“Khoobsurat”: to truly nurture beauty

“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”
― John Holmes

Najafgarh – A red light district in Delhi into which not too many “decent” people venture. Here thrives the Premnagar Basti Community of commercial sex workers, a sizeable group of young women forced into the industry by desperate financial needs. Most of these women are single mothers to young children who they need to care for by simultaneously giving in to their only resort – Prostitution. They are shunned by society, disowned by their families and often mistreated or looked down upon by even those who employ them. These women have been subjected to severe violence and emotional turmoil and have been forced into believing that they have absolutely no self worth or skill set.

Meet Ashish Solanki, founder of Khoobsurat Foundation, a not for profit NGO commited to the rehabilitation of sex workers in Najafgarh and other districts around Delhi. The Khoobsurat Foundation has collaborated with for-profit as well as other non-profit organizations to design an innovative and self-sufficient module to realize the aspirationsof hundreds of women. Ashish and his team have successfully created a system of dignified sustainable employment by training these sex workers as beauticians and ensuring that they get jobs thereafter. Thus far, Khoobsurat Foundation has rehabilitated over 200 women, giving each a fresh chance to pursue a socially respected career.

Ashish Solanki, Founder, Khoobsurat Foundation

Ashish Solanki, Founder, Khoobsurat Foundation

Women at the Premnagar Basti

Women at the Premnagar Basti

"Khoobsurat" - the Hindi word for Beautiful

“Khoobsurat” – the Hindi word for Beautiful

However, the path Ashish tread on was not an easy one take. More often than not, the very women he sought to help turned their backs on him. “The women had trust issues with us. They were very reserved and did not like interacting with a whole new class of society. There existed a communication gap between two divorced classes of society”, he recalls. However, it was not long before these women realized what lay before them, and readily seized the opportunity. The larger problem though, was the exceeding interference by male influences in these womens’ lives. Many men within the community refused to let women take the skill-set building workshops organized for them, seeing no need for empowerment or rehabilitation. Bound by the impositions of heavily male-dominated society, these women had to put up a tough fight so that they would be allowed to actualize their ambition. On his part, Ashish incorporated the medium of movies to make the women and their husbands understand of that a world of progress and socio-economic advancement existed outside their villages.

As Ashish prepares to join Williams College in August, he has nothing to say about the lakhs of rupees (over $8000) he raised for the cause or the hours of effort that his initiative demanded. He simply derives exhiliration from the smiles of all those women and children who have received a new lease of life through his work. Ashish proves that all one has to do to feel truly, deeply content is be out there to give a helping hand to those who need ot most.

Being a Man…literally!

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“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
― Nora Ephron

When we least expect it, life sends our way the most challenging obstacles. At age 17, Nisha was anything but ready for what was coming her way. This is her story.

Nisha is a resident of Rathora village in Uttar Pradesh, India. She is the third amongst five siblings. One afternoon when Nisha was in her senior year at school, she was faced with the sudden death of her father, the sole bread earner of the family. In a matter of days, Nisha’s shattered family was driven to the streets. At this trying time of her life, Nisha found herself deserted by relatives and extended family.

Nisha realized she had to take charge of the situation. She could not bear to see her younger siblings forced out of school, and readily gave up her own schooling to earn enough to afford them an education.

Before his demise, Nisha’s father was running a small tea stall outside the police station (chowki) at Chaprolli village. Nisha now resolved to take over this stall. But this was not an easy task. No girl had run a shop around the village before, and she faced stiff opposition from relatives and fellow villagers. In their opinion, a woman’s place was in the home, and the most she could to outside the four walls of the house was attend to the fields. As a result, Nisha was subject to boycott, and whoever she asked refused to grant her the loan she required to reopen the tea stall. Fortunately, an old acquaintance of her father agreed to lend her the 2000 rupees she so desperately required. With this money, Nisha was finally able to start business.

However one problem still lingered – nobody would buy from a stall run by a girl. But Nisha was not one to back down. The solution in her mind was simple: if the villagers wanted a boy to run the stall, they would get one. She cut her hair short and styled it like a man’s. She then borrowed a few of her brother’s clothes. In a matter of hours, Nisha had transformed herself into a rugged young man.

Nisha began running her stall in her newly acquired disguise. Though it didn’t take long for the villagers to recognize her, Nisha had already acquired a reasonable clientele by the time they did. Besides, the villagers gradually began to accept her and were quite impressed by her pursuit. There were instances when she was threatened and harassed by men, but she boldly persisted. Soon enough Nisha could afford to educate her siblings and get her elder sister married into a respectable family. A while later, she even bought herself a motorbike to facilitate the commute from the stall to her home.

Today, Nisha is not only successfully running her little stall, but is also running a parallel business of dealing in gas cylinders. She is a role model to the girls of her village, who aspire to be like her. Her family insists she gets married soon, but she has no such plans.

Nisha’s story is one of admirable bravery and of determinedly seeking solutions. It is not easy to to challenge deep-rooted social conditioning and cultural taboos . Moreover, to sacrifice one’s own dreams so that others can live theirs is a choice of compassion. Nisha is a living example of what one can do with just a little courage, by rising to the occasion and being a man – literally!

A Little Courage is All it Takes

 “You can build walls all the way to the sky and they will find a way to fly above them.

You can try to pin them down with a hundred thousand arms, but they will find a way to resist.

And there are many of them out there, more than you think.

People who refuse to stop believing. People who refuse to come to earth.

People who love in a world without walls,

people who love into hate, into refusal, against hope, and without fear.”
― Lauren OliverDelirium

Candour. Courage. Compassion. Words, which in today’s world, have gained weight but lost hearts to live within. These words were once the strongholds of success. Today, however, the meaning of success has altered radically. In a world where monetary assets govern every action, these words are slowly drifting into oblivion. People of our generation are the first to recognize the heir to a multibillion empire but would cringe when asked to identify a person of real purpose – someone who did his or her own bit to make the world a better place.

My effort is directed towards these people. Young people who have worked tirelessly for a cause – who have fought innumerable odds – to achieve, to grow and often, simply to survive. These remarkable individuals have exhibited the virtues of Deliberate Leadership in their everyday lives, incorporating values like courage, candour and compassion in their daily lives. Through this attempt, I hope to acknowledge a few extraordinary youngsters who have braved society, friends and even family to stand up for what they believe in. These are colleagues and friends who you and I meet everyday. Their courage inspires us, and we wonder why no one has ever acknowledged them. Well, now we will acknowledge them.

It is important for humankind to realize that courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it is in gritting your teeth through pain, in resisting pressure. Sometimes, it is in the slow walk towards achieving a better life. I invite you to join me in my  “100 Hidden Heroes Hunt” – an initiative that seeks to unearth hundred everyday trailblazers. A journey that hopes to inspire, overwhelm and, in its very own way, reward.