Pinky Sharma*, 45 : Social Worker
Although Pinky was initially distrustful of social workers, the AAWC field team visited her regularly at her brothel to build a relationship. Eventually, she revealed to a field officer that she was HIV-positive and wished to leave her job but was afraid to stand up to her dalal (pimp) and brothel owner. AAWC accompanied Pinky to the hospital for regular medical check-ups, monitored her HIV status, and helped her obtain necessary identification documents like her PAN card and ration card. Through repeated counseling sessions, she came to realise that she was no longer physically constrained to prostitution, as she had long ago repaid the “debt” she owed her traffickers. Equipped with her new documents and her new mindset, she severed ties with her brothel and joined an NGO serving women in the brothel community. Today, she is proud to be a social worker helping other women in the red light area follow her footsteps.
"I am proud of what I have done for myself, and I could never have done this without the help of AAWC. They helped me get the documents I needed to get out. Now everyone calls me ‘Madam’ at my new job at the NGO, but not in the same way that I ever imagined the word."
Duhita Ghosh*, 37 : Tailor
Born in Nepal, Duhita fled to Kolkata with her mother to escape her alcoholic father’s violent rages. At 19, she was raped, forced to marry her rapist, and then trafficked to Mumbai under the pretext of a lucrative job. When she tried to escape Kamathipura with her infant son, she was caught and brutally tortured. AAWC helped her open her first bank account and obtain the necessary identity documents that would allow her to explore alternative employment. After attending daily tailoring classes for more than a year, she became the first graduate of AAWC’s Sareelution vocational program. Today, she rents her own flat in Sion and is a successful tailor at a garment factory, while her two children live in AAWC-affiliated boarding homes and attend English-medium schools. She looks forward to seeing her children flourish and is genuinely happy with her life for the first time.
"With AAWC I have received the strength to take care of myself and my children, without the fear of and dependence on a male figure. I want to be independent. AAWC has given me this opportunity to be myself and to grow."
Chandrika Pillai*, 35: Farmer
Chandrika initially fled her village in South India with a friend to escape her abusive husband. The two women hoped to find employment in Mumbai, but her friend’s brother-in-law took them to the red light district instead. Five years later, Chandrika was discovered by an AAWC field officer, who helped her understand how to manage her HIV and to secure a ration card and bank account. She then enrolled her daughter in Udaan and authorized her placement at an AAWC-affiliated boarding school. After extensive counseling, Chandrika made the momentous decision to escape from her brothel madam and reconnect with her family, who remained completely unaware of her life in Mumbai. Today, she lives in South India and supports herself and her daughter's boarding school education through agricultural farming.
"I never knew I could change so much about my life-AAWC opened my eyes. I learned how to help myself; more importantly I helped my daughter escape the red light profession. Now, I hear her speak in fluent English, and I am so proud of everything she is going to be."
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Divya Mehta*, 27: Bachelor's in Commerce candidate
When Divya's mother passed away from AIDS, she decided reluctantly at age 16 to marry the son of a local brothel madam in order to ensure some form of financial security. Despite becoming a mother, she did not forget the importance of education that her time at AAWC had impressed upon her. While her husband earned a living by delivering gas cylinders, she took care of their child and returned to school to finish 12th standard through Open University. Today, she is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Commerce and plans to take a government job in accounting to support her family. Although cultural norms dictate that married women, especially those with children, have no reason to attend school, she has persisted in completing her education and pursuing higher career ambitions. We at AAWC are tremendously proud of Divya for defying traditional expectations of women both in the red light area and in broader Indian society.
