A boat school in India: Teaching children threatened by human trafficking
Written by Mandira Banerjee
Talia Rothman dodged motorcycles, cars, buses and cows as she rode her bike in scorching heat to her first day of work in India.
She was volunteering for six weeks at a non-government organization called Guria that works with children of sex workers in the heart of the red light area in Varanasi, an ancient city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which shares a border with Nepal.
Once Rothman reached her new workplace last summer, she felt overwhelmed by the energy of the place and the joy of the kids. She felt connected, even though she didn’t speak Hindi.
“For the next two hours, we played. We played games that the seven French interns, who were there before me, had taught them,” Rothman said. “Games that the kids had made up, and even games that I began teaching them.”
It was a typical day at Guria, where a group of kids arrive everyday. Most come to school on their own accord, so the same kids do not show up each day.
Guria, which means “doll” in Hindi, was started in 1991 when founders Ajit and Manju Singh adopted three girls whose birth mothers were prostitutes. Housed in a former brothel, the center has now grown to a place that supports more than 300 children ranging from ages 3 to 17.
Rothman describes the place as one big family. The kids fight and scream at each other, but they also laugh, paint, dance, sing and meditate together as well. But the other harsh reality of their lives is never far away.
Once, Rothman and two other interns worked together to put up a dance performance for the children. The children decided to do a miming act about sex trafficking.
“It was so real, partly because it is part of their daily lives,” said the University of Michigan sophomore majoring in women’s studies and history.
Along with the Guria center, Rothman also volunteered at a school on a boat on the Ganges River, which flows through the heart of the city. The school, also run by Guria, was started to engage the child laborers who work in the tourism industry. She often spent her evenings teaching the kids English and watching Ganga arti, a Hindu ritual that involves worshipping the river and then floating lamps out on the water.
“Working at Guria, I was exposed to people who risk their lives every day to save the lives of the most vulnerable, exploited members of society,” Rothman said. “I saw how that kind of passion could be your whole life.”
Rothman discovered Guria when she was researching internships for a U-M Center for South Asian Studies Summer in Asia Fellowship, which provided funding for the learning experience. While she had an interest in human rights, her passion for traveling to India deepened when she took a women’s studies class taught by Leela Fernandes, professor of women’s studies and political science.
Rothman said spending time at Guria put her in the center of the fight against sex trafficking. The numbers are staggering. A UN report says that more than 20 million women and children are trafficked around the world. In India alone, there are about 3 million women sex workers and 40 percent of them are children.
Guria works to rescue women and children from human trafficking. It provides legal support and a witness protection program in a place where police often ignore such complaints. The group also provides new ways to make a living. In the short time Rothman spent at Guria, she saw about 40 sex and forced-labor workers rescued from the nearby Indo-Nepal border.
But she spent most of her time with the kids. She really bonded with one, whose name was Muskan, which means “smile” in Hindi. She was “wise beyond her years,” Rothman said.
“Even though I saw her wearing the same set of clothes for an entire week, it never bothered her,” she said.
Rothman added that Muskan was always happy and let things roll off her back without getting into fights or arguments with other kids.
Once it started to rain in a middle of an oppressive hot day. Muskaan and other children ran outside and started to jump for joy as the raindrops soaked them.
It is these bonds that had an impact on Rothman, who hopes to go back to Guria one day.
After her internship, Rothman travelled around India for another couple of weeks, taking in the country that had such an impact on her.
Initially worried about traveling alone, she said, “I was wrong. People welcomed me with open arms and watched out for me, making sure I was safe.”
Her experience during the summer internship has helped the junior take the next step – a semester abroad. Rothman is spending the winter semester in Tokyo. “It is grounding to have known these true heroes,” she said. “I hope to possibly work towards the same efforts in studying sexual exploitation in some capacity there.”