skills and vocational training, and counseling services. Some of the girls learn how to make jewelry or different pieces of art so they can sell it in the market, while others are trained to work for different companies.

Over the past few weeks I have been spending some time in some of these homes in Mumbai, some have been run by NGOs and a few others have been run by the Maharashtra state government. It only takes a bus, two trains and an auto rickshaw ride to get over to them from where I'm living here in Mumbai. And yes, that's only a bus, two trains and an auto rickshaw there AND back. But don't mind my sarcasm, my 2 hour commutes every morning and afternoon are worth the hassle. Throughout my time in Mumbai I have had the opportunity to interview social workers, counselors, NGO staff and directors, a government home superintendent, staff members of the International Justice Mission, members of the Child Welfare Committee and even girls who have lived in the homes for a few years. I can only interview the girls who have turned 18 according to the International Review Board's rules but I have had the opportunity to also chat with some of the underage girls who live in these shelter homes.

Talking to these girls is a tricky thing. They love me instantly because I am a foreigner and want to talk to me and know all about who I am and what I'm doing there but I have to be very careful about what I say to them because their story is the last thing they want to talk about - it's too painful. But I spend a lot of time looking at their files, building case studies for my paper, learning about every painful, traumatic part of their life and their stories. Then I have to turn around and look at them, talk to them, and be a bubbly person that will hopefully cheer them up and make their day a little better. I talk to them about the latest Bollywood film and how cute that new actor is, nail polish and whatnot but I all I want is to be able to undo what has happened to them. But I know I can't and it's hard. It's really, really hard.

I'm sorry to say that there's no uplifting, happy conclusion for now. All I can say is that this has been my life for the past couple of weeks. But that doesn't really matter because this has been their life forever and will be their life after I leave Mumbai in a week.


P.S. For obvious reasons I'm not allowed to take pictures inside these homes but you can take a look at the few that I've taken on my morning commute just below. And if you're feeling a little blue after this post, just take a listen to "Momma Hold My Hand" and "Green Lights" by Aloe Blacc. As some of you may know, I'm quite obsessed with Mr. Blacc. While the second song lightens the mood more than the first this post brought both of them to mind.