Kavita Jain*, 26 : chef at an international luxury hotel and national culinary champion
As the oldest child in her family, Kavita's primary responsibility was to protect her younger siblings from the toxic environment of the red light area. When she was discovered by AAWC at age 9, she quickly realized she had found the mentoring and academic guidance she had long sought. After successfully guiding her through 12th standard exams, AAWC placed her at Domino’s Pizza, where she was quickly promoted to Team Manager. Soon after, she and another Udaan girl were both selected by an international luxury hotel as two of 14 candidates nationwide for a three-year hotel management program. During this time, she further proved her talents by winning the Hans Bueschkens World Junior Chefs Challenge hosted by global food science manufacturer Griffith Laboratories at the regional, zonal, and national rounds and by representing Asia in the semi-final round. Upon completion of the management program, Kavita and the other Udaan alumnus both joined the hotel’s Mumbai location as junior chefs. Today, Kavita has moved her entire family out of Kamathipura with her new income. Due to their outstanding performances, she and her Udaan colleague have both been recently promoted to one of the hotel’s locations in Germany.
"Manju Ma’am [AAWC Director Vyas] has been more than just a mentor to me – she is like another parent. I came to her for any advice I needed, and you will still see me visiting the centre today. It is because of Ma’am and AAWC that I have been able to do any of this."
Malika Shah*, 26: Accountant at a South Mumbai hospital
Although Malika was initially quiet and unfocused, she attended counseling and tuitions regularly, until she became known for her wide smile, self-driven personality, and distinctive leadership qualities. Elected repeatedly as one of the four Udaan house leaders, she developed strong management and organisation skills for coordinating daily activities among the girls. While she studied at university, she worked as a part-time accountant at AAWC to support her educational expenses. It was during this time that her mother suffered a sudden heart attack. When Malika took her to a South Mumbai hospital to be treated, she impressed the caretakers and senior management so much with her intellect and maturity that they decided to offer her a position as a full-time accountant. Today, Malika has completed her Bachelor’s degree in Commerce and lives in the Dombivali suburbs. We at AAWC are immensely proud to have helped her develop the discipline, talent, and confidence to secure this job all by herself.
Safa Shaikh*, 26: Master of Commerce graduate and accountant at a multi-brand department store
As a child, Safa hated watching as the police extorted bribes from her mother and even sexually assaulted her without fear of legal repercussions. When she reported these crimes to AAWC, staff members helped her file a case with the Anti-Corruption Bureau. Armed with marked currency from the Bureau, she succeeded in securing evidence of extortion by the police officer, who was sentenced to prison after a two-year trial. In the meantime, AAWC helped her excel in her academic studies. When Safa began studying for her Bachelor's degree in Commerce, AAWC placed her as a financial analyst at a multinational bank and found her family a new home in the Numbre suburbs. Today, she has completed her Master's degree in Commerce and is a successful accountant for a multi-brand department store in Andheri.
Renu Khambatta*, 25: Social worker at an international nonprofit organisation
When Renu first joined AAWC at age 10, she was extremely shy. Once, when she was urged to stand up and give a short speech at an AAWC festival, she was so nervous that she began to cry. However, through extensive personality development workshops, her confidence began to soar, especially as she discovered her innate athleticism during AAWC Sports Day competitions. When she completed 12th standard, she was placed at Magic Bus, a nonprofit organisation that moves children out of poverty through mentoring and a sports-based curriculum. Today, Renu lives in the Vasai suburbs and has become a confident and energetic young woman with no signs of her childhood shyness, even addressing thousands of people at a recent Magic Bus event.
Avante Jain*, 23: Sales representative at a premier multinational automobile company
When Avante joined AAWC at age 12, many brothel owners already had their eyes on her, anticipating the high prices they could receive for her unusual looks, height, and fair skin. Eventually, AAWC staff members helped her family relocate to Andheri, where she would be safe from the illicit nighttime activities of the red light area. However, because she had not wanted to switch schools in the middle of the academic year, she continued to attend school in Central Mumbai and came to the AAWC center every day for afterschool activities. Over time, she began to demonstrate strong intellect, leadership, and impressive skills in drawing and painting workshops. During 11th standard, AAWC helped her enroll concurrently in a graphic design class, where a classmate told her about a job vacancy at a showroom run by a multinational automobile company. Emboldened by years of AAWC workshops on interviewing, personality development, and public speaking, she confidently applied for the job. Today, Avante is a poised and polished sales representative at the automaker’s showroom in Worli.
