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Rita Panicker helps India's street and working children to lobby for their rights and launch their own self-help organizations. She has also organized India's first trade union of child workers-the Bal Mazdoor Union.

This profile below was prepared when Rita Panicker was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993.

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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.


Rita Panicker helps India's street and working children to lobby for their rights and launch their own self-help organizations. She has also organized India's first trade union of child workers-the Bal Mazdoor Union.


Rita Panicker is providing child workers with the space, skills, networks and mechanisms to help them conceptualize, plan and implement their own programs. The street children are accredited members of Rita's organization, Butterflies. "We do not offer action blueprints," Rita explains. "Street children choose an activity that stems from their needs. They participate in planning for it and contribute financially. As a result . . . [they are] motivated to make a success out of it."

The outcome of their meetings has been the opening of doors to political and economic opportunities for street children. The Bal Mazdoor Union-which translates as Street Children's Trade Union-is one of them. This collective of street and working children aims to educate children about their rights, both as children and as workers. It also aims to mobilize public awareness of the pressures that force children to work in the streets and the inhumanity that follows thereafter. Although there is governmental legislation to protect the rights of child workers, the Union is closer to the core of the problem because it is a program run by the beneficiaries of the legislation, rather than by third parties.

The experience of street children in the Union has made them aware of the effectiveness of collective action. They have set up the Special Action Group that immediately responds to any emergency of a child on the street. They also have a credit union that provides various services to its members, including educational and vocational training, health and medical care, and credit to start economic enterprises. Currently, a group of children manage a restaurant, Butterflies, in Delhi. The goal is to eventually grant them ownership of the establishment by turning it into a cooperative venture.


The number of child street workers in the cities of India is the largest in the world-approximately 48 million. As urban poverty grows, an almost parallel increase takes place in the number of child street workers.

The problems of street children cannot be tackled without addressing the needs of the urban poor, approximately 68 percent of which are women and children, illiterate and unskilled. They have poor employment opportunities and are caught in a vicious circle of low wages and low productivity. As they have few assets or savings, daily earnings are the key to survival. The economic situation forces every member of the family to seek work and contributes to the growing incidence of street-working children.

Contrary to common belief, most children on the streets in metropolitan cities of India have families. Some are from families who adopt them for purely economic reasons. Approximately twenty percent live away from their families. Abusive relationships with parents, poverty and the lure of a big city cause some to run away from their families.

Approximately 58 percent of street children work in metropolitan cities of India, with approximately 46 percent of them being self-employed as porters, shoe-shine boys, newspaper and other types of vendors, and parking attendants. About 37 percent are employed in shops and establishments.

Although the law prohibits children from working for more than five hours a day, many work for eight to twelve hours, without any rest. Sexual abuse, police harassment, low wages (as little as 35 US cents per day), violent street fights and pressures from criminal gangs form the reality of the everyday life of street children. Many turn to drugs and gambling or earn their living in the red-light districts of the city.

While the Social Welfare Board has imposed restrictive regulations to facilitate overall improvements for working children, it lacks the political will to implement them or a nationwide movement or labor union to protect street children.


Reaching out to street children who have little or no family support can present special problems. They are suspicious and may react violently to adults whom they view as part of the world of wrongdoing. Therefore, Butterflies operates as a street-based organization to work with children on their terms with the children firmly in charge. A trained group of street educators seek out the children on crowded pavements, public parks, bus stations and main roads and facilitate sessions on literacy, arts, recreation, etc. Rita has designed a curriculum that focuses on issues specific to their experiences.

Meeting schedules are flexible for the children's convenience, and classes are held day or night. Rita works with approximately 800 street children on a recurring basis. Rita and her team have identified eight contact points across Delhi. These are areas where exploitation of street and working children is at its most severe. Of approximately 450 street children who participate in Butterflies' alternative education project, approximately 80 percent have never been to school.

The remaining 20 percent had to drop out from school to begin earning money. Today, they are proactive participants and managers of various technical training and self-help projects run by the organization. They manage a wall magazine, Bal Mazdoor Ke Awaz ("The Voice of Working Children") to keep one another updated. Two of the children have become street educators and another is an office administrator at Butterflies.

A core group of young decision-makers has evolved. The Bal Sabha (children's councils) is composed of five representatives from each meeting point. Once a month, they discuss issues that are crucial to them such as police harassment, nonpayment of wages, drugs, and the need for better jobs, education and saving strategies. They help refine the intervention of the organization and plan the next step forward.

The unionization of street children as a strategy for elimination of child labor is a clear expression of the children's participation and empowerment. It is also a commitment to the protection of child rights rather than solely a commitment to enhancing facilities and conditions of the child's work. Rita points out, "When child workers' unions demand wages equal to adults, better working conditions and other benefits given to adult workers as well as facilities related to special needs of children, child labor will no longer be cheap. It will thus no longer be an attractive proposition for employers."

The Union draws public attention and facilitates litigation against the silent crimes committed against children such as death in the workplace and medical negligence resulting in workplace deaths. Butterflies' health care program takes a preventive approach. Health education is offered to the children on personal hygiene, common diseases, drugs, AIDS, etc., and a mobile health team visits contact points regularly. Child health workers who have been identified at each contact point are trained to attend to wounds, first aid, admission to hospitals, etc.

The health project will eventually be a cooperative owned by the children. Other programs include counseling, technical training, quarterly camps and get-togethers where children participate in cultural and recreational activities. A theater training session prepares the children for the prestigious National School of Drama for further training.

Rita believes that outreach to broader circles is essential and she has set up an advocacy, research and documentation component that publishes advocacy materials on child rights. Rita has also simplified research designs and tools for data collection so the street children she works with can access information and use it to comprehend social, economic and political issues. The children have been given ownership rights to their research and have prepared three commendable studies on the female child, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the three most important rights denied them.


Rita spent her early years at a residential public school in Pune, a progressive city in Western India. Exposed to social work while in college, she devoted weekends to a residential school for tribal children run by her aunt in Kerela. Once Rita decided to spend her life working for disadvantaged children, she registered at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay and majored in social welfare administration.

Soon after her graduation, she worked in the field of community health. After five years, Rita enrolled in the master's program in development studies at the Institute of Social Sciences in Den Haag, the Netherlands. Upon her return to India, she taught at the Tata Institute, where her interest in street children grew. By the time she moved to Delhi in 1987, Rita had resolved to work with and for street children and formed Butterflies. Rita's husband, Gerry Pinto, works with UNICEF and shares her deep commitment to working with children.