This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit Bal Ashram, a program for male survivors of forced, or bonded, labor located in Jaipur, India. Established in 1998 as a rehabilitation and training center of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), Bal Ashram is a "transitory rehabilitation center for rescued children giving them a feeling of cohesiveness, education and vocational training thereby helping them to become self-supportive, self-confident and to overcome the traumatic spell of the past".
Most of the kids at the Ashram have been rescued from various forms of forced labor in industries such as coal/mineral mining, brick kilns, circuses, carpet weaving and stone quarries. These industries thrive because of child labor and are home to some of the most exploitative working conditions in the world. Over the past few years I've visited many homes and centers for survivors of trafficking and rarely have I seen an operation as effective and well rounded as Bal Ashrams.
The site is located in a rural area outside the center of Jaipur and is surrounded by mountains, hills and desert that seem to go on forever. At night you can stand outside engulfed in cool, fresh air and look up at the sky and see what seems like every star in the universe. The peace and tranquility this environment offers is a very important part of the rehabilitation process for the boys and is a major reason why their recovery has been so successful.
The Ashram provides the kids with a formal education but also works to engage and educate the boys on social development, human rights, physical and spiritual well being, leadership and vocational training. This multi-pronged focus on education and awareness is evident in the level of maturity and social consciouness the boys possess and is a very important component missing from many similiar programs I've visited.
Below are a few excerpts from my journal about the trip:
Saturday November 10th 2012:
Woke at 5:30am. Morning prayers and yoga followed by a hike to a local temple - all before 8am! However it was definitely worth it as the views were stunning and it was beautiful to watch the sunrise from atop the mountain. It was a great way to start the day as it left us rejuvenated and in awe of all the natural beauty surrounding us.
After breakfast we conducted a workshop with the older kids to discuss their views on trafficking, womens empowerment and rights, the role of men and women in society in India as well as ways to address these issues and help diminish or eradicate them. I was pleasantly surprised with how informed and progressive these kids were. Most of them were already aware of womens empowerment, what it means and how they play a part in making sure it happens and what they needed to do to contribute to the issue in a positive way. They were far more advanced in their thinking than most men twice their age and they left me with the impression that if most men in this country thought and felt like they did, the women (and India as a whole) would be much better off. I credit the staff at BBA (especially the volunteer coordinator Basu) for creating and fostering this kind of environment. Basu , a survivor himself, is an amazing role model for the kids at the Ashram - and they love him! They look up to him like as an older brother and he sets a great example by treating them (and others) with respect, kindness and love. Without the male staff members setting the example it can't work. I also noticed that the animals on the property are in good shape. The kids treat them well and show them affection. To me, this is another sign they are being taught the true meaning of compassion.
Sunday November 11th 2012
After a long day we gathered in the hall for our last night to say thank you to each other and tell the kids what we thought of our time with them. The kids also presented one of the volunteers with a surprise birthday gift and we all sang happy birthday to her. She was very touched. Afterwards we had an impromptu laugh session where everyone in the room just started laughing as hard as they could for no reason at all. Soon enough the entire hall was drowning in loud, uncontrollable cackles of laughter accompanied by bright, smiling faces.
The night ended with all the kids, staff members and volunteers dancing for over an hour to high energy Bollywood music! Flailing legs and arms were everywhere as the volunteers tried to keep up with the kids and mimic their fancy Bollywood dance moves; but instead they ended up looking like fish out of water gasping for air. Good times indeed! During a break in the dancing I was talking to Basu and he was telling me they like to have these dance nights at least once a week to help the kids blow off steam and forget their problems. He said laughing and dancing was a very effective way to lighten the mood and get everyone feeling joyous and happy. Later, as I walked to my room and found myself still smiling and happy from the nights events, I couldn't agree more.
Most projects and shelters dealing with the aftermath of trafficking are focused on helping only the women so it was great to see one focusing on the boys as well. Boys and men are part of the problem of trafficking so they must also be part of the solution. Seeing how the staff at Bal Ashram instills the ideals of human rights and equality for all into their boys was heart warming and it gives me hope that there can be positive male role models for boys and men to learn from. These kids will grow up to be great husbands and fathers that in turn raise their kids with the same ethics and morals they were taught.
This is how you break the cycle.