Talia Rothman is no stranger to risk. Riding her bike to work in India each day, she engaged in a death-defying dance with motorcycles, cars, and buses – even cows. But those risks paled in comparison to the dangers faced by the heroes she met as part of her six-week internship at the nongovernmental organization Guria.
The NGO works with children of sex workers in the heart of the red light area in Varanasi, an ancient city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which shares a border with Nepal. Guria, which means “doll” in Hindi, was started in 1991 when founders Ajit and Manju Singh adopted three girls whose birth mothers were prostitutes. Housed in a former brothel, the center now supports more than 300 children ranging from ages 3-17.
“Working at Guria, I was exposed to people who risk their lives every day to save the most vulnerable, exploited members of society,” Rothman says. “I saw how that kind of passion could be your whole life.”
As an LS&A sophomore, Rothman discovered Guria when she was researching options for a Summer in South Asia Fellowship through the U-M Center for South Asian Studies. While she had an interest in human rights, her passion for traveling to India deepened when she took a women’s studies class taught by Leela Fernandes, professor of women’s studies and political science.
On her first day at Guria last summer, Rothman discovered the place was anything but typical. Most of the students came to the school on their own accord, and the same kids did not show up each day. Meanwhile, Rothman did not speak Hindi, which presented its own challenges. But she quickly overcame the language barrier through the universal language of games.
“We played,” she says. “We played games that the seven French interns, who were there before me, had taught them. Games that the kids had made up, and even games that I began teaching them.”
Rothman came to see the students had created their own makeshift family at Guria. Energy and joy infused the place, and while the kids would fight and scream at each other, they also laughed, painted, danced, sang, and meditated together.
But the harsh reality of their lives away from school was always near the surface. Once, when Rothman and two other interns worked together to put up a dance performance, the children decided to do a miming act about sex trafficking.
“It was so real, partly because it is part of their daily lives,” Rothman says.
On the front lines
Spending time at Guria gave Rothman a true-to-life picture of the desperate fight to end sex trafficking. The numbers are staggering. A UN report says that more than 20 million women and children are trafficked around the world. In India alone, there are about 3 million women sex workers and 40 percent of them are children.
Guria works to rescue women and children from human trafficking. It provides legal support and a witness protection program in a place where police often ignore such complaints. The group also provides new ways to make a living. In the short time Rothman spent at Guria, she saw about 40 sex and forced-labor workers rescued from the nearby Indo-Nepal border.
A light in the darkness
But it was the children of Guria who left the most enduring impression on Rothman, now a junior majoring in women’s studies and history. During the internship, she spent most of her time with the kids, creating a unique bond with one girl, whose name was Muskan. It means “smile” in Hindi. Muskan, says Rothman, was “wise beyond her years.”
“Even though I saw her wearing the same set of clothes for an entire week, it never bothered her,” says Rothman. In fact, Muskan was always happy; she let things roll off her back without getting into fights or arguments with the other kids.
Once it started to rain in the middle of an oppressively hot day, Rothman says. Muskan and some other children ran outside and started to jump with glee as the raindrops soaked them.
A life-changing summer
Along with the Guria center, Rothman also volunteered at a school on a boat on the Ganges River, which flows through the heart of the city. The school, also run by Guria, was started to engage the child laborers who work in the tourism industry. Rothman often spent her evenings teaching the kids English and watching Ganga arti, a Hindu ritual that involves worshipping the river and then floating lamps out on the water.
After her internship, Rothman traveled around India for another couple of weeks, taking in the country that had such an impact on her.
Initially worried about traveling alone, she says, “I was wrong. People welcomed me with open arms and watched out for me, making sure I was safe.”
Rothman hopes to return to India and Guria one day. In the meantime, her experience during the summer internship motivated her to take another bold step – a semester abroad. She is spending the current winter semester in Tokyo.
“It is grounding to have known these true heroes,” she says of her time in India. “I hope to possibly work toward the same efforts in studying sexual exploitation in some capacity [in Tokyo].”
(Top image: Talia Rothman with one of the Guria students. Image courtesy of Rothman.)