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ROMA DEBABRATA

India,

Roma Debabrata is mobilizing urban, migrant communities to find and report cases of trafficking. By building vigilant networks and effective partnerships with law enforcement, Roma is enabling citizens to take control and curb trafficking.

This profile below was prepared when Roma Debabrata was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.
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Professor Roma Debabrata is strategizing efforts to combat trafficking through preventive and curative mechanisms. She has developed intensive community engagement models that are highly replicable to combat trafficking at source. Simultaneously, she conducts direct recovery of victims from exploitative situation, provides holistic rehabilitation to recovered survivors and gradually restores or repatriates them to the society, empowering them to lead emancipated and dignified lives.

 

According to universal research, Human Trafficking is one of the largest organized illegal (criminal) profitable trade that targets vulnerable women and children- exploiting them for sex, organs, labour etc. Communities deep rooted in poverty with limited or zero access to education, awareness or economic opportunities are most susceptible to the menace of trafficking. Often women and children are lured by traffickers through promises of job, marriage proposals etc. Lack of well researched information on social safety net and integrated rehabilitative facilities in the country often denies the victims the opportunity to recover from their excruciating and traumatic experiences.

Roma’s community vigilant model intensively trains and mobilizes migrant communities to collectively address trafficking at source. She identifies leaders from within the communities who are transformed into resource persons responsible for the vigilance and welfare of their areas, connecting the residents to various components of STOP’s program which includes educational, medical, vocational, legal support amongst others. As the community is educated on a range of issues, the model helps build a powerful solution based resource, a strong community forum that can effectively address problems like trafficking. The community vigilant model also includes the involvement of the law enforcement and judiciary in rescue and arrest efforts, thus transforming a historically adversarial relationship into a supportive team structure. Roma also works for the reduction of vulnerability of rural and urban women affected by domestic violence and at-risk of being trafficked through promoting and supporting indigenous livelihood opportunities like agriculture, pisciculture, goatry, poultry etc in a traffic-prone village in West Bengal. Understanding the dearth of safe care and protection for recovered survivors and vulnerable women in the country, Roma established a ‘family home’ to provide non-judgmental safe space with positive and hygienic environment that invests in the holistic growth of the residents. Services range from providing trauma counseling and friendly peer counseling support to physical and psychological care, legal support, access to formal and non-formal education programme and livelihood training to provide economic rehabilitation till the girls are reunited with their families or civil society. Roma institutionalized the approach to run the family home in a democratic, rights based and participatory nature.

Since the year 2000, Roma has recovered over 2500 girls and women of different nationalities from various exploitative situations. Collaborating with different government bodies and INGOs over 3000 survivors restored and repatriated. Under Roma’s leadership, more than 300 survivors have been rehabilitated since the last decade. Roma’s consistent persuasion to the government led to the formation of the Standard Operational Protocol for India-Bangladesh/Nepal Repatriation and Policy. The community vigilant model strategized by Roma has been adopted by an organization in West Bengal. Training over 500+ women in different livelihood programs, Roma has institutionalized a social venture called “Thousand Dreams” to provide gainful employment opportunities to women trained in handicrafts and food catering. Under her leadership STOP has achieved a consultative status from ECOSOC, and networks with ECPAT, ATSEC and other INGOs as associate member.

Roma envisions a world for women and children free from all forms of exploitations. At present Roma is focusing on expanding interventions in different last-mile communities of Delhi empowering them to tackle the issue at source and simultaneously demand for implementation of government services especially on health and education. With changing times, Roma is focusing on empowering the communities on safe uses of internet to reduce the vulnerability of sexual exploitation and harassment using technology. She is building Thousand Dreams as a platform for survivors and vulnerable women to use their skills not only to prepare market-ready products but emerge as the owners, shareholders and frontrunners of Thousand Dreams a company with a social cause. Roma is also preparing the beneficiaries of her family home to attend the prestigious Children’s Cultural Caravan, an annual culture program hosted across Europe. STOP happened to be one of the two organizations invited to participate in this vibrant program to be held in the second of 2017. Roma has contributed to the making of Standard Operational Protocol for Repatriation and Bilateral Agreement of Trafficking between India-Bangladesh and India-Nepal. Her future plans include following up on the implementation of this protocol/agreement.

NOTE: This section was updated in May, 2017. Read on for the ELECTION profile.

INTRODUCTION

Roma Debabrata is mobilizing urban, migrant communities to find and report cases of trafficking. By building vigilant networks and effective partnerships with law enforcement, Roma is enabling citizens to take control and curb trafficking.




