by Ramya Ramanathan
In 2005, when Ray Umashankar was 63 years old, his 23-year-old daughter Nita returned from India after spending a year working with abused women and children, and announced her intention to help children of sex workers and victims of trafficking in India. Convinced by her passion, after extensive research and field visits to human trafficking and prostitution hot spots in India, Ray teamed up with Nita to create the Achieving Sustainable Social Equality through Technology (ASSET) India Foundation.
The Foundation seeks to provide computer literacy and conversational english training to children of sex workers between the ages of 16-18. Each course is between six to nine months and upon completion of the course, ASSET helps students apply for a competitive internship at various IT and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) firms. Prospective jobs include transcription, data entry, and office suite application.
Sheer persistence and a strategic push for viable partnerships has already taken this newly-launched organization far. In a short time, Ray and Nita have not only garnered the support of corporate partners such as DELL, Silicon Labs, Microsoft India and APTECH, as well as reputable NGO partners, but they have also won grants such as the Global Giving Fundraising Olympics.
When Ray realized the enormity of the problem, he knew he had no alternative but to do something about it. "I had no idea how serious the problem was...between 700,000 to a million children are trafficked into prostitution in India alone." says Ray. "I HAD to get involved. I researched what NGOs were doing in India, what programs worked and what didn't. What I found was that a majority of NGOs were focusing on providing bag making, sewing, and vegetable vending skills—the only problem is that these kinds of things only provide a very meager income. This is not big enough incentive NOT to enter the sex trade. In order to provide an alternative livelihood with comparable income they needed to be in the computer field."
ASSET's program is intended for those children of sex workers who have a high school level of education but don't have the confidence or the means to find a lucrative job in the real world. Started in Chennai in March 2007, the program currently has seven centers in the major cities of Chennai, Calcutta, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore, and a total of 430 children between the ages of 16 and18 currently enrolled. Partner organizations in the data entry operations field are currently interviewing the first set of children in order to place them in jobs.
Ray and Nita consider this to be the program's biggest success so far.
"My family and I wept when the children touched our feet and thanked us for helping them work towards a better future," he says. "The children said that in their wildest dreams they could not have imagined touching a computer."
The undertaking is not without challenges. The first company to sign on to recruit the graduates from the ASSET program reneged on their commitment. Convincing companies that the children of sex workers are people with the same dreams and desires of every other Indian child is an uphill task.
"My vision is to be able to train and place 50,000 students in the next five years. I would rather have goal like that and fail than not try at all...better to have an impossible dream than no dream at all," says Ray.
Ray believes that founding ASSET has not only dramatically changed his life but also given it "fantastic purpose." He adds that that "there is no magic, only sheer persistence." The father daughter team hopes that others will replicate the ASSET model in order to reach more children. They are keenly interested in sharing their experience and knowledge with those who have similar projects in mind.