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Founder of Aarti Shelter for Abandoned Girls Honored

The Indians for Collective Action sponsored Sandhya Puchalapalli’s recent talk. From left to right: Aarti Trust executive secretary Durga Choudary, ICA president Unmesh Sheth, Sandhya Puchalapalli, ICA past president Lata Pati, ICA executive committee member Abhay Bhushan, and Abha Singhvi. (Sunita Sohrabji photo)
  • SAN JOSE, Calif., United States

    Sandhya Puchalapalli’s foray into feminist activism began in 1992, when she found an abandoned baby girl on a street in her hometown Kadapa, in Andhra Pradesh.

    Puchalapalli took the tiny infant home and cared for her as one of her own. Twenty years later, the abandoned baby girl is now a radiologist.

    But Puchalapalli (right in pic) realized then that she had uncovered a larger problem. “It was not one girl or two that were abandoned. There are so many baby girls. I called my friends to ask what should we do,” Puchalapalli told an audience assembled at the Cardea Center here July 29, three days after receiving a Global Leaders Impact Award from the Global Women’s Leadership Network. The talk was organized by the nonprofit Indians for Collective Action.

    The Andhra Pradesh native founded the Aarti Home that same year, which – since its inception – has provided a permanent home to 300 abandoned baby girls, and currently houses 100 children. Parents can bring their unwanted baby to the home and leave the child anonymously at the gate. A watchman then brings the child into the facility. Older girls who have been sexually or emotionally abused, or may have been inducted into prostitution by their parents, are also welcomed at the home and are often brought there by police, who are familiar with the home and sympathetic to its cause, said Puchalapalli.

    The Aarti Trust also runs a school for children of both sexes, and a higher education program which trains young women to work with computers. The trust is looking for donations of 100 computers to build a lab for its trainees.

    Women can also train there to become beauticians, fashion designers or tailors. Twenty-seven girls raised at the Aarti Home are pursuing college degrees, noted Puchalapalli with the beaming pride of a mother.

    Durga Choudary (left in pic), executive secretary of the Aarti Trust, told India-West after the talk that 100 percent of the young people trained by Aarti are employed after undergoing the program. Choudary was wearing a resplendent blue sari hand-embroidered by an Aarti student now working with Lalitha Tailoring, which is run by the Aarti Trust. The profits from Lalitha Tailoring pay the entire electricity bill for the Aarti home, she said.

    Puchalapalli recalled the story of a girl trained at the school. When she was in the 5th grade, her father sold her school textbooks to buy textbooks for his son. But now that she is earning money, she has gained status within her family. “Her husband brings her tea, which is the highest honor in some families,” said Puchalapalli, provoking a laugh from her audience.

    “Why are women aborting or abandoning their baby girls? Why are they not able to stand up their families and say, ‘I will not abandon my child,’” queried Puchalapalli, adding that the problem was several-fold, with women having no financial independence to leave an abusive family and no knowledge about their legal rights. Dowry demands also play a factor in forcing women to abandon their girl babies, she stated.

    “We need to help mothers understand the value of their girl children,” she stated. 

    In 2008, Puchalapalli was selected to participate in the Women Leaders for the World program, run by Santa Clara University, which brings together women from all over the world to create change in their communities. After participating in the program, Puchalapalli went back to Kadapa and created a women’s leadership program that is now implemented in 300 villages in the area. Key to the program is giving women an understanding of their legal rights and involving district officials in the area.

    “In one village, there was no road to the local school, and children had to walk in a drain so many didn’t go to school.” After attending the leadership program, women went to the district collector to ask for a road to be built there. “They got it in no time,” said Puchalapalli proudly.

    The child-sex ratio in India is hugely skewed, noted The Economist magazine in an April 2011 story about India’s “aversion” to girl children. The article noted that the last census claimed a ratio of 925 girls for every 1,000 boys. In 2011, the ratio had dipped to 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. 

    But Puchalapalli noted that in the communities in which the Aarti women’s leadership program has been implemented, child-sex ratios have remained about the same and have not dipped from previous years. In those communities, more women are gaining training for an occupation, and fewer marriages are arranged with dowries.

    ICA sponsored Puchalapalli to participate in the WLW program, and has sponsored one or two women to participate in the program every year since its inception in 2005. The organization is now raising funds to create a similar India-based program, which can involve many more women, ICA past president Lata Patil told India-West. 

    The program in India – which is expected to begin in 2013 – will be implemented by the Ahmedabad-based Self Employed Women’s Association and by the Aarti Trust. ICA is raising $15,000 to start the program which is expected to train 50 women in its first year and eventually scale up to train 300 women, according to Patil.

    The BBC aired a documentary about the Aarti Home in 2007, directed and produced by Ashok Prasad.

    ICA is a San Francisco Bay area nonprofit working on behalf of India’s poor. It was started in the 1980s under the leadership of Indian American professor P.K. Mehta and his friends in Berkeley. 

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