survivor girl ukulele band

bringing restoration and hope to survivors of human trafficking through the healing power of music and love

Archive for the tag “human trafficking”

where i live

would y’all like to know a little bit about where i live and who else i hang out with besides the girls at the protective home? ok! well, i’d be happy to tell you all about it.

a man named cini happens to be a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend from my days volunteering at freedom firm. and cini, who knows just about everyone in town, connected me with a place called the maharashtra fellowship for the deaf — otherwise known as the mfd. and the mfd is just down the road from the protective home. still with me?

and the mfd had a couple of rooms in the upstairs of a big house that they weren’t using. and that is where i now live. it really is a blessing, because it is safe, has wifi, and also because it is so close to rescue foundation that i can walk there. i usually catch an auto rickshaw, but it is just a 5 – 10 rupee fair (10 – 20 cents). whee!!

here’s a photo of the big house where i live.


my rooms are on the second floor behind that staircase that you see on the left side of the building. if you squint, you can see the door to my outer room is slightly ajar. i also have access to the roof, which is a pretty cool place to do exercises in the morning if i can get up before the sun gets too hot.

and here is the room where i spend most of my time when i am home.


most of the linens from an american family who have been in pune for five years and are now headed back to the states. thank you, dear janet!!

mfd is a boarding school for over 100 boys and girls who are deaf, and one of the cool things about living at mfd is that i never ever ever have to cook. at around 8 pm i just listen for the banging of metal bowls and ladles plates and cups — i thought mfd would be a really quiet place to live, but it isn’t!! —  and then i look out the window and down below to make sure they haven’t started without me, and then i scurry downstairs and outside to the girls’ dining area. and then one of the girls signs to me, asking if i want to have food, and i sign back and say yes, and when the buckets of food are toted over from the huge outdoor kitchen, one or two girls from each table pop up and get the rice and curry, and when it is all doled out, i get a plateful.

here is the dining area where we eat. it looks a little gloomy at night, but it is always fascinating.


i love it here and am learning some sign language, too. it’s also very handy that i learned the american sign language alphabet years ago.

here’s two of the 10th standard girls who are always so nice.


and here is a short video of sarubai, who is asking me if i want breakfast. this is the last breakfast of the school year for 9th standard and below.

and that is my post for today. i hope you are having a fabulous week!!

and the winner is…

shops in pune have been closed for a week due to a bandh, or strike, by merchants against a new tax. this made it difficult to purchase prizes for the friday contests in the survivor girl ukulele band project. but thursday afternoon i found a little shop that sells bangles, bindis — those little decorative dots that indian women put between their eyebrows, and mehndi — known back home as henna.

a faded, dusty, and exotic looking old bedcover shielded the little stall from the afternoon sun, and inside the closet-sized shop the walls were lined with colorful bangles. hanging from the pole in the middle were dusty strips of cellophane sleeves that held packets of bindi that caught my eye.

kitna hai?” i asked, pointing to the bindi.

“five rupees,” said the shopkeeper, who then got up from the floor. “ten rupees, also,” she said, as she opened a plastic box that held the more upscale bindis. these had rhinestones and gold embellishments. ten rupees is about twenty cents in us dollars, so i splurged on a number of the dazzling packets of ten rupee bindis. meanwhile the shopkeeper opened a box filled with miniature bottles of fingernail polish. “ten rupees,” she said. “yes, please!” i thought to myself as i selected a number of the tiny bottles. “and mehndi?” “quick acting or normal?” she said. “normal. i’ll take five, krupya!” (please)

the next day i displayed the bindi and mehndi on the floor for my beginner ukulele class’s tuning contest.


the girls’ enthusiasm rose a few notches. “whoever tunes their ukulele the best will get to choose their prize between the bindis and the mehndi,” i said.  “and next week’s contest will include fingernail polish!” as this was being translated, the girls grabbed their ukuleles and their pitch-pipes and scampered off to find a quiet space in which to concentrate. i’ve never seen them so interested in tuning.


