HEAL: The story of Protsahan

Sonal Kapoor, the founder of Protsahan, builds futures through powerful, inclusive, and compassionate methods of inclusion. Here is an interview with Sonal.

Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself - your growing years, work, education - to the extent that is both comfortable and informs what you do today?
I've always been a student who liked doodling and reading poetry more than Math & Chemistry at school, though I ended up doing Science and later Microbiology (H) in graduation. I was interested in vaccines and public health for long. I did my MBA from Symbiosis and subsequently ISB and was just about to venture into advertising and communications for the biotechnology industry when a chance encounter with a woman, led to the beginning of Protsahan. Now after a decade of work here, I don't think anything defines me more, than my work with children through Protsahan.  

How did Protsahan come about? 
While on a film shoot in 2010, I happened to meet a young woman who had six daughters and was pregnant with her 7th child. On being asked about her circumstances, the woman narrated in a matter-of-fact way that she was ready to strangle her newborn if it happened to be a girl again. She also spoke of sending her 8-year-old daughter to work at a brothel so that she could feed the rest of her family. It shocked me a great deal, that within the hour, the idea of starting a unique creative school had started taking shape. Within 3 weeks, after a small feasibility study in the area, Protsahan started as a one room creative arts and design school in one of the darkest slums of the country, in the heart of the capital city New Delhi. 

After about four months, I quit my corporate job and ventured into an altogether different world where my creative streak was no longer used to make money for corporations, but was used to gradually revolutionise the education delivery mechanism for children at the bottom of the social pyramid. I was finally able to use all the creativity that I previously used in the advertising and communications industry for something more profoundly important. I went door to door in the urban slums of Uttam Nagar in West Delhi, the same place where I had met the mother who was sending her 8-year-old to a brothel, and asked parents to send their daughters to Protsahan. I started experimenting with the innovative approaches of Design, Art, Digital Stories, Photography, Technology & Cinema (the 5 pillars of creativity model) to give young adolescent girls the power to break the extreme cycle of poverty and fight abuse through creativity. Filmmaking, Photography and Madhubani artwork grew in popularity in areas which were rubbished as ‘dark spaces’ by most. Today, expressive arts therapy is the crux of our developmental work with adolescent girls from difficult backgrounds.

Since then, Protsahan has rescued and successfully mainstreamed 800 girls into formal schools, rescued 68 girls from forced early marriage, educated more than 19,800 girls on child rights, prevention of sexual abuse and menstrual hygiene, and created powerful media on social issues like child marriage, access to toilets, and gender violence. Our various projects and programs have reached out to more than 11,000 young girls and boys in a ‘hub and spokes’ model.
We also launched an interactive illustrated book on Child Abuse that is written and designed to explain the CSA laws in four countries (UK, India, USA, South Africa) to educators, parents and children in its simplest form to raise awareness to fight against child sexual abuse. Having led path-breaking work through Protsahan through empathy and creativity-based programmes, I now wish to solve the issues in Education & Child Protection sector at scale, to create a sustainable dent in this space in my lifetime. I believe transforming India’s teachers will transform our children, in most sustainable manner.

At the time you began, without resources that were accessible and within reach, it must have been a huge task to take on. How did you go about working on your goals?

In the beginning I had no B-Plans nor any Plan-B's, there was never a day that made me feel, if Protsahan doesn't work then what. I simply went about doing my work. Did small dipstick surveys, found out why the girls were not sent to schools, made home visits, etc. It was only after 4-5 years, did I truly understand how Protsahan was helping the children deal with trauma of abuse, that I decided to structure and codify the processes of running the organization further, because we had to make the working sustainable in the most simplest sense. Initially the funds were very limited, so each of us, muti-tasked all the time. Then, in 2013 we won a grant from UN Women at Project Inspire, from among the 590 organizations globally that applied, Protsahan's work was acknowledged. That gave us more self-belief to keep moving on. Challenges are still aplenty, but now the vision is clearer. The grassroot team that we built over a period of time, are the real heroes at Protsahan, not me.  

You may have also been met with resistance, trolling, and even hate. How have you dealt with any and all pushback you've faced?
Appreciation and insults are all the same beyond a point. Either way, nothing deters me from doing what I've set my heart on. I think, if I can do justice to my ideas of fighting for freedom, equality and dignity for children, then I have lived well. Constructive feedback and dissent is always welcome, but wasting time and resources on people's opinions and judgements is not something I bother myself with. To be honest, there is no time for that. Our focus is on strengthening and empowering the agency of an adolescent girl who faces intergenerational poverty and abuse, and we try and find solutions to that effect, with a lens of intersectionality to create most impact. 

On the positive side, could you share memorable anecdotes / moments in your journey so far?
I’m going to share them as narratives through tweets here:

Can you tell us a bit about the HEAL concept?
Protsahan has a unique way of designing, implementing, and advocating our interventions. The goal is not to just talk about abuse. We want our impact to be far more significant than traditional methods of action and advocacy. For this very reason, we devised a common thread that runs across every step we take, ever campaign we run, and every child we reach out to, a thread that enables us to get that lasting impact. We call it the HEART Principle. We use this model as a tool to help bring children out of their shells, and into a healthy learning environment. It combines the study and use of five pillars of Healing, Education, Art, Recovery, and Technology. Together, these five pillars ignite the spark of interest in young children rescued from vulnerable and abusive circumstances. The children we reach out to have usually never attended a formal school. By using innovative and hands on approaches to teaching them social and educational skills, the children start learning and adapting subconsciously, all while having fun. These techniques are used to initiate the children in a ten-month-long bridge course. Once basic training is completed, the young child is enrolled in a government school and is usually able to join the 5th or the 6th grade directly. While attending the government school the child can choose to continue to attend Protsahan, which is right inside her slum area, and can continue to learn creative arts in a supportive environment. These skills include Madhubani and Warli art, working with iPad and laptops, Bharatnatyam traditional dance, film making, DSLR Photography, theatre, along with a better understanding of gender rights and menstrual hygiene through digital storytelling. In a Protsahan classroom, these five essentials are at the heart of everything we undertake. We're now evolving from HEART to HEAL principle, where L is 'Life Skills'
You're all set to build a computer lab for 100 young adolescent girls. Can you tell us about your initiative? How can a reader help?
We are raising funds to build a smart "Digi-Lab", equipped with cameras, tabs and computers that will help the girls living in the slums of Uttam Nagar (East) in New Delhi get access to technology for education and information. For far too long, Protsahan has managed with 4 laptops for 100+ girls at our center. With the success of this campaign, we wish to empower the agency of not only our girls, but every girl from the community to get easy and much needed access to technology, right when it matters, viz. their adolescence.  Access to technology empowers a girl to educate herself better, participate in local governance better, interact with her peers better, and most importantly equips her with a future that is not only strong and independent, but also at par with the current modern techno-savvy world. They'll learn photography, graphic designing, program coding, designing websites for local enterprises they're now beginning to set up and beyond which will enable them to become more job ready and thus break past the intergenerational cycle of abuse and poverty, forever. We urge your readers to kindly donate and share the link of the fundraiser campaign on social media. You can also directly, in-kind send us laptops, DSLRs and tabs in good working condition. We're at 8377852991.