A four-part Netflix documentary series, “Daughters of Destiny,” which first aired July 28, chronicles over several years the lives of four Dalit girls aspiring to break free of generational poverty via the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, a residential school in Baliganapalli, Tamil Nadu.
Indian American businessman Abraham George founded the school in 1997, after selling his company, Multinational Computer Models, to SunGard Data Systems. His son, Ajit, now serves as the director of operations the innovative school, which takes in low-income children at age four and supports their education until they have graduated from college. Children are chosen from families whose household income is less than $2 per day; they remain at the capacious school for 10 months per year, and return home for two months.
“All our kids are dealing with multiple aspects of poverty,” Ajit George told India-West in a telephone interview. He noted high rates of suicides in the students’ families – many due to crushing debts – gender and caste-based violence, and physical and emotional abuse.
Shanti Bhavan’s children are expected to enter a profession after college to pull their families out of debt, and to support the education of younger children. Abraham George said in the series that he expects each Shanti Bhavan student to impact the lives of 100 children.
Acclaimed director Vanessa Roth filmed five girls for seven years: one youngster, Thenmozhi, who was four when Roth began; and Preetha, Manjula, Karthika, and Shilpa, who are in college by the third and fourth episodes.
In the series’ most touching moments, Roth chronicles the girls’ lives as they return home each year. Karthika, one of the most ambitious students who goes on to study law in Kolkata, returns to a hut alongside a quarry, where her mother, who has raised the family single-handedly, moves boulders in a basket on her head each day, in scorching heat.
Karthika’s internship provided her with the opportunity to advocate for land rights for other families working in the quarry.
Shilpa’s struggle is equally intense: her younger sister – who was not chosen for the school as Shanti Bhavan picks only one child from each family – was resentful of her success, and ran away from home with a boyfriend. When the relationship crumbled, the younger sister contacted her family, including Shilpa, in an attempt to return home, but was rebuffed.
The younger sister committed suicide.
Part 3 of the series ends with Shilpa’s attempts to overcome her grief and guilt over her sister’s death. Shilpa, once an aspiring journalist, has earned her master’s degree in psychology, and has also written a memoir: “The Elephant Chaser’s Daughter.”
Like all the young women, Thenmozhi focuses on one day being able to support her mother – who makes match-stick boxes for a living – and dreams of being a veterinarian. The initially bright little girl, whose father committed suicide when she was a baby, struggles with dyslexia in later years, putting her school career at Shanti Bhavan at risk.
Shanti Bhavan has an attrition rate of just one to two students per year, out of a population of 250, Ajit George told India-West. The school proudly boasts several very successful graduates, who have gone on to work for multi-national corporations, and social innovation NGOs.
One of the women not profiled in the documentary is Vinceya, who graduated from St. Joseph’s College of Commerce in Bangalore with a degree in business management, and now works at Amazon. Vinceya’s father, an alcoholic, cannot work because of a spinal injury, according to George. Vinceya has been able to pay all of his hospital bills for spinal surgery, he said, and now supports the entire family with her income.
Nevertheless, said George, Vinceya is also expected to do all the household chores, including cooking and cleaning, because her mother will not let her brother do it.
George said he hopes the girls have been empowered to stand up to their families against abuse, child marriages, and other issues.
“I really dream of a greater India. These kids can be change-makers and role models for others,” George told India-West, adding: “I hope they will become national leaders. I am willing to wait and see.”