|Swati Chaudhuri (hands raised) spars with a girl at the shelter. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
Sandhya, Subhra and Suktara come from “high-risk” backgrounds. Victims of abuse and trauma, the teenagers have been staying in an open shelter managed by the Institute of Psychological and Educational Research (IPER) under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) for the past two years.
Four months ago, the girls had no clue about taekwondo, kickboxing or any other kind of martial arts.
“We have often seen girls being teased in front of us. We have never felt safe ourselves. Whenever we heard or read about crime in our city we would feel more nervous,” said Subhra.
Today her face lights up at the mention of taekwondo and she can show a few moves too, having got martial arts training over the past four months.
For Subhra and several other vulnerable children of IPER, help came all the way from Milan. An alumnus of Calcutta International School, Swati Chaudhuri has lived in Europe for the past 15 years, providing corporate training in Milan and Paris.
When it came to doing her bit for society, Chaudhuri turned to Calcutta, where she has set up a non-profit organisation, Geosatis Trust, to empower underprivileged children and abused or marginalised women through sports, especially martial arts.
A kickboxer herself, Chaudhuri felt the need “to do something” after the December 16 gang rape in Delhi. Her resolution strengthened as she started seeing more and more reports of rape, molestation and abuse in her own city.
“It got me unnerved and strengthened my resolution to work towards empowering kids and the weaker section. By then I was already involved in helping kids gain empowerment and knowledge through regular sports like football.”
Chaudhuri rues the fact that few girls in India are encouraged to take up sports. “Girls hardly came to our sports camps. Many are too ill-nourished for regular training. That got me thinking and finally I set up a trust to help children, especially girls, get the confidence they need, through martial sports. I also mix a bit of football and rugby with self-defence training.”
The project began with 20 children, 90 per cent of them girls, on the IPER campus. From the current batch, eight students (six girls and two boys) have been selected for an advanced course.
Among them is 10-year-old Mousumi. “I feel happy during training. Martial arts has given me confidence. I can kick anyone trying to harass me or my friends,” she said.
Subhra and Suktara have been teaching their friends in school too.
“They are eager to know what we were learning. And my teachers joke that they will be scared of scolding us now,” Subhra said.
Not just girls, Chaudhuri’s initiative has had a positive impact on the boys as well. Samit, a 20-year-old who has been part of IPER’s education project, said his new skills would help him stand up for justice.
“I meet several bikers and road-Romeos in the slum where I live and in the areas where I work. I hope to teach them a lesson sometime.”
Bijli Mallik, director of IPER and chairperson of Child Welfare Committee (South 24-Parganas), said such training was the need of the hour.
“These girls are vulnerable and everybody knows that. This is an open shelter. The girls go to schools, tuition and often to the market alone. Some stay in nearby slums or go to visit their parents in other areas. After the training, I can see the confidence in their eyes,” she added.
“The number of students at IPER has now gone up to 35. We have also conducted workshops with kids in Salkia and in Rajabazar,” said Chaudhuri, who herself is training in muay thai and taekwondo.
Chaudhuri, who was in India till August, has plans for more training modules with other institutes as well as for rural women.
“Given the current crime rate in the city, martial arts will come in handy. I have a team of eight trustees, including taekwondo master Mrityunjoy Roy and international boxer Kamal Mujtaba helping me in my cause.”
Funds and donations are beginning to pour in from abroad. “There is a huge interest in the West to get involved in such empowerment programmes in India. I know of several martial sports maestros back home (Milan and Paris) keen on lending assistance to my cause. They will get involved very soon,” she said.
Chaudhuri hopes that like Subhra and Suktara the beneficiaries of her project will pass on the skills to others.
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