Under a waxing October moon, supporters new and old of the Katonah Education Exchange Program (KEEP) gathered to listen as Dr. Abhilasha Kumari, Director of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, spoke about the valuable impact KEEP is having on the ground in Bihar, India. Dr. Kumari, a woman of small stature but tremendous presence, mingled with guests at the home of Ruth Rosenberg and then gave a formal presentation.
While outlining specifics of the program like health screenings, academic supports, and enrichment classes, Dr. Kumari interspersed vignettes about the girls and their lives in the red light district: how a troop of girls returned exhilarated and triumphant after having convinced the parents of one of their group members to delay an early marriage in favor of staying in school, how another group of girls confronted local police officials to address the harassment they experienced as they made their way to and from school each day, and the momentous occasion when Poonam and Resham accepted diplomas, their mother uneducated and prostituted as a young girl herself, standing beside them.
Dr. Kumari did not shy away from sharing the less-glowing reports. She paused from speaking for a moment when the picture of a particular young woman with bright eyes came on the screen. This girl, she explained, had gone missing while visiting her family. All Apne Aap’s efforts to locate and return her to safety had been stymied. The trail was cold. She was lost. Stories such as these brought some of the realities the girls and staff living and working in the red light districts of India must face – never mind the inconsistent electrical power, harassment and imprisonment of employees, and deep-seated hindrances presented by acculturated inter-generational prostitution. Keeping the girls physically safe is an ever-present challenge.
She spoke about implementing feedback from meeting with the KEEP board in the spring, in particular, taking the girls on field trips. The excursion to a public park in the mountains spurred a paradigm shift for young women who have literally never left the neighborhood in which they were born. Experiencing in a small way, the concept that there is a wider world where things can be different was new and powerful for these youngsters.
The visit from Dr. Kumari, with her impassioned and frank conversation with KEEP illustrated her deep connection and commitment to the program as a whole and to the girls as individuals. It was a step in further affirming one of KEEP’s primary charter intentions: to be connected to the change we wish to effect – to people beyond their ‘profile’ and even beyond the organizations that strive to assist them.
Cynthia Braun concluded the presentation describing the common experience of reading and hearing about horrendous situations around the world and feeling powerless. KEEP’s connection with Apne Aap gives one something to do. It’s real change, with real people.