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Journey of discovery for donors

One is an athlete, another the CEO of a company. A filmmaker, a lawyer, a political activist, a journalist and two others complete the star-spangled line-up.

But this isn’t your usual super achievers’ club out on some stress-busting trip to the exotic east.

For the past two days, the motley group of eight has been walking Calcutta’s dark lanes of despair to see for themselves lives far removed from theirs but not far from their hearts — that of women trafficked and prostituted.

All eight visitors from the US have been a part of the global women’s movement as members of the New York-based Donor Direct Action that advances the cause by connecting frontline activists with frontline donors.

The person at the centre of the action is, of course, Gloria Steinem. Two years ago, she had ideated a “learning tour” funded by Peter and Jennifer Buffett’s NoVo Foundation and led a team of 11 “activists and thought leaders” from the US and Canada into Calcutta’s dark lanes.

This time, the feminist icon and convener of the Donor Direct Action steering committee has drawn eight of its members to spend two whole days in the city learning about the “last girl”.

At a lunch hosted by industrialist Harsh Neotia and wife Madhu at their Queen’s Park home, Jamie Schaefer eloquently described her Calcutta experience as someone eager to make a difference.

“This is my first time here and we have come to see the full cycle of sexual trafficking,” Jamie, who co-owns Westglow Resort & Spa in the US, told Metro.

“We visited Sonagachhi and some of the Apne Aap girls in Kidderpore. We sat with women in the park to hear their stories of being trafficked and imported or exported from Nepal and bordering countries. We went with the children into their villages and into their homes. It was a remarkable experience, to come here as donors and see the difference we can make with a donation,” she said.

Jamie isn’t new to charity and the cause of women’s rights. She is the founding member of the Appalachian Women’s Fund that focuses on improving the lives of girls and women through grants and advocacy.

Steinem’s Donor Direct Action works on non-traditional infrastructure to “function with the least bureaucracy and greatest effectiveness, raising and regranting money to groups while keeping our overhead minimal, our offices virtual, and our work organised”.

The organisation supports activists working on a range of issues pertaining to the promotion of equality for women and the global effort to end violence and discrimination against them. Organisations in Nepal, Zambia, Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan and Latvia, among other countries, have received donations for their work over the years.

The donors believe in strengthening women’s rights organisations around the world. In India, their focus is on helping Apne Aap Women Worldwide by increasing access to funds, advocacy and visibility.

Steinem’s visit to Calcutta is apparently part of the reason why all eight are in town at this time.

“I wanted to come to India when Gloria would be here because I wanted to see India through her eyes,” said Bonnie Schaefer, who was part of Equality Now and had previously travelled with Steinem to understand the multiple layers of human trafficking.

After her two-day exchange with marginalised women, girls and children, Bonnie is as enlightened as she is overcome by the extent of the problem. “I will never be the same… My job now is to work harder on women’s rights in India; whatever I can do financially or politically, to help. It’s like fighting a tidal wave.”

So would she and the rest now do things differently?

“So many of the foundations that exist in the US are working top down, but what is necessary is to humanise the process….(the lesson is) to not obey the old way of organising but follow the simplest way, which is bottom up,” Steinem said.

The delegation will next visit Forbesganj in Bihar, a place infamous for inter-generational prostitution, to study the Apne Aap model of organising girls in small groups of five to stand strong and independent and break out of the shackles.