As part of an ongoing series created by our International Representative (India) Alifya Loharchalwala, we will be telling a series of ‘Unkahi Kahaani’: Untold Stories of girls who are creating a positive difference in their communities through their work.
Untold Stories: Sheetal Jain
Content Warning: rape, sexual abuse, domestic abuse
“I could have ended up in a brothel like a few of my friends if I would not be sent away to a hostel far away from home at age 13.” - Sheetal Jain, daughter of a bar dancer and sex worker in Kamathipura (Asia’s most infamous red light area).
When you meet this 22 year old cheerful and good humored music-art therapist, you feel in awe of her determined spirit and enthusiasm to create an impact on the life of others. “I aim to design music therapy sessions for girls who have faced sexual abuse to help them overcome trauma” Sheetal says resolutely.
After having hours of conversation with her on life, I realized Sheetal precisely understands the adverse impact that abuse can have because of her own life experiences. Sexually abused and raped by her step father for over six years from the age of six, she has faced multiple forms oppression and violence within the walls of the very institutions that were supposed to protect her.
“I wanted to die because I did not know how to save myself. As soon as it was time for him to come home, I would hide in my neighbor’s house to protect myself, but eventually he would come and find me,” she sadly recalls.
Her alcoholic mother did little to save Sheetal from violence and rape except recommending marriage as a solution to all problems. “I stopped complaining to her, because I was afraid she would send me to the village or get me married,” she explains.
Her school teachers loathed her because of the stigma attached to her mother’s sex work and assumed Sheetal was making up stories in order to cover up for her poor academic skills.
“Instead of helping me, my teachers would pass comments on my background; they often repeated sentences like ‘randi ki beti randi banegi’ which means a prostitute’s daughter is destined to become a prostitute’, I was disappointed with the education system,” she says with a disheartened expression. Ridiculed and taunted for unkempt looks and poor academic abilities, she dropped out of several schools.
At age twelve, abandoned by her mother, Sheetal worked as a house maid for almost 2 years where she was made to work for twelve to fourteen hours every day, and one of her tasks also included buying liquor for her alcoholic employer. “My employer allowed me to stay at her place and provided me with food, but I had to work long hours. I was underweight and was barely able to cope up with her work demands, she would keep threatening to throw me out of the house and I did not have any other place to go to,” Sheetal recollects.
The turning point in Sheetal’s life came about in a very ironic way. Her step father, afraid that Sheetal would expose his crime of rape, forcibly sent her away to a hostel far away from home.
She does not have very fond memories of the hostel but she was able to use this as an opportunity to get away from domestic violence. “Even though, they made me convert to another religion, made me mop floors and baby-sit younger children, I got a chance to go to school and I’m grateful for this.”