While on co-op in India last year, Northeastern University third-year student Rushika Shekhar spent her days engaging young women at risk for HIV/AIDS through team sports and healthy-living sessions. Along with providing empowering messages to these girls, she learned a few lessons of her own.
“The biggest thing that changed about me while I was there was the way I interacted with people,” said Shekhar, an international affairs major. “The culture is so different, but the people were so open, and just take you right in. I learned so much about people while I was there, and some of the girls I worked with had been through so much already, and they’re my age.”
From July to December, Shekhar worked at the Naz Foundation, a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization committed to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Shekhar’s work group would visit urban and rural slums, partnering with local organizations to help establish trust with the women there. Most young women in these marginalized communities who are at risk of exposure to HIV/AIDS have little to no knowledge of the disease, she said.
Shekhar said the Naz Foundation found that the young women are at greater risk for HIV/AIDS in part due to a lack of self-confidence and the lack of respect they have in their communities. To teach them about HIV/AIDS and promote self-empowerment, the organization turned to an unlikely source — a sport called netball.
Through the foundation’s Goal program, teenage girls play netball. Players can’t run with the ball, but instead must pass to score goals. The game encourages teamwork and helps break cultural barriers by forcing girls from different social classes to interact, Shekhar said.
“One of the biggest things is trying to make the girls play as a team,” Shekhar said. “They may not have friends because they don’t associate with anyone outside their family. So we also try to teach them that they all go through the same issues (as young women).”
Shekhar also helped run life-skills sessions, which included similar positive messages. The women, most of whom don’t attend school, discussed a range of issues, from domestic violence and sexual health to proper hygiene. Shekhar even started an English-speaking program for the girls, and she developed a module that could be used at other Naz Foundation sites in Jordan and Nigeria.
While Shekhar has lived most of her life in Singapore, she was born in India, and while on co-op she lived with family members she rarely gets to visit. The experience left such an impression on her that she helps the organization while back on campus in her free time, updating the group’s blog and doing administrative tasks online.
“This will be one of my highlights of college,” she said.