Jaya Malhotra*, 22: Social worker at AAWC
At age 8, Jaya avoided schoolwork as much as possible and went to the AAWC centre only to play carom with her friends. However, she gradually began attending AAWC’s afterschool tuition program and developed an intense interest in learning. Inspired by her teachers at AAWC, she pursued a career in teaching by earning a Higher School Certificate from Open University, a Paraprofessional Certificate in Social Work from Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work, and a teaching certification from Muktangan Rehabilitation Center. Today, Jaya works full-time as a kindergarten teacher for the Umang program while studying for a Bachelor's degree in Social Work. When asked about her job, she speaks at length about her love of new challenges and her even greater love for her Umang children.
"Apne Aap taught me and pushed me to be whatever I wanted to be—I want that for any girl living in the red light district. I want to help these children find their dreams the same way that I was helped."
Shweta Katti, 19: University scholarship student and "25 Under 25 Women in the World"
As a child, Shweta endured daily taunts about her dark skin and survived sexual abuse by her mother’s live-in partner. Despite these circumstances, she thrived for eight years in AAWC’s Udaan program, where she was one of the only girls to come to the center in the morning before school and again for regular afterschool tuitions. Gradually she began to display an aptitude for maths and even scored with Distinction in Maths in her 10th Class Board Exams. To assist with her educational expenses and to help develop her leadership and professional qualities, she was hired as a part-time maths tutor for the other Udaan girls, including students in her own class. During her 12th standard at SNDT University, AAWC realized that her deteriorating home environment was significantly affecting her studies and placed her at Kranti, one of AAWC's partner shelter home in the suburbs. Under Kranti’s guidance, she gained admission to the Unreasonable Institute’s prestigious Semester at Sea program and received a four-year full-tuition scholarship to Bard College in New York. She was then featured on CNN and in Newsweek’s “Women in the World: 25 Under 25 Young Women to Watch” alongside Malala Yousafzai and other young women who are seen as the agents of change for their exceptional accomplishments against all odds. Today, she studies psychology at Bard and plans return to Mumbai after graduation to help other girls like herself escape the red light area.
"Apne Aap Women’s Collective was a safe haven for me. It was a place where I could study, laugh, and make friends—a life that I had never enjoyed before. AAWC lead me to Kranti. These organisations made all the difference in my life."
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Sonali Gaur*, 10: AAWC night shelter resident
When Sonali’s mother brought her from Kolkata to Kamathipura, her live-in partner made it very clear that this additional child was unwelcome. As a result, Sonali was sent to an NGO for daycare and night shelter services. However, she fell sick frequently due to the lack of proper hygiene at the NGO, and the inappropriate behavior of boys who stayed at the night shelter caused her to cry constantly when she came home. Today, Sonali loves being a member of AAWC’s day care and night shelter services. She no longer falls sick on a regular basis and feels confident and secure in her night shelter home.
“At home the neighbours fight all the time and do not allow us to sit in peace. Our house is very small, and I am uncomfortable when I sleep. It is peaceful and bigger here at AAWC, so I can sleep comfortably. After school, we freshen up, change our clothes, take our evening snack, and have tuitions. I especially like to learn English with Paru Didi [Umang teacher]. I also like the food, the workshops (like the art-based therapy clay workshop), and the visits (like the zoo and the water park). At home, I could sleep in as late as I wanted and get up whenever I pleased, but at AAWC, we must get up early to go to school. I don’t like getting up early, but I am always the first to get up every morning, because I am excited to get ready for school.”
Thanavi Krishnan*, 11: AAWC night shelter resident
Thanavi’s mother abandoned her in Kamathipura when she was 4 months old. Under the care of her alcoholic adopted mother, she faced no discipline or consequences for her actions. When she first joined AAWC, she had a habit of collecting tobacco packets and DVDs of C-grade films. The AAWC night shelter brought structure and discipline to her life for the first time and taught her to appreciate education. Today, she is a regular member of the AAWC day program and night shelter.
