CHANGE leaders do great things, and often that is all we know about them. Here we want to get a different glimpse of the personalities that constitute the development space. Every month we get one leader to answer four questions, not necessarily about their work, but about themselves. This week we catch up with Manju Vyas of CEO of Apne Aap Women’s Collective.

Twenty years ago while working for a multinational company, Manju Vyas constantly felt the urge to do something meaningful during the weekends. This led her to start volunteering for the AAWC, an NGO working towards preventing the cycle of intergenerational prostitution in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s infamous red light district. It didn’t take long for Manju to realise that this was her calling and today she is the loved ‘didi’ of the organisation. 

Small Change: Did you experience an epiphany that led you to work for this cause? 

Manju Vyas: When I was volunteering for AAWC, I got a chance to speak to the daughter of one of the sex workers, a very young girl. When I asked what she aspires to be, she very innocently said, “I want to be a brothel owner.” I got numb for a while and when I asked her why she said that all the girls at the brothel she lives in give all their money to the brothel owner and she is the most powerful person.

That’s when I realised the impact the environment was having on these young girls. I wanted to do do something for her. I asked her if she could read and write in English. “Teach me,”  she said. The day I was supposed to start teaching, I couldn’t go. But to my surprise, I got a call from AAWC informing me that the little girl had come to learn from me.

That gave me the thought that I can help this girl rise above her circumstances and that’s how I started getting more involved.

SC:  What’s your least favourite thing about humanity? 

MV: The most important thing, according to me, is to care. But sometimes  I feel we don’t care enough. For instance, we throw trash on the roads. It doesn’t bother us that this is our city, our country, our environment. We don’t understand that this will go into our rivers and the soil and eventually it’s us who will be affected by it. Taking care of the environment is taking care of ourselves.

SC:  Name one thing you are bad at.

MV: I am very outspoken and blunt. I don’t know how to say things in a diplomatic manner.

SC:  If you could have a conversation with someone famous, living or dead, who would that be? 

MV: Don’t know about famous but the only person I would like to meet is my mother. I lost my mother when I was eight. The caring nature that I have, that seed was sown by my mother. I remember that when I was young, I left a bit of rice on my plate after lunch and seeing that the one sentence she said has stayed with me ever since. “The rice you have left could have filled a bird’s stomach,” her voice rings in my ears.

I was too young to realise the importance of it. Be it that or making tea for the lady who came to sweep the roads at five in the morning or keeping water for birds and street animals. She was an extremely empathetic person.  If she was alive today she would be happy to see me working for the vulnerable sections of the society.

If you would like to the welfare of children of sex workers click here. 

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