By Team Sanjog
In the rural communities of West Bengal, where economic struggles and resource limitations prevail, women face additional risks, including the harrowing reality of human trafficking. However, amidst these challenges, a group of remarkable women has risen to make a difference. Utthan, a survivor-led women’s collective, has become a driving force in the fight against trafficking, advocating for victim compensation, pushing for the TIP Bill, and contributing to the formation of ILFAT (International Legal Framework Against Trafficking).
Despite facing numerous obstacles, the leaders of Utthan continue to be unwavering in their commitment to their communities. They have undergone extensive training in peer support, outreach, and group processes, equipping them with the tools to bring about change in their communities. They actively plan and organize community events and have been inundated with requests from community members to address issues such as child marriages and domestic violence. In addition to their local efforts, they have also taken on a broader role in advocating for policy changes and engaging in COVID-19 response initiatives, while also providing trainings to other survivor groups. triumph over adversity.
However, the journey of Utthan leaders has not been without challenges. They have faced threats and harassment from traffickers and political leaders, encountered varying responses from duty bearers, and grappled with a lack of accessible mental health services and housing for survivors. They have also had to navigate backlash from families and communities, as well as internal conflicts within the collective.
Despite these hurdles, the women of Utthan continue to demonstrate unwavering resilience, as they overcome each challenge with determination and unwavering resolve.
Women leaders of Utthan received welcoming attitude from the community
— Appreciated as conflict mitigator and facilitator
A brave Utthan member and survivor leader, Firoja’s resolve shone bright as she took on the role of a facilitator and conflict mitigator during a crisis. Drawing on the encouragement and support of her community, she fearlessly stepped forward, leading with compassion and wisdom. Her unwavering dedication to helping others in need and her ability to deftly navigate challenging situations earned her recognition as a true leader, a beacon of hope in the fight against human trafficking.
Meanwhile, another Utthan leader, Rebecca’s quick thinking and decisive action saved the lives of two trafficked survivors. When faced with a dire situation, she sprang into action, displaying remarkable courage and resourcefulness. Her selfless act of rescue, guided by her unwavering commitment to justice, earned her well-deserved recognition as a true leader among her peers.
— Trustworthiness for making informed career choices
Utthan member and survivor leader, Moumita has emerged as a trusted mentor for adolescents and their parents alike. Her deep-rooted commitment to empowering the youth in her community has earned her a reputation as a beacon of guidance and support. With her keen insights and invaluable suggestions, Moumita has become a go-to resource for career choices, helping young minds navigate the complexities of their future with confidence and clarity. Through her unwavering dedication she has built a strong bond of trust with the adolescents and their parents.
— Appreciated for mediating and bringing key resources to the community
In the midst of the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Utthan’s women leaders rose to the occasion, earning admiration and appreciation from their fellow community members and influential stakeholders alike. Tumpa, a dedicated member of the Utthan collective, received praise for her tireless efforts in helping fellow community women access COVID-19 vaccinations. Her selfless act of service, recognized by both her peers and influential community members including Panchayat members and political leaders, showcased her unwavering commitment to the well-being of her community.
Similarly, Nasima, a celebrated member of the Utthan collective, was lauded for her exceptional language skills and intellect. Her ability to effectively navigate the intricacies of accessing ‘duare sarkar’ and other welfare services at the block level, including engaging with duty-bearers such as BDO (Block Development Officer) and SDPO (Sub-Divisional Police Officer), earned her widespread recognition and respect. Nasima’s dedication to supporting community members in accessing essential services during the challenging times of the pandemic was applauded by her community and beyond.
In addition, several other members of the Utthan collective, including Arifa, Firoja, Monjuara, Moumita, Supia, Rashida, and Mitali, were also appreciated by their community for their compassionate acts of generosity. Providing relief materials and monetary support to vulnerable women, children, and migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating Amphan cyclone, they exemplified the spirit of solidarity and resilience that defines Utthan’s mission to empower their communities.
Women in leadership – Challenges faced by the Utthan Leaders
— The pressure of gendered roles
Supia, a dedicated member of the Utthan collective, has faced her share of challenges as she strives to create positive change in her community. While she has received appreciation and support for her work in anti-trafficking efforts, she has also experienced a withdrawal of support when she was unable to meet traditional expectations of domestic roles and responsibilities. Supia candidly shared her story of navigating the delicate balance between her community work and her family duties.
As Supia prioritizes her work outside of her home, she has faced criticism and backlash from some family members and community members who hold traditional views on gender roles. Expectations such as preparing her children for exams or cooking meals during family get-togethers clashed with her commitments to Utthan’s activities. However, Supia remains resolute in her pursuit of social change and empowerment for women, even as she faces these challenges.
— Struggles of dealing with broken law enforcement
One major challenge has been addressing domestic violence cases, where Utthan leaders have had to navigate complex situations, including shuttling between police stations located at the girl’s parents’ residence and marital residence, in order to seek justice and support for survivors.
In addition to dealing with the complexities of domestic violence cases, Utthan has also faced challenges in dealing with legal representation. Some DLSA (District Legal Services Authority) lawyers demanded money from Utthan leaders, which they bravely spoke up about, refusing to succumb to corruption. This highlights the integrity and determination of Utthan’s leaders in upholding their principles and advocating for survivors without compromising on ethical standards.
— Limited autonomy over finances
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented challenges, and for Utthan members, it has been no exception. As the sole breadwinners in their families due to job losses suffered by male family members, many Utthan leaders have faced additional pressure from parents, in-laws, and husbands to take on financial responsibilities. Tajmira, Monjuara, and Rebecca have shared their experiences of being forcefully subjected to decisions about their earnings by family members, highlighting the gendered expectations and inequalities that persist in their communities.
— Resistance from community members while challenging gender based domestic violence
Utthan members have faced significant resistance from their own communities, with some women playing the role of moral police, taunting, verbally abusing, defaming, and labeling Utthan members as “bad women” when they try to break out from abusive family relationships, stop child marriages, or stay out overnight for work purposes. However, Utthan’s leaders have continued to rise above these challenges, showing unwavering determination in pursuing their mission.
Utthan, comprised mostly of women from socially marginalized communities in rural interiors of West Bengal, has faced significant challenges as they work to combat human trafficking and empower survivors. Despite these challenges, Utthan’s survivor leaders have shown remarkable resilience and have made significant strides in their leadership journey, showcasing the power of survivor-led efforts in bringing about change. In a survey conducted by Sanjog on post-traumatic growth, many Utthan leaders showed impressive resilience, with 80% growth in dimensions like “Personal Strength,” “Appreciation of Life,” and “New Possibilities” among more than 50% of the participants. Even those who have experienced trauma about 3 years ago showed an overall growth rate of 75%.
The impact of Utthan’s tireless work reverberates far beyond their immediate surroundings, as they strive to make a meaningful difference in the lives of vulnerable women and survivors. Their tenacity, courage, and unwavering commitment are a testament to the indomitable spirit of resilience in the face of adversity.
As Utthan members continue to overcome challenges, advocate for policy changes, and empower survivors, they serve as a beacon of hope for women everywhere.