“I don’t like to stay at home, because there is a lot of noise, and men are always fighting. There is no peace. I like to stay at the AAWC night shelter. Although my mother loves me, I’m loved more by my teachers at AAWC. I don’t like the food my mother makes, unless she cooks the food we eat at AAWC. During the day, I go to picnics, the water park, the Diwali party, and the Christmas party. At night, I can do my studies and help monitor the younger girls. My favorite part of AAWC is the teachers. Once my mother sent me to another NGO for a few days. There were no tuitions there, and I cried until she let me come back to AAWC. My favorite subjects in school are English and Marathi because I want to become an English and Marathi teacher when I grow up.”
Shanti Mehra*, 6: AAWC night shelter resident
Because there was no one else to take care of her, Shanti used to stand on the steps of the brothel with her mother every day. When she joined AAWC, staff members made special attempts to keep her at the center when she fell ill, instead of sending her home to recover, because she would otherwise return to the brothel doorway beside her mother. Since joining the day care and night shelter programs, Shanti has re-discovered the joyful educational and recreational activities of a proper childhood.
“I like the tuitions, toys, and food at AAWC. And I like the peace and quiet, when we all put our fingers to our mouth and say, ‘Shhhh.’’ During tuitions, I like to learn the ABCs, 123s, rhymes, and songs. The teachers love me and take me to picnics and waterparks, and bring me gifts. I want to be a teacher when I grow up too. At AAWC, Thanavi* [age 11] is my best friend – she is like an older sister to me and takes care of me. My favorite part of the night shelter are the bedtime stories that the teachers tell us to help us fall asleep.”
Disha Shetty*, 6: Student at St. Joseph's School
Disha was initially a very irregular and isolated Umang student. She was not only extremely shy but also spoke only her native language of Kannada. However, after persistent efforts by the field officers and Umang teachers, she began to enjoy participating in Umang lessons and interacting with her peers and teachers. As she developed good hygiene practices and gained proficiency in both English and Hindi, she became an enthusiastic Umang student. Today, Disha attends St. Joseph’s School, where she is happily pursuing a high-quality English-medium education.
“It’s only because of the educational training that my daughter received from AAWC that she was able to pass the interview at a renowned private school. I am very proud of her and I am very proud of my decision to trust AAWC with my daughter’s future.” - Disha’s mother
Shabana Khatun*, 5: Academic and social leader
Shabana spoke only Bengali when she arrived at AAWC, where she constantly disrupted lessons by running around the room. Whenever she was told to study, she would claim she had a stomachache and pretend to fall sleep. She also had a habit of isolating herself in one corner of the classroom, reciting Bengali poems by herself while her classmates practiced reciting English poems in unison. Although she refused to participate directly in classes, AAWC teachers realized she was a fast and intuitive learner when she began to call out her classmates' mistakes from her corner, using a curious combination of Bengali, Hindi, and Marathi. Today, Shabana can always be found sitting closest to the teachers, constantly asking and answering questions during lessons. She speaks confidently to friends and strangers alike and has blossomed into a curious and exuberant child.
Asma Shaikh*, 4: Boarding home student
Because Asma’s mother had been paying a caretaker 200 rupees per day, she was very happy to discover Umang’s free daycare program. However, Asma’s isolated home environment and lack of prior nursery school had resulted in antisocial tendencies, including introversion and even an inability to recognize her own mother and sister. Her constant skin infections and lice further hindered her from mingling with her peers in Umang. AAWC field officers began by curing her infections with a strict regime of medicines and creams. Then, they conducted regular field visits to her mother to persuade her to send her and her sister to a partner boarding home. Today, Asma has become a very bright young student and has developed a close relationship with her sister at the boarding home. She looks forward to beginning formal education next year.
* Name has been changed to protect identity.