unfortunately, for all that solitude, concentration, and effort the beginner class tuning contest was a bit of a fail, in that no one came even close to getting their ukulele in tune. on the otherhand, they were all very attentive during the post-contest tuning workshop where we went around to every ukulele and tuned it as a team. and later in the day i noticed one of the girls practicing her tuning. next week there will be a winner in that class!

meanwhile, in my more advanced beginner class, two of the girls did extremely well with their c scales, so two prizes were awarded in that class.


and later in my kitchen-girl class, the girl who recently burned her face very badly in a pressure cooker accident was able to tune two of the four strings on her ukulele and earned herself a prize. she was wearing blue, but she was tickled pink.

and here’s me with three of my first batch advanced beginners. these girls rock!!


everybody loves a little uke

there have been a number of raids and rescues recently in the local brothels, and now the population of the home is 102 girls. and there is no keeping the ukulele lessons on the terrace a secret.

here’s where i teach. it’s called the terrace, and it’s the covered roof of the home. every day the girls’ clothes are hung to dry on the north wall of bars that surround the terrace. it makes for a pretty place with decent acoustics in which to teach.Image

every day a few girls sneak up to the terrace and sit with the class and try strumming one of the ukuleles. even the police officers who are on duty like to get into the action.


the fellow below was also very interested in the uke that i often carry around in my backpack. we met on a number of occasions at this little chai shop down the street from the guest house where i stayed when i first arrived in pune. the first day we met he asked, “you are from nigeria?” i didn’t quite know how to answer that.

the next time we met he asked to try out my ukulele.

after i took this video on my iphone 3gs he said, “tell me again, how much does that phone cost?” i told him that phones like this are a couple of hundred dollars and then about $100 a month on a two year contract. the small crowd that had gathered calculated the cost of an iphone in rupees, and their eyes widened. he liked my uke, but really really really liked my iphone. i get that lot.

and here is a video of roma*, who is from bangladesh and is super quiet. she may not have the best technique, but she is always there and loves to play.

“this is a chance.”

we are just four days into survivor girl ukulele band lessons, and it is amazing to see what the girls are accomplishing. last friday when i visited the protective home for girls who have been rescued from brothels, they sang me a song — tu pyaar ka saagar, your love is like the sea. so i got a guitar hero to figure out the chords for me and was able to start teaching them to play the song with just a few chords, c, g, and a minor.

on day one, i started with three girls each in two separate classes. in each class one of the three girls spoke english. someone advised me to limit the classes to a half hour each, because the girls would be unable to be attentive for more than that.

monday’s first class went for an hour and forty-five minutes, and they were tuned in every minute.

a couple of the girls came with long fingernails on their left hands, making it difficult for them to fret the chords. they love their long fingernails. but they all agreed to cut their nails. through the translator, one of the girls said, “nails can grow, but this is a chance.”

on day two i combined the two classes, and now have six girls in the class.

here’s a video from day two, where the girls are practicing moving from the c chord to the g chord.

on day four, one of the girls showed up late, and didn’t want to tune her ukulele because she felt she couldn’t do it. she was also struggling with a stiff strum hand.

i took her aside and helped her “dekho aur suno” — hindi for “look and listen” — as we looked at the electronic tuner and at the same time listened to a pitch pipe and the sound of each string as we found the correct tuning.

then i tried to get her to relax her strumming hand, but she couldn’t do it. so i had her take ahold of my strumming hand. when we started to play, she wanted to take over and control my hand, but after a minute she was able to relax and let her hand move along with mine. still, it didn’t immediately translate into an easy strum on her own.

for the next hour and a half as the group played and practiced changing chords, she struggled with a stiff strum. then just before the end of the class, she started strumming with a nice easy stroke. she was so happy and we all clapped for her. she said, “you take my hand. now i can do it. i miss you.”

and here’s a video day four of the girl i mentioned earlier who said, “this is a chance.”

can you believe it? this is just her fourth day of playing ukulele!

