Sonal Kapoor is bridging the gap in childcare systems by introducing an empathy-based system to heal and transform girl children who are either survivors or are at high risk of abuse. Sonal’s work also extends towards creating preventive care models aimed at ecosystem-level impact.
The New Idea
Ten years ago, Sonal Kapoor, founder of Protsahan, started working towards finding a solution to eradicate violence against girls through an ecosystem-driven model. In the slums where she works, 83% girls did not have access to a learning space, counselling services, creative life skills, adequate healthcare, or access to education. As many as 89% reported sexual violence before they turned 12. What started out as a one room school in one of the darkest slums in the country, today Protsahan reaches over 72,000 girls annually through their programs in India.
Sonal's work focuses largely on enabling a safer place for the vulnerable with greater access to education, healthcare, gender justice, healing, and care. She launched an empathy-based system called the HEART (Holistic Healing, Education, Art Intervention, Training, Recovery and Technology) model in 2010 to heal and transform girl children who are either survivors or are at high risk of abuse. This is done by leveraging the power of holistic creative art therapy by enabling them with skills that involve filmmaking, cinema, technology, photography, design, performing arts and meditation. This is the first program in the country that works with at-risk population through creative arts and technology using the STEAM module – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, & Mathematics.
They initiate the children into a ten-month-long bridge course that spans leadership development and employability skills training, blending it with access to financial literacy, digital safety, and privacy, opening bank accounts, availing government schemes, gender rights, counsellors, and healthcare support.
Protsahan's work also extends heavily into building preventive care models aimed at creating an ecosystem-level impact. The team works closely with families, communities, and impact organizations to get them involved and invested in the child's safety and curtail this problem together. This makes an impact at a generational and ecosystem level. Through the system's preventive care model, they also focus on rehabilitating and reintroducing the girls back into the society. This is done by working closely with their families, counsellors, police, and judiciary to sensitize and ensure preventive support is built in to the system.
In addition to this, they run a Girl Champions Program that enables the girls to serve as ambassadors to the system at large - a program that is critical in light of incidents like Kathua, Unnao and Hathras. Through this program, Protsahan works directly with young girls (age group 10 to 19) from extremely marginalized migrant communities in 39 slums. It is designed to enhance the impact of their work by getting their families involved so that it permeates into the ecosystem at large. Through Protsahan's work, their young girl champions have won 16 gold medals at Delhi's District Martial Art Championship last year, produced a film that was selected for the BRICS International Film Festival and performed at theater venues in India.
Across India, child rights and protection are a serious concern. Data from UNICEF1 highlights that 1 in 10 children suffer sexual abuse and violence, threatening their survival and health. Too often, they suffer in silence. Child sexual abuse (CSA) is an issue of serious magnitude the country has been tackling for several years. It has profound consequences for the child, and is linked to poor health, growth, and development outcomes throughout their lifespan. When regulators and key stakeholders understand the myriad of issues on violence and crimes against young girls, they’re better positioned to come up with effective and sustainable solutions to the problem. Data2 shows that children under the age of 18 comprise nearly 41% of the country’s population, if their socio-economic background deprives them of basic education, access to nutrition and healthcare, they are susceptible to adverse childhood experiences including sexual violence, abuse, threat, and maltreatment. Unfortunately, child protection remains largely unaddressed. The problem doesn't stall at child protection alone - the system lacks preventive care solutions and without this support, the problem persists.
A large-scale national study conducted by the country’s Ministry of Woman and Child Development found that more than half (53%) of the interviewed children reported child sexual abuse and more than 20% reported severe incidents of sexual abuse. According to insights from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), several studies found that reported crime and actual crime rate could suffer from negative correlation due to issues like education, rehabilitation, and therapy. Despite survivors of sexual violence showing great courage and determination to overcome the trauma they have been battling, there are grim realities that make integration with regular life difficult and challenging for them.
One of the biggest challenges that can cripple a survivor’s recovery the most is lack of focused support, infrastructure, and provisions by authorities to aid normalization and rehabilitation. The most essential rehabilitation prerequisites include free long-term counselling, social and economic security. Unfortunately, gainful employment opportunities appear to be non-existent or exist only on paper. More often than not, survivors are left to take care of themselves and their family. Support systems disintegrate as time passes, and the victims are left to overcome their emotional and physical trauma. Research studies have found that rehabilitation of victims of sexual violence cannot remain at the judicial or compensation level alone. It should be a multi-pronged approach that should be executed at several stages.
To overcome the trauma, it’s necessary that coping skills and resources are available to them. Effective utilization of all these factors is vital to improve the quality of their life. To enable the victim to adjust and thrive over time - a life where they can seek out mainstream education and employment at the earliest, helping them acquire skills of coping faster and better after a traumatic event is critical. Rehabilitation also requires methods that aid triggers systemic change.
With Protsahan, Sonal Kapoor and her team aim to transform the lives of every at-risk adolescent girl through creative education, technology, and entrepreneurial skills, training with the aim of breaking the persistent cycle of violence, abuse, and neglect. The unique empathy-based model developed by Protsahan from 2010 works with children and adolescents at-risk or who have experienced traumatic events with two central focus points: prevention and healing of victims. The team’s work is centered on the belief that if a child has experienced trauma, they need to use all of the different aspects from the HEART model instead of focusing on only one aspect. The intersectionality of all these aspects is critical to creating a larger impact on the lives of vulnerable girls. Their entire approach is tailored to fit each individual or a cluster of girls, Sonal does not believe in a cookie-cutter approach and instead aims to look at the system in its entirety. For example, if there are a section of girls who have faced sexual violence, there are several options under the art-driven model that include Madhubani and Worli art, digital media, Bharatanatyam dance skills, and more - that can significantly help them. Protsahan also takes into account the individual’s interests, gauges their IQ level, and understand where their passion and skills lie. Protsahan adopts a similar approach when it comes to rehabilitation as well. They ensure that each child’s individual needs are taken into account and work with them individually or in clusters till the last mile.
