Empowering girls — the Protsahan way

While on a film shoot in 2010, Protsahan founder Sonal Kapoor met a young woman who had six daughters and was pregnant with her 7th child. On being asked about her circumstances, the woman narrated in a matter-of-fact way that she was ready to strangle her newborn if it was a girl once again. She also spoke of sending her 8-year-old daughter to an unorganized brothel for transactional sex work so that she could feed the rest of her family.

Within the hour, the idea of starting a unique creative school started taking shape in Sonal’s mind. Sonal, now, often says, even though she didn’t have any resources as a 23-year-old then, her courage was her currency.

Three weeks later, after a small feasibility study in the area, Protsahan started as a one room creative arts and design school in one of the darkest slums of the country, in the heart of the capital city, New Delhi to rescue that one child, and many more like her from systemic, intergenerational poverty, sexual and gender based violence. Protsahan started with 9 girls. Since then, Protsahan has rescued 1498 girls and successfully mainstreamed them into formal schools, and reaches 81,000 girls annually through integrated community programs in India, that are run through its GECs (Girl Empowerment Centers)

Protsahan’s core work is to identify and work with young girls who face sexual and gender based violence, through immediate and longer term crisis intervention to see them into autonomous adulthood. The organisation provides a coordinated, multi-level direct response to the issue of violence against children with a focus on migrant girls. Such a coordinated response is needed as a violated child has complex needs arising from her context of violence, which require special comprehensive social services, care & counseling, quality learning in a trauma-informed safe space, so that she reaches her fullest potential and finds a pathway out of intergenerational poverty & violence towards healing & empowerment.

The journey brings deep healing of trauma for each child through HEART Model, where H stands for Health & well-being, E for Education, A for Arts based Counseling, R for rights and T for technology. Children we work with are exposed daily to harm, suffering and trauma. And for Protsahan, the smallest daily intervention is an opportunity for healing – be it a hug, a conversation, or an ‘art as therapy’ class. Our team is attuned, trained, empathetic and focused on emotional safety of the child.

Taking away the ‘lack’ of and bringing the girl closer to ‘abundance’ of resources and care. Realization of justice through sustainable access to resources for wellbeing, in a myriad forms – is also healing. Trauma-informed sensitivity is an oral tradition, intuitively developed at Protsahan.

“When we put antiseptic cream on a child’s wound, she feels she is important..she does not get that feeling elsewhere,”says Sonal. We enable healing through self expression of the child using the power of creative arts and technology.

The intervention goes beyond collectivization, training, counseling etc…. It builds a sense of identity where the girls feel they are independent with their own non-negotiable human rights. “Impact evaluations from around the world indicate that empowerment and asset-building interventions for adolescent girls can improve outcomes on education, health, economic, social capital, gender-equitable attitudes, and end violence for girls in the long run.”

In our wellbeing work, we create safe spaces and individualized support for the girls that enable them to tackle the complex grief and trauma caused by poverty, injustice, including issues of gender violence, structural inequity, and social marginalization.

In our justice work, we focus on improving the girl’s ecosystem to prevent future harm and on restoring the voices of those harmed by helping them become change-makers for reform through higher education & skills training, advocacy and leadership development.

Our work creates lasting, holistic change in the girl’s life. It shapes the girls’ identity, their sense of self. It transforms them into confident, independent individuals. It opens them to the infinite possibilities and choices in their life. And it enables them to CHOOSE their own path, fueled by their self belief. “ We want every girl to feel like an achiever. “

With a longstanding culture for gangs and violence, the Uttam Nagar area, where Protsahan started, is marred by gendered exclusions in schools, and young men carrying knives & beating someone with latths (big wooden logs) is common. Communalism is deep and sexual violence against girls within families itself is extremely commonplace. “People never look at the structural causes behind the violence,” Sonal & Jaswinder explain. “Why did the child bring a knife into school? Did anybody go back and ask the child why? Was it an act of violence or was it that they felt they needed to protect themselves, because at home the father murdered the mother?

Therefore, could we look at why they needed to protect themselves and resolve that?” “Rather than just going straight to the crime… [we must] take more restorative approaches and think much more about the context of the child,” Another example, adoption is always looked at from the perspective of adoptive parents, never from the lens of the child who will have to adjust in a new family. When a lot of children orphaned by birth have never even seen or experienced a family set-up. But change was not achieved “on a Wednesday afternoon,” and has required the gradual implementation of an integrated holistic approach.

“You have to think of it as a great, big oil tanker. So, if we are all standing on the oil tanker, and you want to change direction, you have to start miles back to make that decision to change, and it’s a very slow turn.” In the decade following the implementation of Protsahan’s HEART approach, recorded incidents of gender based violence have fallen by 74%, according to a latest pulse check survey at the organization. This multifaceted system is clearly playing a key role in youth justice. Protsahan’s HEART system sees adolescent girls as the heart of the community and assigns them a crucial role.

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