Speaker Profile: Vandana Kripalani

Each year, Movement Day features speakers who come to educate, inspire, challenge, and encourage city leaders. Learn more about the world-renowned speakers, topic experts and practitioners that are scheduled to share about global issues and key urban population groups at Movement Day Global Cities 2016.

This May, we took some time to speak with MDGC 2016 speaker Vandana Kripalani, an advocate of the Set Beautiful Free movement in Mumbai India. Committed to end violence against women, Vandana has participated in several United Nations conferences and has spoken before Senators in the U.S. Congress to bring awareness to this issue. As an engaged member of her community, she serves on the boards and committees of several organizations, which include Seams for Dreams, Terry Fox India, and the Gender Equality committee for First Rand Bank and SILA Corp.

Q: You’ve devoted your life to advocate against human trafficking. What led you on this journey?

I grew up in Bombay, which is Mumbai. But when you are born in Bombay, you call it Bombay. I was born here and I was very privileged to have a wonderful family who supported me through everything, so I was quite protected growing up. I went to a good school, and then college in the US. My parents were very clear to expose me to the harsh realities of what it’s like to grow up as a young woman in India.

However I never actually realized what so many millions of women have to go through until I myself came face-to-face with a man who wanted to kill me and hurt me. But it was just God’s grace and his mercy that allowed me to escape completely unharmed, with just scratches on my arm and nothing else.

Before that, I worked with Ernst & Young and I was very, very passionate about marketing so I’d started my own consultancy. But after this incident in 2012 there were so many things happening around me in India that I became more aware of – such as the Nirbhaya tragedy, which involved a young girl who was raped on a bus in Delhi by six men. This was just around the same time frame.

I realized I couldn’t go back to product marketing anymore. I felt that I may have escaped, but there are about 16 million women who are victims of sex trafficking in India, and so I just decided to try my hand at this. I started off as a volunteer. But here I am three-and-a-half years later, with this on my heart — I don’t think I’m going anywhere from this cause.

Q: You have devoted your life to the battle against human trafficking, specifically as part of the organization Set Beautiful Free. Can tell us a bit about what the organization does and even if there are specific steps that the organization is taking toward the fostering of unity?

Set Beautiful Free is actually an initiative of Bombay Teen Challenge (BTC). And Bombay Teen Challenge began about 25 years ago by an incredible man, Mr. Devaraj, who felt God calling him into this work. When he moved to India, he realized the need as he walked around and he saw that the children of sex workers were living under the beds of the women while they worked. He always describes one of the first few times he walked around the area and one little girl clung to his leg begging him to rescue her so she didn’t die there. And so his first need was to rescue the children. As that grew, BTC was able to go and rescue the mothers, and there’s been generations rescued over the past 25 years.

Set Beautiful Free is involved with rescuing, but we also have a very large rehabilitation center outside of Mumbai. We have a vocational unit for women who’ve been rescued to teach them jewelry making or tailoring skills. We have held clinics in the red light area so that we can reach out to women while they’re still working in there. And it’s twofold: it’s obviously to provide health care, but it’s to create relationships so they can begin to trust us and hopefully come out of that oppressive existence one day.

We just actually built and started our first school, which is grades one to eight for children of sex workers only, so it’s specifically for that. And Mr. Devaraj is very clear that the school should be like a school that we would want our own children to go to, that these children should not get the short end of the stick just because of their birth place. It’s a great school, and since we’ve built the school, we have begun conversations with different churches to encourage them to come on church outings to the school to see if there was any help that the church community itself could offer.

As an organization we work with many different, smaller organizations around India and globally, as well as different churches. The cause allows us to look past the denominations we have created in the church and focus on the call to serve as Jesus did. Movement Day allows us to build relationships with other organizations in the field. We’ve worked with other American ministries towards the same end goal – to end trafficking. But there is definitely more need in this area, and there’s so much hope.

Q: Could also share just what are some signs of hope that you’re seeing in Mumbai from the work that you’re doing and that Set Beautiful Free is doing?

I think so often we can get so bogged down with the statistics and the tragedy and the horror that we forget the hope. And, for me, that’s been actually one of the main factors in me being able to continue to talk about this work. We just celebrated four marriage engagements of young girls who were rescued from the red light area. They’ve all been so incredible– they found matches and good boys and men to marry, so four engagements, which is the beginning of a new chapter for eight lives. It’s forever changed the trajectory of these four women. There are so many more stories like this, with young children who arrived without receiving any love or care so unable to even hug, to now being a part of this family and sharing their testimonies of hope with others. Of women who were once born to workers who succumbed to diseases like HIV, only to spend their life studying microbiology with the intent on finding a cure eventually.

Q: What do you hope to share with leaders at Movement Day Global Cities (MDGC) this fall?

I want to share a story, actually, of one of my personal heroes, a lady who was sold at the age of 11. Eventually she was rescued and now she’s a rescuer, so her life went a whole 180 degrees. I want to talk through her story because the story is what’s powerful. The statistics end up getting a little bit too much sometimes, so I hope that hearing her story will be able to share some hope.