It was going to be my first visit to Budhwar Peth, Pune’s famous red-light area, and I was both nervous and excited. While safety concerns were making me a little nervous, I was excited at the prospect of finally visiting this oh-so-talked-about area.

The Pune-based NGO Swadhar IDWC (Institute for Development of Women & Children)’s Mohor initiative operates out of Budhwar Peth. Started in 1997, Mohor is a day care center, night school and shelter that Swadhar IDWC runs for children of commercial sex workers.

Initially started as 3 hours center, Mohor has now developed into a 24 hours day care and night shelter. Children between the ages of 6 months to 15 years are looked after at Mohor from 10am to 5pm. Here, they are provided with a conducive environment for their growth and development along with basic healthcare, nutrition, recreation and education. And to top it all off, rehabilitation of some of the children is sought by placing them in residential schools where they can pursue their education and live a healthy life.

After working closely with these children and their mothers, a pressing need was felt to take care of the children at night as well in order to minimize exposure to uncongenial atmosphere. So, in 2007, after a decade of operations, Mohor also started a Night School and Shelter for these children.

The team very proudly shared with me that Mohor’s work has been recognized by the Pune Police Department.

Another initiatiave targetted at children is Rays of Hope. It was born out of the observation that the focus of HIV/AIDS intervention is usually on the sexually active population, while children who are the silent victims are neglected. Started in 2005, Rays of Hope helps children with HIV/AIDS cope with the disease better. Under this project, nutritional, educational, counseling and other basic support is provided. Presently 140 children are being supported under this project.

One of these children is Pragati (name changed). Pragati’s mother, Ashwini Rathod (name changed), was a Devdasi who died of HIV/AIDS. Ashwini’s employers wanted to keep Pragati in the hope that she could work as a sex worker, in the future, too. Luckily for Pragati, Swadhar IDWC volunteers interrupted this procedure and took the girl under their wing; they withstood local harassment, nuisances and agitations and successfully delivered the girl to an orphanage with the approoval of the child welfare committee (CWC).

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2010) does not cover children in the age group 0 to 3 years – early childhood and 3-6 years-pre school years. As we all know, these early years are very important for the holistic development of the child. It is also universally known that when children get pre-school education the chance of their dropping out decreases. This led to the setting up of Akshardeep, in 1998, in the Bibwewadi slums.

Swadhar helped parents of 650-odd children in the Bibvewadi area where no municipal school exists for over four to five km, to submit a petition to the Pune Municipal Corporation’s school board, pointing out the urgent need for a school in the area and for transport facilities to take the children to other schools in the interim.

The project also counsels students and their parents, motivating them to get admission to the schools. Classes are conducted for students who cannot be admitted to regular schools. Vikasdeep, for early childhood development and a Reading Class Program are also conducted.

Swadhar looks beyond education too; to provide opportunities to adolescent girls and women from low income groups to learn life skills, vocational skills, develop their personality and become economically independent and self-reliant. Efforts are also made to work for the transformation of social and cultural values that shackle and constrict the girl child and mould her into stereotypical roles. This is done through Personality Development, Educational Measures and Vocational training.

The skills imparted include rangoli and mehendi, hand embroidery, knitting, crochet and the like. Vocational training is provided in tailoring, beautician’s primary course etc. The organisation also organises lectures and discussions on sex education, nutrition, common non-communicable diseases and waste management. Information about post, banking, saving schemes is also provided along with the knowledge about monthly home budget, costing of various products made for sale.

The team proudly shared with me that 6 young women from the class had started tailoring work on their own and have become earning members of their families. I was also amuzed to learn that another girl Poonam, who had completed the beauty parlour course, is now successfully running her own beauty parlour and has employed assistants from Swadhar IDWC itself!

The organisation also believes that education is the key to the empowerment of girls and women. Girls’ education most often takes a back seat in low income group families resulting in drop outs from school and early marriage. Swadhar, IDWC therefore started the Educational Sponsorship for Girl Students in 2001 by creating the Education Fund. This sponsorship programme gives educational material and financial assistance to school-going girl students from Std VIII to Std.

Further, girls dropping out of school due to various reasons, including inability to cope with difficult subjects like Maths, English and Science, are encouraged to appear for Std X through the NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) with subjects like Home Science, Typing, Word Processing, etc. Financial assistance is also given to girls or young women attending/wanting to attend vocational training programmes. This programme has been extremely beneficial for girls like Tejashree. Had it not been for the support from Swadhar, she would not have reached her third year in engineering.

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