THE NEW IDEA

Roma is combating trafficking of women and children by creating an informal policing system within communities. She is turning migrants living in the urban centers into informed, vigilant investigators, effective at gathering and handling information critical to rescue efforts and arrests. Roma focuses on training citizens to serve as leaders and liaisons to the rest of the community, spreading useful information and developing a community-wide effort to reduce trafficking. Roma is not interested in bypassing the authority of police; on the contrary, she is helping to establish a collaborative, mutually reinforcing effort that brings together the knowledge of community members and the legal authority of police. She is strengthening relationships within communities and building bridges between the communities and law enforcement agents.




THE PROBLEM

The realities of a multilingual, multicultural country like India can result in migrating groups finding themselves vulnerable in the midst of an alien people, culture, and language. The abject poverty, isolation, and lack of opportunities that often ensue make the dreams that traffickers use to lure the destitute quite appealing. In search of opportunity, women and children migrate from neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal, and the rural poor move to urban centers where many are forced to labor in bondage, sometimes as prostitutes.

Within the overall profile of trafficking in South Asia, India is a country of both transit and destination for trafficked women and children. According to the Center of Concern for Child Labour in New Delhi, of the estimated 900,000 prostitutes in India, 30 percent are children, numbering between 270,000 and 400,000. The number of children under 14 employed as prostitutes is increasing between 8 and 10 percent annually.

The network that supports trafficking is extensive. Organizers in source districts, transporters, brokers who escort girls and women to cities, border policemen, and brothel owners and managers are all involved in the execution and daily running of trafficking. Behind them, acting as powerful but elusive protectors, are politicians who are difficult to identify and arrest. While laws are in place to incarcerate those responsible for trafficking, enforcement is problematic and often obscured by lack of information. Police, often outsiders, cannot easily get the tips they need to make arrests, especially in urban migrant communities where many factors, like language, present difficult barriers.




THE STRATEGY

To fight trafficking at one of its important sources, Roma and her staff at her program–STOP–are creating a policing system of community dwellers. They first identify natural leaders in migrant communities in or around urban centers. Groups of 10 or 20 individuals are trained intensively for one month to assume a leadership role in a specific area of the slum community. However, Roma approaches her leaders and communities carefully. She does not begin with trafficking, a sensitive topic; instead, she provides useful information and resources relating to health, education, and conflict resolution. Since the leaders are responsible for the welfare of their area, they assess the needs of the slum residents and connect them to various components of the STOP program. The community leaders, who are paid a modest salary, meet together weekly and once a month with STOP for follow-up.

As they educate the people in the slum communities on a range of issues, STOP leaders build a powerful resource: a strong community base that they can use to solve important problems like trafficking. The accessibility to slum homes helps them gather information and intercept trafficking and prostitution activity that is conducted within the area. Collectively, they can directly rescue a child or a woman from the clutches of traffickers. This may mean spotting a suspicious newcomer to the community (e.g., an "uncle" arriving with a young "niece"), watching him closely over a period of days, collecting impressions from neighbors, confirming suspicions of his involvement in trafficking, and pursuing an arrest and rescue in cooperation with police. The communities learn to be vigilant at all times, as their work is intimately woven into their daily lives. As a prevention strategy, many of STOP's leaders recruit girls who themselves would be at risk.

Another important element of Roma's strategy is involvement of the police in rescue and arrest efforts. By uniting police and communities against trafficking, Roma is transforming a historically adversarial or wary relationship into a supportive team effort. STOP leaders typically arrange regular monthly meetings with police and emergency meetings to address urgent concerns. Members of the police are motivated to cooperate by the sincere efforts of Roma, STOP, and the slum communities.

STOP leaders in turn spread the program model to neighboring migrant slums that Roma and her staff help identify as areas of critical need. Roma is documenting her work extensively and has developed a direct rescue module and has trained other organizations working in the field. She has built strong cooperating networks in the states of West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Nepal, and Bangladesh–with which she works closely on repatriation efforts for rescued women and children. In collaboration with these groups, she hopes to spread the model to other regions of the country.




THE PERSON

Born to a government officer father, Roma was brought up in a progressive family in Kolkata. Her radical mother was a great support. At a young age, Roma moved away from home to work, an act that was unusual for the time and context. Her marriage to an engineer whose mother and father were involved in women's cooperative movements and trade union movements gave her the space and support to grow as a person. She was part of the social work unit of her college and taught literature, helping students look at the discrepancies that exist within society, giving the subject a different perspective. Roma also took care of a much older colleague and friend in her last days. Upon the woman's insistence that Roma inherit her money, Roma decided to establish in her name a citizen organization that would address social problems; STOP is part of that trust.

Roma was introduced to trafficking while reading a newspaper article on a trafficked Bangladeshi child who had been brought to court after being raped in police custody; Roma decided to volunteer as the official translator in the case. It was the girl's plight that led her to launch STOP.

Roma Debabrata has one daughter. Her retired husband is now involved in helping her advance the mission of STOP.




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