3 May 2013, updated 14 Jun 2013
After rising above a childhood in the heart of the brothels, Apne Aap Women’s Collective (AAWC) alumnus Shweta Katti received news yesterday of her admission to Bard College, a liberal arts school in upstate New York, on a four-year full-tuition scholarship. This remarkable achievement followed her admission in January 2013 to the Unreasonable Institute’s prestigious Semester at Sea program, a shipboard program that circumnavigates the globe while immersing students in a wide breadth of interdisciplinary studies. Katti has since been 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.
Katti’s story is one of immense personal and family difficulties. Her grandfather had been a brothel owner, and her mother was dedicated as a child to the devadasidevadasi tradition, a practice in India that condemns a woman to unpaid temple service and, thereby, prostitution as a way to earn a living. Although Katti’s mother managed to avoid prostitution and succeeded in finding a low-wage factory job in the red light area, her devadasi status forbade her from marrying, and Katti was the secret child of her love affair with a man whose marriage had been arranged. Growing up in the loft above a brothel on Falkland Road, she was bullied at school for her dark skin and hated studying, preferring to watch television all day. By the age of 10, Katti began to be propositioned by men on the street. At 11 or 12, her alcoholic and physically abusive stepfather, whom she believed at the time to be her biological father, began to sexually abuse her. Her only solace was her best friend, whom she later learned was actually her biological half-sister.
Under these trying and complex circumstances, Katti was a reserved girl with low self-esteem when she was first discovered by AAWC’s outreach workers. Nonetheless, she began to thrive academically under AAWC’s Udaan program, which introduced her to gender and sexuality, provided daily afterschool tutoring, and subsidised her education. After she passed her 10th standard exams, Katti enrolled at SNDT Women’s College, with plans to become a chartered accountant. In the meantime, she joined AAWC as a maths tuition teacher for the Udaan girls. However, because her stepfather’s violent alcoholism and the toxic late-night brothel environment was making studying and sleeping nearly impossible, AAWC eventually placed her into Kranti, a partner shelter home in the northern suburb of Kandivali, during her 12th standard.
At Kranti, Katti received counseling, developed her fluency in English, and passed her 12th standard exams. She then took a gap year, touring India and Nepal extensively to speak to women and girls in villages and at urban conferences about gender, sexuality, and social justice. It was during this time that she applied and gained admission to the Unreasonable Institute’s Semester at Sea and to Bard College in New York on a full-tuition scholarship, becoming the first girl from the red light area to attend a university in the United States. Her extraordinary story has won her considerable media attention, including features on Newsweek, CNN, IBN, and ITV.
"Apne Aap Women’s Collective was a safe haven for me," Katti said. "t 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."
Today, Katti is a student at Bard, where she plans to earn a B.A. in psychology and return to Mumbai to help other girls from the red light area achieve their dreams as well.
About Apne Aap Women’s Collective
Founded in 1998, Apne Aap Women’s Collective (AAWC) serves the women, girls, and toddlers of the Greater Kamathipura Area, one of the largest and oldest red light areas in Asia. By providing its members with the tools and resources to create a better life, AAWC seeks to empower women who have been trafficked into brothel-based prostitution and to prevent intergenerational trafficking of girls and young children who grow up in the brothels. Since its inception, AAWC has served more than 1,500 women, 650 girls and 400 toddlers. Learn more at www.aawc.in.