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This celebrity trainer is turning rescued sex-trafficking victims into fitness instructors

Ramona Braganza is helping the women of Mumbai’s red light district. (Photo: Courtesy of Ramona Braganza)

Falkland Road, Mumbai, India’s notorious red light district that dates back to British colonial times, has for decades both fascinated and horrified journalists, photographers, writers, travelers, and citizens. But no amount of prior knowledge could have prepared celebrity fitness trainer Ramona Braganza for the harsh reality of the crowded, narrow street, lined with wooden cages teeming with prostitutes of all ages, many of them mere girls.

Braganza, a former cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders, who has also trained scores of celebrities — including Dakota Johnson, Jessica Alba, Ashlee Simpson-Ross, and Halle Berry — is of Indian descent, and when she turned 50 in 2013, she was looking for a way to “give back” through what comes most naturally to her: fitness. She wasn’t sure how to do that and was kicking around ideas with friends at her Caribbean home on Harbor Island, when one of them mentioned that his brother ran the Catholic Relief Services in India. One thing led to another and Braganza soon found herself en route to Mumbai to meet with Priti Patkar, a human rights activist and co-founder of Prerana, an organization that works to rescue and protect children vulnerable to sexual exploitation. The pair met in Prerana’s offices on Falkland Road.

“It felt like I was on the set of a seedy and dangerous movie,” Braganza tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The building also housed a daycare for the babies of working young girls who had nowhere to leave them but on the streets. It was very emotional seeing a room full of these 1- and 2-year-olds sitting and crawling on hard concrete floor.”

Patkar told Braganza that Prerana ran a safe house on the outskirts of the city for girls rescued from Mumbai’s sex trade. After an emotionally charged visit to the house, Braganza knew exactly what she wanted to do: work with girls and young women affiliated Prerana to help them get physically fit, and  get them certified as fitness trainers so that they would have a skill through which they could potentially earn a living.

Women at Prerana in fitness training. (Photo: Courtesy of Ramona Braganza)

Fitness is one of India’s fastest-growing sectors, and in recent years, more Indians across the socioeconomic spectrum have become fitness conscious, says Yasmin Karachiwala, a well-known Mumbai trainer who works with Indian celebrities and Bollywood movie stars. Gyms offering all manner of classes and equipment are mushrooming across India, even in second- and third-tier cities, she says, “and it’s become a social part of people’s life to talk about what kind of workout they do and how many steps they have done in a day.” The number of fitness trainers across India has also increased, according to Karachiwala, as has the number of people following online workouts in the privacy of their homes.

But for girls like those rescued by Prerana, fitness is still a remote concept.

“In Prerana’s safe house, the girls are clothed, fed, and educated,” Braganza says. “They’re given access to computers and they’re given job training in areas like sewing or beauty. But fitness is still a completely new area for many Indians, particularly those in the lower-income segments of society.” That said, once the girls began working with Braganza, it was clear that the experience thrilled them.

“These girls have never exercised before, but once they start working out, you can tell how they’re regaining ownership over bodies that have never been theirs, how the endorphins they’re releasing are making them feel so much stronger,” she says.

Setting up shop at Prerana. (Photo: Courtesy of Ramona Braganza)

For Braganza — who set up an organization called 321 Empower to help realize her goal of helping trafficking victims through fitness — and the girls at Prerana, working out together is a unique, fulfilling, and productive experience on many levels.

“When Ramona first came to me with the idea of fitness, what I realized first is that fitness has everything to do with self-care, and in India, we hardly ever talk to women about their own health and self-care,” Patkar tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Her approach, which also provides these girls with livelihood training, is both simple and achievable for them.”

For girls who have either worked as prostitutes or who, like many in Prerana’s safe house, are the children of prostitutes and have been exposed to that milieu, fitness is a great way to work through their experiences.

“These girls have experienced so much trauma that if you directly go to their mind to help them, it sometimes doesn’t work,” Patkar says. “Through their bodies, though, it’s a very different approach. You can see that when they’re first exercising, they’re very aggressive because they’re dealing with their own individual trauma and working through their anger, but then they reach a level where they’re really enjoying the entire exercise and loving the sense of physical empowerment they begin to feel.”

On her first visit to Prerana’s safe house, Braganza took 15 pairs of running shoes to give to the girls she would be training. “They’d never worn shoes like that before, and they were jumping all over the place, loving them,” she says.

“They’d never worn shoes like that before.” (Photo: Courtesy of Ramona Braganza)

She kept things simple: The girls ran for their cardio, did pushups against a wall, and used water bottles as weights. Braganza then left them in the care of a certified fitness trainer who got the girls on a regular exercise schedule.

When she returned six months later, she added to the fitness equipment in the safe house and brought in full-length mirrors. On her next visit to Mumbai, Braganza taught a course that would certify the girls in aerobics. Five of them have now been certified, including 18-year-old Soni who is eager to continue her fitness journey and to begin to teach.

Braganza and Patkar are hoping that Soni will train at Prerana’s safe house and serve as a mentor there. India’s Ministry of Women & Child Development estimates that 19,233 women and children were trafficked in 2016, compared to 15,448 in 2015, and most of them end up forced into the sex trade. It is an overwhelming problem, one that needs to be addressed in any way possible.

Patkar has been working in the space for 30 years and has come across girls as young as 14 being forced into the sex trade. Beyond that, “a girl child born in that world would invariably end up in the sex trade herself,” she says. “She would be groomed and lured, and by the time she is 14 she would be sold. A boy child is also groomed to be a pimp, a trafficker, or drug trader. Our outreach aims to break that cycle, to speak to mothers and children and transfer the children to our safe house.”

Many remain in the safe house until they are 18, after which they may go on to college or out into the world, equipped with a specific skill set that will enable them to earn a living. Thanks to Braganza — who is hoping to begin a round of fundraising in the U.S. for her organization in November — fitness training is now on the list of possibilities and will, hopefully, open up doors for a new generation of girls.

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