A young Indian woman who grew up in Mumbai's red-light district facing poverty and sexual abuse has overcome the odds to win a scholarship to study in New York.

Shweta Katti, 18, left for America on Thursday to study at the liberal arts Bard College, where she hopes to read psychology. Afterwards she wants to return to India and help other young women in her community.

"It's my childhood dream. I didn't think it would finally happen," she told AFP before leaving Mumbai, where she grew up in a brothel.

Katti's determination won her a place this year in Newsweek's list of 25 "Young Women To Watch" aged under-25, alongside Pakistani schoolgirl and activist Malala Yousufzai who was shot in the head by the Taliban.

It is a long way from Katti's early childhood experiences of abuse and harassment in Mumbai's notorious Kamathipura neighbourhood.

"You would see everyday someone beating up a woman, the police coming unexpectedly at anytime, and women selling their bodies -- they were not happy," Katti said.

"Men would ask to sleep with me, it was so embarrassing, but I had to face it. My father abused me, many people abused me, but my mum was with me always saying: 'You are the best, you can do anything'."

The teenager, who describes herself as "a tough-skinned girl", said she faced discrimination "from all sides" at school because of her poor background and low caste status.

She credits her mother, a factory worker, as her "inspiration" and says the local charity Kranti -- meaning "revolution" in Hindi -- also played a vital role in helping her achieve her dreams.

The group's aim is to empower girls from Mumbai's red-light areas "to become agents of social change", and a small group of them live at Kranti's north Mumbai apartment, where Katti moved two years ago.

Here she was able to work on her English language skills and experience therapy, which sparked her interest in psychology.

"I really think it can change somebody. I started thinking openly and respecting my background and myself," she said.