Cristelle Hart Singh is a 49-year-old Anglo-Swiss national who made India her home in 2000. Since 2007, she has been sheltering street children, HIV patients, the needy and the underprivileged through her NGO, ‘Dil Se’.
Years after she began the NGO, in 2012, Cristelle heard of a girl whose shocking and tragic life changed Cristelle’s life.
“A social worker found her at a train station in Bengaluru, and she seemed to be in distress. I immediately called her to Cochin, only to realise that she was pregnant at the age of 13,” she tells The Better India.
Cristelle learned that the girl was forced into marriage by her parents and had been sexually assaulted by her husband.
“I felt emotional as we were both on the same journey of pregnancy (Cristelle was pregnant with her second child at the time). The girl was placed in a home for destitute women until her delivery. I was allowed to take her for prenatal yoga, but her medical check-ups were taken care of by the government. I named my son Tej, and four days later, she gave birth and named her child Tejus,” she says.
The incident moved Cristelle to start a shelter home exclusively for sexually abused teenage girls. She named it after the child who inspired her to do so – Tejus Home. This is the fantastic story of the work that has been done in Tejus Home ever since. “They are children giving birth to children,” she says.
Short trip turns into life long stay
Some of those who come to Tejus Home are two months pregnant, while some are already seven or eight months due. Their families are not always supportive, and on most occasions, the abuser is a family member, friend or a person living in the vicinity.
Living near the abuser makes the girl more vulnerable and becomes a traumatic experience. The accuser is often in jail but may get out on bail depending on the case. Some girls decide to have a ‘Medical Termination of Pregnancy’ if they fall within the legal timeframe, some keep the baby, and some choose to relinquish it for adoption.
But they need a safe place during the months of pregnancy. And this is what Tejus Home provides.
“Since opening in 2012, Tejus Home has welcomed 55 girls coming in at various stages of pregnancy. The girls are provided counselling, art therapy, a healthy diet and a safe and non-judgmental environment. Their medical needs are taken care of by the wonderful midwives of BirthVillage, a natural birthing centre, and even have a choice to undergo a water birth, although none of them has opted for this so far.” Cristelle says.
“About 87 per cent of the girls conceive naturally, which we term as a success,” she says, adding that this aspect is crucial as the girls may have to answer future husbands for the scar in case they undergo a Caesarian birth.
But Cristelle’s journey into social work goes back to about 20 years when she landed in India as a part of volunteering for the Red Cross, an international NGO.
“I came to seek professional experience in a developing country as a requirement I had to fulfil to get a job with the International Committee of the Red Cross, an NGO. I had to choose between Asia, South America and Africa. I chose India in Asia as it was cheap and many people spoke English. So I decided to volunteer for a year to meet the job requirements,” she recalls.
However, little did she know that her brief stint in India would turn into a life journey of helping the underprivileged and the needy.
In 2000, Cristelle started volunteering for an NGO near Trivandrum in Kerala to teach spoken English to underprivileged children. However, 3.5 months later, she received an opportunity to work in a Don Bosco Centre, Mumbai. The centre was helping the street children by offering shelter and education.
“The children fascinated me as they had nothing at hand and were living off the streets, but still were full of life,” she says. After completing her six months, she returned to Switzerland for a brief time. On her return, she learnt of a shocking fact – the children at the street shelter were sexually abused.
The issue was raised with the seniors, but it went unattended. “I was shocked to know that they were aware of the incident but did not take any action on the same,” she says.
Disheartened by the realisation, she decided to start her own NGO – Dil Se and stay in India to address the issue. “The name Dil Se was conceived as the Bollywood flick was released around the same time, and children hummed and danced to its songs throughout the day,” she says.
She had to understand the laws and nitty-gritty of starting an NGO as a foreigner, sell her assets, and do some fundraising in Switzerland to raise initial capital. But eventually, the NGO came to life in Mumbai, in November 2000, with her friend Marina Racine.
Uphill and Many Stumbles
The NGO began as a pavement school for local children. But eventually, they started facing multiple threats and were forced to stop the initiative.
“We were two white women who had discovered child sexual abuse in an esteemed institution,” she recalls, thinking the threats might have had something to do with that. “They wanted us to be out of the city and not involved in any activities related to children suffering from abuse,” she adds.
Cristelle travelled to Trivandrum in Kerala to start something small and away from the big city. “We started working with the street and destitute children by providing them the required help,” she says.
“We met one George Jacob and his wife Anu through mutual acquaintances who were taking care of street dogs. They helped us in finding a house, getting around and networking. Not only that, but they treated me like family and still do to this day,” she explains.
In 2005, Dil Se came across people suffering from HIV and started helping them with the Madurai Institute of Peace Science. “We helped 45 widows who were shamed by the society or barred by the villagers. So we started supporting them and creating awareness along with providing educational material and food rations for them and their children”, she says.
Dil Se helped the women by purchasing an acre of land and constructing a home for HIV affected and infected children. But even here, the organisation was duped by one of the managing trustees. “The operations had to shut down in 2009 as we parted ways. I am still fighting the legal battle with this ex-trustee,” she says.
Cristelle eventually married and settled in Cochin, where she started the Tejus Home.
A home like no other
Cristelle offers shelter to the victims of sexual abuse after the police or members of the Child Welfare Committee direct the girls to the NGO through formal procedures.
District judge Nisar Ahmad at the Women and Children Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) court says, “The court had started in abandoned facilities when it began in Ernakulam. There was no place for victims of sexual abuse to stay or offer shelter. It was Cristelle who extended support and provided a temporary place for them.”
Nisar says that when the court moved to a permanent property, the NGO helped to set up a play area. It also offered books, artwork and toys for the girls. “The facilities provided by Cristelle helped to earn the institute recognition of model court. The same ambience was replicated for other courts across the state,” he adds.
Cristelle says that she likes to assist girls in empowering them to give birth naturally. “The girls are alone and have no support during their pregnancy if it were not for Tejus Home. They need someone who does not judge them or taunt them and can advise them towards a healthy birth. We offer the same,” she says, adding, “We are probably the only ones providing such assistance to teenage sexual abuse victims in India.”
She adds that the COVID-19 lockdown put a hold on the activities as travel restrictions came in place.
“We are in the process of re-opening the home, with BirthVillage as our partners still as they now have a new state-of-the-art birthing centre with OB-GYNs, an operation theatre, and at Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Besides Tejus Home, the NGO is taking awareness sessions helping teenagers address various aspects of sexuality through webinars in schools and colleges,” she says.
Cristelle feels that women should be given the power and freedom to deliver most healthily and comfortably. “It is entirely their moment, and these girls especially should be able to experience it at their best,” she says.
Edited by Vinayak Hegde