“but we have 400 girls. where can we get more ukuleles?”

our survivor girl ukulele band project is nearly underway. i say “our” because i’m not doing this all on my own. many people are part of this endeavor, and i’m grateful for each and every one of you!!

here’s the low-down on week one in india. after 22 hours of air travel, i was glad to have friends in navi mumbai who had invited me to stay with them. and they didn’t seem to mind that i arrived at 2:30 am, in fact they rustled up some food and we talked for hours.

the next day is a blur, but the day after that i pulled out my list of after-care homes in mumbai and called one, a well-known protective home for girls who have been rescued from mumbai’s brothels. i asked them if they would like to hear about my ukulele project, and they said, “yes.”


three hours later, i arrived at the head office on the other side of mumbai. when i pulled out a couple of orange and candy-apple red makala dolphin ukuleles, they said, “ooh, they’re beautiful!” and i when i told them that kala brand music had partnered with me and donated twenty makala dolphin ukuleles and that i wanted to teach twenty survivors of human trafficking how to play ukulele and help them form a survivor girl ukulele band, they said, “this will help the girls! yes!” and then i played ed tree’s “survivor girl ukulele band” song, and they said, “we must translate that into hindi!”

and then they said, “but we have 400 girls. where can we get more ukuleles?”!

so i will be on the lookout for more ukuleles, and if anyone is heading over to india, please put a makala dolphin ukulele or two in your suitcase.

slight change of plans: rather than stay in the super congested city of mumbai, i am shifting my base of operation to another city. a friend of a friend made a few phone calls and got me a low-cost room at a nice guesthouse as a base from which to look for an apartment.

here’s a photo of the guesthouse telephone. you don’t see too many of these classics around anymore.


i will be working in the ngo’s smallest home, which houses forty girls. it is super exciting to think about growing this project to 400 girls. i’m quite sure that some of the first girls will be able to teach others, and so on, until the only limitation will be the number of ukuleles available — and my own skill on the ukulele. i just hope i can stay one step ahead of those girls!

below is a video of what i had for dinner last night. masala dosa on the street. i’m experimenting with video, so please let me know what you think.

and that’s week one in india. so far, so yay!!

we’re gonna need a bigger boat

we’re gonna need a bigger boat.

that’s the famous line from the movie jaws — when roy scheider’s character sees the size of the killer shark circling in the waters. and that’s how i feel the more i learn about the scope of sex trafficking in india.

the last six weeks i’ve been volunteering with apne aap women worldwide ( apne aap means “self help” in hindi. i first learned about the organization in nicholas d. kristoff and sheryl wu dunn’s book, half the sky: turning oppression into opportunity worldwide.

ruchira gupta founded apne aap with the twenty-two women who were the subject of her emmy award winning documentary, the selling of innocents, which exposed the trafficking of women and girls from nepal to india. the twenty-two women were prostitutes in mumbai’s red light district, all victims of trafficking, and during production of the film they found strength in the circle of relationships they built with ruchira and with each other.

after filming completed, the women continued to meet and then began to advocate for themselves with “a vision of a world where no woman can be bought or sold.” this was the beginning of apne aap. this vision has expanded across a number of communities in india, with apne aap self-empowerment groups and community centers that provide safe spaces for the women to gather, learn their rights, get vocational training, and find a way out of prostitution.

my first day at apne aap i got to go to gandhi smriti (the location where mahatma gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life and where he was assassinated, now a museum) and sit in with fifteen leaders from american ngos that are part of novo foundation’s initiative, “move to end violence.” we gathered on the lawn and listened to some of india’s foremost female activists speak about their time with gandhi and what he taught them.

gandhi’s granddaughter, tara gandhi bhattacharjee, added a bit of glam to the afternoon with her style, grace, and humor.


tara gandhi bhattacharjee

and at the end of the day i was asked to write the press release for the event!

two days later i was off to the pink city of jaipur to attend apne aap’s regional survivors conference.


much of the event was in hindi, but here’s the translation of what one of the survivors said:

“in the community many girls are brought in and many are sold out. how do you address this? no one understands that they are playing with the dreams of girls. the clients don’t realize the dreams they are spoiling. the clients don’t realize that this would be a mother, a sister or someone else –- they are just ruining dreams. we want to stop them.”

