Girls, Uninterrupted: helping women beat the odds with technology

Rebooting their lives: From teaching English and computers, to jewellery designing and 3D printing, Free-D is trying to help these girls break out of a potentially vicious cycle.  

The first time Puja (name changed to protect her identity) had to use Microsoft PowerPoint, she began to cry.

“I was so scared”, she remembers. Scared of failing, scared of being surrounded by so many new people, scared of being expected to speak in front of them soon. Just a few weeks before, the 18-year old girl had used a computer for the first time in her life.

“But today, I’m not scared anymore”, she smiles with a spark of pride in her face, surrounded by what she calls “her team” — three other girls her age.

The object of fear is standing right in front of them: a laptop with a presentation about their design process for a large, golden earring they created with a 3D printer. “I never though I could make something so beautiful myself“, Puja says.

Altogether, ten girls are sitting in a large seminar room at “Imaginarium”, a company offering 3D printing solutions in jewellery, engineering, automotive or healthcare. Taylor Swift’s “Gorgeous” is playing in the background. After weeks of intensive training in presentation, computer-aided design and 3D printing technologies, the young women are coming together again today to brainstorm with professionals from the company to improve their initial jewellery designs.

Girls, Uninterrupted: helping women beat the odds with technology

The bright and modern office in Andheri East with frosted glass walls and a billiards table might be the greatest possible contrast to the world where Puja and the others are coming from: Mumbai’s government-run shelter homes.

Imaginarium is just one of five partners that London-based social enterprise “Free-D” has teamed up with in India’s so-called “city of dreams” to try the seemingly impossible. They teach the use of a very new technology to fight a very old problem: the trafficking of girls into modern slavery such as sexual exploitation or forced labour.

“If you look at it holistically, we want to prevent the trafficking from happening in the first place”, Free-D co-founder Siavash Mahdavi explains over the phone from London. To do so, Free-D reaches out to disadvantaged girls, many of them vulnerable to being trafficked because they had to escape domestic violence, had been abandoned by their families or lost their parents and ended up as orphans.

As per the National Crime Records Bureau, 10,150 women — among them 4,911 minor girls — were trafficked in India in 2016. Which means: At least one woman is sold every hour. And these numbers are just a sample of the harsh reality, as most trafficking cases go unreported.

And this is not just India‘s problem, but a global crisis: 71% of the 40 million people considered to be in modern slavery globally, are female.

The idea of Free-D was born when tech entrepreneur Mahdavi, whose 3D software startup “Within Technologies” was bought by the US-company “Autodesk” for $ 88,5 million in 2014, started to fund NGOs working with survivors of sex trafficking in Brazil and India. Most of them had a focus on dance and art therapy.

Girls, Uninterrupted: helping women beat the odds with technology

“I met with one of the women working there in charge of fundraising and I asked her: ‘What happens to the girls after they finished the sessions?’ And she said, well, she doesnt really know. And I found that quite shocking”, Mahdavi says. He soon found out that one of the biggest challenges in rescuing girls and keeping them safe, is re-trafficking due to the lack of other employment opportunities.

From that day on, Mahdavi wondered if he could use his background in 3D printing to offer disadvantaged girls a perpective to find long-term employment in one of the fastest growing economies. The idea turned into reality, when Mahdavi, together with 30 year-old entrepreneur, physicist and CEO Katherine Prescott, shipped a 3D printer from London to Mumbai in July 2017.

Their journey included some unforeseen problems, like the Indian roads for example. “Actually these things don’t travel well in autorickshaws, so my first workshops in January were more like: How to fix a 3D printer and why technology breaks...”, Prescott laughs.

After the two had started with some smaller workshops, Prescott and Mahdavi found a partner in Thane-based NGO “Kshamata”. For several years, founder Bharathy Tahiliani is trying what Free-D just started: social reintegration of disadvantaged girls through longterm education and economic empowerment. In 2013, Tahiliani opened up the “Kshamata Transformation Centre”, in which around 700 girls have been trained so far in skills such as maths, English, tailoring, drawing, jewellery-design or computer usage.

“For us, Free-D becomes a very important flagship-project which creates an unconventional model of livelihood and employability for our girls”, Tahiliani says. Together with Prescott, her team worked for months to lay the groundwork.

They went to the shelter houses to present the idea; convinced 60 girls to apply; picked out the final candidates; applied for their custody; found apartments for them to live in; provided a team of social workers for counselling during the eight-month long education program.

Meanwhile, Prescott — the girls call her “Didi” — was developing the curriculum on the run: After they had gone through a basic education at the Kshamata-center, they attained English classes at Teach India, visited a workshop at the 3D printing company PrintOmake, undertook a course at the Indian Institute of Gems & Jewellery and then finally went on to Imaginarium, where some of them are going to start internships over a longer period soon.

In January 2019, Prescott hopes Free-D will start with the second round of this unique initiative, with even more NGOs involved. To help girls like Puja and her team, who agree that “this is the best thing” which has ever happened in their lives.

(Ms Eul is a visiting journalist to The Hindu and reported from Mumbai under the “Media Ambassadors India-Germany” fellowship)

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 5:06:46 AM |

Next Story