The three sisters, Mahak (left), Gousiya (middle) and Alisba (right) live in the Malwani slum of Mumbai. They joined the local Vacha Trust center because they wanted to learn English. Through Vacha, they were encouraged to lead advocacy campaigns in their slum, taking on daunting issues like the lack of sanitation, sexual harassment, rapes and kidnappings.
Their advocacy stands in stark contrast to the limitations they face at home. None of the sisters are allowed to be outdoors after 4:00 PM. Their mother has even begun wearing a burka as she runs errands in the community.
As we talk, Alisba and Mahak warm up easily, but Gousiya sits silent.
Mahak, 14 years old, shares she wants to be a policewoman like the female officer who came to their school to talk about sexual harassment.
Alisba, 16 years old, wants to be an actress, but her parents have told her no. She says “my confidence, negotiation and leadership skills have increased through Vacha. My stage presence and ability to talk to strangers too."
And then Gousiya, 19 years old, begins to speak. She explains she's quiet because she's angry. She dreams of completing her education and becoming an independent woman. She’s studying for a Bachelor of Commerce, but her parents won't allow her to leave the house, so she must do it through correspondence school. And then - the real flash point - the marriage proposals. Gousiya has rejected multiple proposals already in pursuit of her education, a bold bucking of cultural norms, and it's become a deep source of contention with her parents.
Gousiya is small and strong with deep brown eyes. As I watch her speak, I'm struck by how boldly alone she is - or would be without her sisters and Vacha. As I slip my shoes on and prepare to descend the ladder from their home, I lock eyes with Gousiya and give her a nod - the "don't give up" look that transcends any language barrier. I hope she never does.