during the conference, i sat with number of women who are still working in brothels. we exchanged smiles, hellos, and soon got out our cell phones and started taking photos of each other and together. we joked and laughed and had a really nice time.

but back to the bigger boat.

sex trafficking in india happens in so many ways.

my last posts high-lighted the devadasi system, but there are also a number of castes that have a long standing tradition of prostitution. in many families of these castes the women are all prostitutes and their husbands and fathers are their pimps. it’s called intergenerational prostitution, and girls are brought up knowing that they will follow in their grandmother’s and mother’s footsteps — and be a prostitute.

then there’s what i call the prince-not-so-charming method of trafficking. it works like this: a young girl is charmed over the course of a few weeks or months by a dashing young man who promises her marriage and a beautiful life together. she runs off with him to begin said beautiful life only to find herself in a strange city, locked up in a brothel, and told she was sold and must work off her sale price with her body. this happens every day in india.

these are just a few of the forms of sex trafficking going on in india, and the problem seems overwhelming, like a really really really big shark. but we stay in the boat until we get a bigger boat. we join other boats. we create awareness, we advocate for change, and we reach out a hand to those who have been pulled under.

faces of change

take a good look at these faces. these are the faces of change.

photo removed for the privacy of the girls

these three girls were dedicated in their village temples as devadasis and faced a life of religiously sanctioned sexual violence and ridicule, but now they are preparing themselves to be part of a front-line attack on the devadasi system that would have enslaved them. who better to advocate for the abolishment of the devadasi system than those who have been directly affected by it!

i met the girls when i visited visthar academy of justice and peace studies in bangalore. the campus is not far from my friend ravi’s house, and when i contacted the director, david selvaraj, wanting to learn more about visthar, he graciously invited me to lunch.

visthar is a secular, non-profit organization committed to enabling women, children, and other marginalized sections realize their rights ( it’s also a highly regarded academic institution that partners with organizations in india and around the world, training people to work for a just society.

in fact for you minnesotans, visthar partners with gustavus adolphus college and concordia college to facilitate semester-long study-abroad programs in social justice, peace, and development — so if you know anyone at gustavus or concordia, encourage them to check out this life-changing opportunity!

as i sat with david for a few minutes before lunch, he explained that the term “temple prostitute” widely used for devadasis doesn’t really describe the situation but that “temple slave” was more accurate. he said that the devadasi system is a religiously sanctioned “gross violence against women,” and even though the system has been outlawed in india since 1992, it is “still alive and kicking.”

as coordinator sham khalil later explained, visthar wanted to go beyond the academic study of social transformation and get on the ground, in the villages, and create a place for change. so they envisioned a holistic home for devadasi girls and called it bhandavi, which means friendship.

it was 2003 when they teamed up with a number of ngos in india who had a presence in many villages in karnataka and andra pradesh where the devadasi system is prevalent.

sham himself went to live in one of the 150 targeted villages. they call it capacity building, and instead of trying to change the entire village and its deeply entrenched religious practice, visthar reached out to the maaji devadasis (devadasis who have been put on the shelf) in a leadership development program. this program worked to instill the concepts of human rights to these women and empower them to say no to the system and yes to a better life for their daughters.

sham told me that the villagers didn’t want him there and didn’t like what he was doing. more than once he was chased down the street and told, “we will finish you off!”

in 2005, after much work in the villages, the mothers of a few young devadasis were brave enough and strong enough to let their daughters go to bandhavi. after many tears of parting, the two girls on the left in the photo above came to bandhavi. they were the first! they were just ten years old.

here’s what one of the girls at bandhavi wrote:

My journey to Bandhavi

Where do I begin? My grandmother had already

dedicated me to the goddess Huligamma. I am a

new sacrifice to the Jogithi, or Devadasi system.

My family is waiting with hope and dreams for

me so I can earn for them. The rich people in my

village want a new sacrifice. I had no hope of

being freed from this situation because my father

is sick, my mother is helpless and I have younger

siblings. So I had decided to accept my fate.

