Rita Panicker is empowering street and working children to take control of their lives. Through her organization Butterflies, she provides children with the tools and means to collectively lobby for their rights and to organize their own self-help programs.
Recent estimates indicate that India is home to approximately 48 million street children. Acknowledging the complex social factors that force children to work on the streets, Butterflies’ unique approach to working with marginalized children acknowledges them as individuals who are ultimately responsible for their own welfare. The resources such as food, shelter, banking, organization, and education that Butterflies provides are offered to children on their own terms. The objectives of the program are to empower children with knowledge and skills necessary to protect their rights, provide them necessary support for reunion with their families wherever possible, and help them develop as respected and productive citizens.
Through the Children’s Health Initiative, Butterflies helps street children take charge of their bodies by providing the framework for a health cooperative. The children formed a health cooperative by charging a fee of Rs.5 a month to negotiate with health providers, plan seminars, and hire educators to teach them about preventable illnesses, nutrition and entitlements. The cooperative has experienced outstanding results, with children reporting a decrease in TB, septic injuries, and drug addiction. The health cooperative feeds into the Children’s Development Khazana, which funds a life skills education program. The fee of Rs 5 a month goes into this fund, which serves as a common pool which the children may borrow from to start a venture or pay for formal school, which they repay on a loan schedule, effectively teaching children financial management. The Khazana has 12,000 active members and a rotating council entirely comprised of children. In addition to these programs, Butterflies facilitates the Street Children’s Trade Union (Bal Mazdoor Union), computer trainings, a community kitchen project, and a student-run arts centre out of its accessible locations.
Since her election to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993, Rita has expanded her pioneering child-participation approach to youth homelessness across India and South Asia. Butterflies currently works in Delhi, Chennai, Leh-Ladakh, Kolkata, Muzaffarpur, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India, in addition to operations in cities in Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Butterflies regularly works with 13,000 children throughout 135 branches. An education program was started in Delhi in 2008, using innovative methods to scale through mobile schools and open schools. To increase its impact, Butterflies has established an extensive network of Indian and Asian CSO’s working with street children and working children. As part of its advocacy work, the organization has also partnered with key NGO’s and media partners to increase public awareness. Through Butterflies, advocacy and media campaigns, Rita continues to give the homeless youth of South Asia a voice and the tools to move forward.
Note: This was updated in August, 2014. Read on for the ELECTION profile.