New York – From living in Mumbai’s red-light district, to winning a scholarship at Bard College in the US, to delivering a TEDx talk in India, to even winning a UN award, Shweta Katti’s journey has been extraordinary.
At the 2014 United Nations Youth Courage Awards ceremony on September 22, the 19 year old, dressed in a simple white and orange tunic with saffron-coloured harem pants, smiled nervously amid resounding applause.
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As one of the six awardees, she got up on stage and shook hands with Gordon Brown, former prime minister of the UK and current UN Special Envoy for Global Education.
I am very connected to my mother and Kranti family back home, so once I finish my education, I know I will go back.
Katti gave a thumbs-up sign as she stood with the other recipients, each honoured for their contribution as agents of change in their support for girl’s education and women’s rights. The Youth Courage Awards were first announced on Malala Yousufzai’s birthday last year, as part of “Malala Day” to honour the rights activist and recent Nobel Laureate.
“I am humbled that my voice and journey have been appreciated,” Katti told Al Jazeera backstage. “But this award is for my mom first and then my friends at Kranti. I hope they will recognise their own potential and make their own stories.”
Katti’s story received global attention last year, when she became the first girl from the red-light district of Kamathipura in India’s financial capital Mumbai to procure a full scholarship at Bard College in the US state of New York.
She was also named one of 25 women under 25 to watch by Newsweek magazine for her heroic efforts to break the social stigma associated with Dalits, a sub-caste considered “untouchable” in India, and to not only pursue an education abroad, but also become a representative of a repressed community.
India’s Dalits have been historically marginalised and are often targets of violence and discrimination by some members of the privileged castes. In the western state of Maharashtra – with Mumbai as its capital – there have been several instances of atrocities against the community.
Away from home
Katti said that her trajectory as the daughter of a factory worker, growing up in a loft of a brothel where she regularly snuck into the rooms to watch her favourite Bollywood movies on TV, to the sprawling campus of Bard in the hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson, has comprised a gamut of learning experiences.
Her mother was not a sex worker, but her grandmother did domestic chores in the brothel after her grandfather, a victim of drug abuse, passed away and left them to fend for themselves.
“When I sat on the plane and saw the map of the distance to the US, I was scared. I’m excited about travelling, but when I saw how far I would be from home, I was overwhelmed,” she said.
Katti explained that growing up in the brothel, which is all her mother could afford at the time, she always had some sort of family and the sex workers were very protective of her.
|Katti decided to study psychology so that she could help other girls when she returns home [Purvi Thacker/Al Jazeera]
“They braided my hair when my mom went off to work and I celebrated Diwali, Holi and other festivals with them. They raised me and were the only family I knew,” Katti said.
Similarly when she moved into a shelter home sponsored by Kranti, the Indian NGO that helped bring Katti to the US, she found a family with other girls of like background and life experiences.
“Bard is a great school, but it’s lonely in America. I am very connected to my mother and Kranti family back home, so once I finish my education, I know I will go back,” she said.
Katti grew up wanting to be a chartered accountant but after being exposed to social sciences, she decided to study psychology so that she could help other girls when she returns home.
Part of this change also came about when Katti had time away from home to reflect on some of the events from her past, namely when she was a victim of sexual abuse at the age of 11 or 12. “As I understand, 50 percent of those who abuse, have been abused themselves and need help,” she said.
While she acknowledged that this doesn’t make the act forgivable, she understands the root cause and wants to help others who have suffered through it.
“It’s not all about the money,” Katti said. “There are better ways to give back and what is better than working on issues like gender and sexuality, child abuse and basic human rights.”
For this reason, she continues to work with Kranti and she hopes to work with girls from the Dalit community, so that they don’t remain oppressed and denied opportunities by the caste hierarchy.
Even though Katti has been in the public limelight – addressing a massive crowd at a TEDx event in India in March, where she spoke on issues of empowerment – she still considers herself to be reserved.
She has, however, joined Bard’s Bollywood dance club and the South Asian student association.
“I grew up with people calling me names like ‘cow dung’ and ‘black bamboo’ because of my dark skin and I could never take friends back home because of where I lived,” she said. “So I am naturally socially awkward and have low self-esteem.”
raised me and were the only family I knew.”]
Ironically, it is this same quiet maturity that has drawn people to her.
“More than a great story, I see her as an amazing human being who is grounded and family oriented,” said Sabrina Sultana, one of Katti’s two close friends at Bard.
Originally from Bangladesh, Sultana met Katti through the Bollywood dance group and they bonded over their shared South Asian culture.
“We have another friend from Tibet and usually the three of us have slumber parties, eat pizza and watch Bollywood movies. But Shweta really misses Indian food,” she added.
For Katti, adjusting to the US system of education has been a challenge, after being schooled in a Marathi medium school all her life, especially when it comes to learning English. She said she can relate to her “English as a Second Language” classmates because they share the same struggle to communicate.
On the upside, she attributes her increased confidence to her independence here.
“Most people here don’t judge and this has helped me appreciate people in different ways,” she said. “I don’t have to hide anything from anyone here. No one points fingers at me any more.”
I don't have to hide anything from anyone here. No one points fingers at me any more.
Her mother Vandana was worried after Katti called her from the US, saying she was homesick and depressed but feels that she is more sure of herself now.
“She has never been a burden or a troublemaker and I know that she will complete her degree and give me yet another reason to be proud,” she said over the phone from Mumbai.
Trina Talukdar, cofounder of Kranti has seen a dramatic change in Katti as well over the past year.
“We thought that because of her emotional attachment to India, it would be difficult for her to be away for four years. We had mentally prepared ourselves that she may return,” she said.
But looking at how Katti has acclimatised, she is now positive that Katti will not only finish her degree, but also find a way to give back to the community in India.
“She has already opened up minds; hundreds of girls back home see her and dream of new possibilities,” she said.
Follow Purvi Thacker on Twitter: @purvi21