At this time the women’s group in my village

spoke to my family about Bandhavi but they did

not want to send me. It was very difficult for me

to leave my family. But I had to decide quickly

or the cunning people in my village would force

my parents to sacrifice me to a wicked practice.

A new life was calling me and I made the

decision. This is an important turning point in

my life. My dreams for the future can come true

because this new life is god’s reward to me.

– Renuka, 14 years old


now bandhavi has seventy girls in the program, which nurtures individual growth, freedom, and dignity and is a “community that lives in love, respect, trust, and friendship.” the girls are creative, joyful, loving, and powerful!

and for the girls who want to build a career helping create the capacity for change in villages like their own, visthar has created a community college social work program. the girls will become trained professionals and be paid a salary to go back to the villages, instill human rights, and empower the women and girls and train them as leaders, and save more girls from the devadasi system.


before the brothel…

“you’ve got to know where these girls come from!” said shyam kamble. “to rescue a few girls from the brothels, yes! ok! but what about before they are sold to the brothel in mumbai?! it’s in the villages! that’s where the problem is! what is being done to help these girls — before they ever reach the brothel?!”

i’d been wanting to meet with shyam for two and a half years, ever since my stint with freedom firm in 2009. back then shyam was the lead investigator with freedom firm. he has also done extensive investigation work with international justice mission and other ngos involved in the fight against human trafficking. investigating the forced prostitution of minors is not nice work. it’s also dangerous.

as an investigator, shyam went into the red light areas and played the role of a customer. when a young girl was offered to him, he captured photos of the girl on his hidden camera. then he went to the police with the evidence that a minor was being prostituted. if everything went right, and the police were not corrupt and did not tip of the brothel-owner, there would be a raid, the girl would be rescued, and maybe even the brothel keeper arrested and prosecuted.

in his career, shyam has investigated over three thousand brothels and helped rescue more than 1800 girls from the nightmare of the brothel. he has also served as witness in many trials against the brothel keepers and traffickers. but its not enough, because before the brothel is the violence in the village.

“let me tell you something! in my village there are fifty dalit homes. these are the untouchables,” said shyam. “and from these fifty homes, do you know that at one time there were sixty-three girls and women in the sex trade! sixty-three! from fifty homes!”

“how does something like that happen?” i asked him.

“come to my village and see,” he said.

so we went to shyam’s village, khatav, on the border between maharashtra and karnataka. one of the first things he showed me was the hindu temple on the far side of town.

hindu priest and temple in khatav

“these priests you see, they are the ones who dedicate the young girls from the dalit part of town,” he said. in the devadasi system, little girls from the untouchable castes are dedicated to the goddess yellamma. when they reach puberty, the girls’ mothers and grandmothers, who are quite often devadasis themselves, are involved in striking a deals with the upper cast men who would become their first patrons. as one person said, the girls who are untouchable in the daytime are not so at night.

the devadasis are forbidden to marry and they often bear children who are not recognized or supported by their fathers. often devadasis move to a larger city and become prostitutes. and when the devadasis are no longer young and attractive, they are left to beg from the upper caste homes in the village.

two such devadasis from shyam’s village came to talk to us when we were there.

two maaji devadasis

i found the contrast between the proud priests and the humbled devadasis striking. the priests enjoy their position of prestige in the community into their dotage, but the devadasis have been abandoned and are ridiculed.

and though the devadasi practice has been outlawed in india, this violence against lower caste girls is an integral part of the hindu belief system in thousands of villages in south india and other parts of the country.

in addition, as shyam explained, any lower caste girl who is a laborer in the fields is vulnerable to the sexual advances and sexual violence of the upper caste man who owns the field.

and with the devadasi system so entrenched in the villages, it is not such a big stretch for a father to sell his girl to the human traffickers that live in the village. after all, many of the men are alcoholics, and they see the money that their neighbor got from the sale of his daughter.

this is how girls from khatav have been abused.

but sixty-three girls out of fifty homes?! and many of them have succumbed to hiv or other diseases. in a village like shyam’s, this brutality against girls has become almost normal part of village life. that has to change.

shyam in his village

both shyam and i some how, some way, want to be part of the change.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: