One of the countless benefits I have received from yoga is feeling empowered to raise awareness about and money for communities that are suffering around the world. In 2009, I discovered Off the Mat, Into the World, an organization that uses the power of yoga to inspire conscious, sustainable activism and to ignite grassroots social change.
Each year, Off the Mat organizes a Global Seva Challenge in which participants from around the world raise money to benefit people in a certain region of the world. So far, the organization has supported fundraisers like me in raising over $3 million dollars for NGOs that are doing incredible work in India, South Africa, Haiti, Cambodia, Uganda and the Amazon. The most successful year of the Seva Challenge was 2012, during which we raised over $1 million for India. It was through raising money to support organizations in India that are providing refuge, rehabilitation and economic opportunities to sex trafficking victims that I learned about and proudly joined the Half the Sky community.
In February 2013, I visited the organizations we supported in India along with the other 40 or so other fundraisers who reached the $20k fundraising goal and the leaders of Off the Mat, Into the World. My intention for this year's Off the Mat Bare Witness Tour to combat sex trafficking in India was to experience awe and inspiration. That said, the horrific stories in books I read and documentaries I watched about sex trafficking in India before the trip diminished my confidence in finding hope in a country with a history so deeply entrenched in the oppression of women.
When I arrived in Delhi, I believed that India desperately needed our guidance and support. As our intense two-week journey unfolded, I realized that we had so much to learn from the tireless NGO leaders we worked with who are making progressive waves in a traditional society. Women face oppression, violence and rape in every country, and the organizations we worked with in Delhi and Kolkata unveiled effective and sustainable models that can be replicated around the world to empower and save women.
We began our journey at an Apne Aap Women Worldwide shelter for women who have been victims of sexual violence and those that are currently in or at risk for entering the sex trade. Under the leadership of Ruchira Gupta, these women and children learn vocational skills and ensure access to their rights. Ruchira's vision is a world where women can realize their full potential. Today, Apne Aap reaches over 10,000 women and girls.
We then spent two days at our second destination, Sanlaap. This organization provides housing, food and vocational training to 160 girls that have been rescued from the sex industry. Many girls were illegally trafficked at a young age, and the stories and scars from their traumatic childhoods brought many of us to tears. The girls taught us skills from block printing to jewelry making, and many of them have gone on to translate the techniques learned at Sanlaap into profitable careers.
My favorite two days of the trip were spent with Women's Interlink Foundation at Made by Survivors and Nikoloy. Aloka Mitra, founder of Women's Interlink Foundation, might be the most remarkable woman I have ever met. During her 50 years doing this work, she has implemented over 35 innovative projects in India and continues to provide awareness, literacy, healthcare, nutrition, skill-development and income generation to thousands of disadvantaged women and children. Her focus on communication and collaboration has been key to her success, and making jewelry with Aloka's girls at a Made by Survivors location was a joy.
Kolkata Sanved is extremely well-aligned with Off the Mat, empowering women through dance therapy. Everyone was elated as we danced and sang together, and watching one of the young dance instructors teach a large group of prostitutes' children to dance and express their emotions was heartwarming. We joined Kolkata Sanved in the One Billion Rising rally for women's rights that was held worldwide in response to the recent gang rape in Delhi. We emphatically sang, danced and marched with hundreds of women and men in honor of the one in three women worldwide who have been victims of violence and abuse.
We were all smiles while singing and dancing with the adorable nuns dressed in orange and the 18 young girls of AMURT at the Ananda Marga Children's Home in Narendrepur. Parentless, these girls would likely be trafficked if they were not living under the loving care of the nuns.
Despite my apprehension, I experienced divine awe, inspiration and gratitude in India. I am so grateful for everyone from Off the Mat, the trip organizers at the Village Experience, the passionate leaders we worked with in India, and for the Half the Sky movement for bringing women's empowerment into the spotlight. Now is the time to let it shine.