Shweta Katti grew up in a brothel in Mumbai’s red light area, was abused as a child, but she has left all that behind and is keen to go the US for higher studies.She is only 18, but she has a lot to boast about when it comes to her achievements. She was recently featured in Newsweek’s Women in The World: 25 Under-25 Young Women To Watch, along with Malala Yousufzai for her efforts to uplift young girls who are marginalized. “When Newsweek interviewed me I did not know it was such a big magazine, and that it was such a huge deal. I never expected to be featured with women who have achieved so much. It is amazing,” says Shweta.
Spending her childhood in a brothel, Shweta says, was tough.She is currently associated with an NGO, Kranti which helped her complete her studies and gave her therapy to deal with what she faced in her childhood. Katti was introduced to Kranti when she was looking for a place to study for her Class 12 exams. Over the year and half since she’s been with them, she has become the face of the NGO, travelling around the country, addressing conferences and promoting Kranti.“I was 12-years-old when my step father started sexually abusing me. I had no one to speak to. I was also abused by my brother-in-law. But I was scared to tell anyone, even my mother, because I knew that I would be blamed,” say Shweta whose mother works as a domestic help in a brothel.
Katti tells me that her mother was a devdasi — she doesn’t explain how she came about to be one — but insists that she never indulged in, as she puts it, ‘sex work’.”She was never involved in that,” she says. After she returned to Mumbai and started working in a factory nearby, she fell in love in a man called Suresh Hosmane. Soon after, Katti was born.Years later, her mother met another man who was willing to give her and her daughter shelter.That man was Ravinder Katti, whose name she now carries.For most of her childhood, Shweta Katti grew up thinking the man in the house was her father. But something didn’t feel right.”I never got the feeling I was his real daughter,” she says. “I was dark; he was the fairest man I knew.”There would be fights everyday; he would return home drunk, abuse and beat up her mother, her sisters and her… And there were the frequent remarks that she wasn’t his child.
“When I could not take it anymore, I told my teachers at Apne Aap, an NGO where I used to go for classes. It was they who put me through to Kranti,” recalls Shweta. She went through many sessions of counseling and therapy for her to gather up the courage to say no to her step father. “At first it was difficult, I couldn’t even run away. But then I gained the confidence. I was no more ashamed to talk about it”.When she confronted her mother, she says her mother was apologetic. “My mother has always supported me in my endeavours. Without her, I would have never reached this far.”
Spending her childhood in a brothel, she says, was tough. “At night I would hear the sex workers getting beaten up by their drunk husbands. No one respects you when you are in this profession. It is highly unsafe for women and young girls to live in a brothel,” Shweta said.Radha, a sex worker who she was close to during her childhood, is her inspiration. “When I was a kid, I used to while away time watching television. My mother used to scold me, but I hardly used to pay heed. It was Radha who told me that either I could study and get out of this place, or become a sex worker. I, of course, chose the former.”
School wasn’t very pleasant; Katti spent a lot of time chasing away bullies who called her names that cannot be printed. Though college was relatively quieter, it was also lonelier. During her stint at SNDT College, from where she completed her Grade 11 and 12, Katti says she rarely ever attended classes. She’d spend her time on the campus strolling along corridors or sitting under trees and reading books.Sure, she made acquaintances but the scars from her past, the abuse from her father and the name-calling by her classmates, had put her off interacting with anyone.
Shweta says that the sex workers she grew up with inspired her to get out of there and she wants to give back to the community in whatever way she can. “I plan to become a psychologist and have a therapy centre in Mumbai’s red light area. Sex workers and their children have serious mental problems, and I want to help them deal with their difficult lives.”
Earlier Katti used to work for Rescue, a shelter for young girls rescued from brothels in the city. Shelters like Rescue working for rescuing young girls from brothels of Mumbai focus on getting the girls married or teach them to sew or make papads and pickles. The girls eventually ended up working in canteens or in the hotel industry as janitors.Hoping to make a bigger difference in the lives of the girls they touched, the NGO “Kranti”was started, which means Revolution. “Food and clothing is fine but the real question wasn’t being addressed — how does one work on developing their talent?
Katti has been travelling around the country addressing young women and men She speaks better English than many young people of her age who come from more privileged backgrounds, but occasionally has to go back to Hindi, a language she’s most comfortable with.
She now lives in a shelter home in Kandivili though she visits her family often and is preparing for her TOEFL exams. She has applied to American University, Depaul University, Seattle University and Bard University for her higher studies on scholarship.This firebrand of a girl sounds extremely innocent, but has immense determination. Though she wants to go abroad, because of her backround, getting a passport had become almost impossible for her. She had to run from pillar to post and even approach the DGP of Mumbai police to her passport made.
Katti says she has always wanted to go to the US. Her obsession with foreign education, probably has something to do with the fact that most of the good things that have happened to her, have been because of foreigners.”A large part of the reason why her education has been sorted is because of a British social worker who ran a programme for English learning and computer education,” she explains.The US trip has done wonders for Katti’s confidence. She’s been facing journalists and camerapersons all by herself and has been doing a fantastic job. Shweta Katti will leave Mumbai for New York on August 10 to begin a new life at Bard College. They’ve offered her a $30,000 scholarship that covers her tuition fees for the year, as well as half her accommodation cost.