Rhea Chandran ’23 Awarded Fulbright Scholarship
The history major, whose Fulbright Scholarship will support research in India on the prostitution industry, is one of four Fords to be accepted into the prestigious international program for the 2023-2024 academic year.
Call it an appreciation of the sacrifices made by her ancestors. Rhea Chandran ’23 will use her recently awarded Fulbright Scholarship to study India’s culture and history, focusing on modern women in India and their experiences in commercial sex work.
India’s thriving and legal prostitution industry—nearly 3 million women are licensed today—dates back to its pre-colonial past, she says, when India was governed by a caste system based on hereditary occupations. “The community you were born into essentially dictated your role in society,’’ says Chandran, a history major. “But during late-colonial British rule and the [rise of] emerging Indian nationalist cultures around creating an ideal form of womanhood, lower-caste communities focused on the arts became associated with prostitution. And so, for both of my great-grandmothers on my mother's side to escape this negative social classification, they had to raise their children independently from the community.
“Their actions allowed me to be raised in the U.S. and escape those negative social classifications. I was really interested in learning about how these came to be and how those women in the community gained their own rights.’’
The daughter of Indian immigrants, the Geneva, Ill., native is among four Fords to receive a Fulbright Scholarship this spring. In partnership with more than 140 countries worldwide, the Fulbright program offers graduate study, research, and teaching opportunities abroad in a variety of academic disciplines to passionate and accomplished graduating college seniors, graduate students, and young professionals from all backgrounds.
The Fulbright-Nehru Student Research grant will allow Chandran to expand on her senior thesis, which delved into questions of social and moral reform within the British Empire and, later, within the growing Indian nation between the late 1880s and the 1930s. Thanks to funding from Haverford’s history department, she has already done archival research on the subject for her senior thesis project with the India Office archives in London. The Fulbright grant, which is for nine months, will facilitate an expansion of that research to include archives in India.
She is particularly interested in studying the effects of a 1956 bill called the Prevention of Immoral Traffic Act, which outlawed methods of delivering commercial sex, but not the actual act of prostitution. “So it's a really interesting legal and linguistic culture in which women's bodies are governed,’’ Chandran says. “I'm interested in learning about the history of how those bills were developed and what lawmakers were saying, and how other stakeholders were involved in those conversations from the fifties onward.’’
Chandran will also spend time with Dr. Sharon Menezes, a sociologist at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. Dr. Menezes is focused on helping women in the commercial sex trade through a project called Prayas. Chandran will be assigned the task of interviewing women involved in prostitution to learn about their lives, their struggles, and how to determine the best steps toward social reintegration. “I also hope to interview current politicians working on the issue within the government,’’ she says.
Her goal is to document how civil society organizations like Prayas and other nonprofits can best create methods of rehabilitation and create spaces for women to exit the commercial sex trade, especially as so many of them are the victims of human trafficking, she says.
“For me, Haverford has been a perfect fit because of its commitment to student agency, and to developing these relationships between students and professors that I think are pretty unique to this college,’’ Chandran says. “I have really appreciated my time here. And it’s definitely come full circle now by getting the Fulbright. It’s exciting.’’