Their result-based framework enables young girls to tackle various issues that progress through three steps - the first is by reducing inequality or being protected, the second is learning where education and art pieces come in, and finally, excelling as champions. When it comes to reducing inequality, Sonal’s team focuses largely on areas that help them survive before shifting their attention to enabling them to thrive. This is done through seeking the right justice systems, meeting with clinical psychologists, and getting access to post-traumatic care.
The young girls are also encouraged to become youth leaders and changemakers in their communities, creating a system that nurtures champions. Through Protsahan’s work, the young girls are artists, photographers, filmmakers, and much more today. By leveraging their skills, they eventually drive change within their communities, enabling this change to trickle down to others as well - triggering a much-needed chain reaction.
Sonal uses simple techniques – but with a different teaching pedagogy. For instance, they use digital storytelling, game and art-based education with a team that includes students from IITs, IIMs and youth from across the globe. With their model, their aim is to bring the kids to the same level as that of other students when they are finally admitted into mainstream education or government schools. When they used the HEART model with survivors and plotted their growth on an impact report, they found that 78% of them came out more resilient. She has also been working on the issue of child marriage through this by enabling the girls to stand up against child marriage. The team conducts workshops, awareness sessions and equips the girls with skillsets to make feature films on this issue.
Through their work, some of the girls who completed the bridge course have achieved accolades that include making films for UNICEF, performing live at Alliance Française using expressions that marry Japanese theatre and Kerala martial arts like Kalaripayattu, and launching their own dance institute.
At present, child protection and visual arts form the two core areas of the team’s work. As part of Protsahan's ecosystem-driven HEART system, they also focus on creating a framework where they collaborate with partners to build key personality development models and excel as champions. This is done by providing leadership development training on key life skills like navigating through mental health concerns and psychological support, financial planning, career counseling, digital privacy, and online safety with experts.
Protsahan engages with partners like Martha Farrell Foundation, Girls Who Code, UNFPA Comics, Child Rights Coalition Asia, Girls Rising, to share learnings and insights and take expert sessions to more girls online through these partnerships.
They engage key stakeholders including police personnel, judges and lawyers, media personnel, government officials, doctors, and parents to sensitize them and create a system of child protection in the country. More than 33,082 people were sensitized and over 4,200 government officials were provided sensitization modules on trauma informed compassionate care. Through this, they’re able to work closely with law and justice to mitigate instances of crime, abuse, and violence – key factors to building a strong preventive system.
In addition to this, they have partnered with state and national governments to drive this approach to tackle the issue at a larger scale. Their work has rescued 928 vulnerable girls, implemented abuse awareness for over 72,080 at-risk children and sensitized more than 10,028 educators, teachers, and social workers. Over the years, Sonal’s work and team expanded to launch a partnerships program that collaborated with teachers to trickle their work down to reach more adolescent girls. Every year, their reach has only grown by more than 28,000 girls.
In a span of more than ten years, her resolve to drive systemic change and collaborate with partners that operate in this system has enabled her model to trickle down further. Over the next decade, Protsahan aims to impact the lives of 1 million at-risk girls, vulnerable girl children and survivors through strategic on-ground impact as well as collaborations with organizations working with vulnerable children national and international.
Growing up, Sonal Kapoor was encouraged to pursue her education by her family and attended a convent-run school. Through her education, she was passionate about writing and creative arts. After her school education, she went on to pursue Microbiology and later completed her post-graduation, in business management. Soon after, she took up a corporate job in the mutual fund industry, but soon realized this was not the area she felt satisfied working in. She eventually moved to a corporate communication role and it was in this role, during a corporate film shoot, that she met a young mother. She had six young daughters and revealed that she was sending her 8-year-old daughter to a brothel to make enough money to feed her other children. There were other mothers who remarked, in a matter-of-fact manner, that they would be okay if their girl children died, as they were struggling to take care of their daughters.
This incident spurred Sonal to work on these issues and bring about change in the lives of these girls. Protsahan was launched with this vision at play. It prompted Sonal to sketch an idea to approach this issue after conducting a three-week feasibility study in the area. Sonal leveraged her experience working in the film-making and communication space to start her work. She tackled education first – opening a creative arts school in a slum in South West Delhi. Her venture, named Protsahan, aimed at curbing the root of the problem – providing infrastructure and facilities for vulnerable girls to find their way into mainstream education.
Protsahan has been recognized by several global and national institutions including Harvard University, University of Chicago, the Gates Foundation, World Bank and United Nations, Google, and several international media outlets. Sonal Kapoor is a member of the expert committee on anti-child trafficking, a World Bank and Australia India Youth Fellow, Goldman Sachs ISB Woman Social Entrepreneur, FICCI, and CII Awardee. She actively engages with students and universities across the globe on social impact and entrepreneurship, and her work with vulnerable children.
Their work has won the Indian Television Academy Award in Child Welfare category, the UN Women and MasterCard Global Award, The Barclays Young Trailblazer Award and the HundrED Helsinki (Finland)’s child protection and education innovation awards, amongst others.