Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2003   |   India

Sohini Chakraborty

Working through state "remand" homes and citizen groups, Sohini Chakraborty introduces new and much needed techniques to rehabilitate girls and teenagers who have been forced into…
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This description of Sohini Chakraborty's work was prepared when Sohini Chakraborty was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


Working through state "remand" homes and citizen groups, Sohini Chakraborty introduces new and much needed techniques to rehabilitate girls and teenagers who have been forced into prostitution.

The New Idea

Sohini helps girls who are child prostitutes recover stability and confidence. She sees that healing is best achieved through expression that is physical, because the abuse suffered is demonstrably physical and causes many girls to disassociate from their bodies. Using dance and cultural expression as the core, Sohini's approach joins group facilitation, improvisation skills, rights education, and interpersonal communication. Taken together, these elements allow child prostitutes to overcome or in some measure to move past the trauma and abuse of their early years. The aim is to provide a fresh approach to the existing rehabilitation programs and to negotiate opportunities for these children to integrate into mainstream society on an equal footing.
The program first helps children come to terms with their past. They are then able to negotiate for their rightful place in society and for their rights with the "external" audience. Through self-choreographed performances and presentations made at seminars, workshops, and media events, these children shed their victim status and are able, as equals, to initiate and sustain dialogue with other children and adults.
Sohini equips citizen groups and state-run institutions with her techniques, and these groups, in turn, play a significant role in counseling and rehabilitation sessions with the children. Sohini's techniques help the children become comfortable with themselves, come to terms with their sexually violent past, and gain maturity and self-confidence. The children themselves ultimately become advocates for their cause; for example, some of the older students in Sohini's group–Sanved–have matured into trainers and peer educators.

The Problem

Forty percent of the one million prostitutes in India are under the age of 18. Deprived of their right to education, property ownership, inheritance, and economic options, girls are forced into child marriage and are eventually left with no choice other than prostitution to earn their own living. Children of prostitutes, even if they are lucky enough to find rehabilitation, often cannot come to terms with their past. The same holds true for the victims of sexual abuse and violence who feel guilt regarding their own bodies.
While NGOs and state-run homes for rescued children exist, their services tend to follow a stale routine: the usual counseling and vocational training in tailoring, block printing, knitting, and other manual skills. There are few innovations in the counseling techniques and in finding new income-generation options for the victims. Moreover, these existing programs provide little opportunity for the girls to interact with society as human beings rather than as victims.

The Strategy

Sohini began as a volunteer in Sanlaap, a city-based NGO working with rescued child prostitutes. She saw that the existing rehabilitation processes did not give the victims an opportunity to explore their innate talents and to help them flower without denying their past. Sohini began to experiment with new techniques that she introduced at several stages of the rehabilitation process.
In 1998 Sohini developed a pilot project called Rangeen Sapnay (colorful dreams), which stitched together techniques like self-expression through art and dance, group interactions, role play, and rights education. This project was implemented in 1999-2000 with support from the government. During the course of that one year, Sohini worked with more than 120 children, covering four red-light areas in Calcutta and two shelter homes belonging to Sanlaap. Children between 6 and 14 participated in these weekly sessions. This pilot project was a great success in the field and participating children from the shelters demanded that the project be continued.
This marked the birth of Sanved in 2000, which started as a semiautonomous program within Sanlaap. Initially, Sanved worked with a group of 25 to 30 children, including HIV-positive children, rescued child prostitutes, trafficked children, and adolescent mothers.
Sanved became a platform for these girls to showcase their cause and interact with society at large–those outside the welfare community. Sanved members have since participated and presented papers at national and international events and have staged performances featuring rights issues at gatherings like the Asian Social Forum.
Sohini strategically used high-profile conferences on HIV/AIDS to highlight the achievements of Sanved. On one occasion, two Sanved members shared the stage with celebrity Bianca Jagger to boldly censure the media for focusing on Sanved members' status as victims rather than on highlighting their struggles and successes. Sanved performs at cultural events where tickets are sold commercially. An important measure of Sohini's success was her nomination to represent the state at the Asian Social Forum in January 2003 where thousands of participants could appreciate Sanved's work.
Since early 2002, Sohini has run a school program that facilitates interaction between mainstream school students and the child victims of sexual violence. She has started with five schools in which there are regular sessions every three months to bridge the gap between the children, to help them understand and respect each other.
To increase the scope of the program and to get the buy-in of other programs involved in the rehabilitation process, Sohini has initiated dialogues with program staff members and counselors to introduce new counseling techniques. She is working to integrate her program with the rehabilitation and therapy processes used in these homes. With the help of Sanved members, Sohini is experimenting with specific elements that will make her program appropriate for older prostitutes who continue in the trade.
NGOs in New Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, and Hyderabad have requested Sohini's expertise in introducing the Sanved model to their organizations; she has also received invitations from groups in Bangladesh. Some of the senior Sanved members will assist with these trainings and function as in-house trainers through the adoption of the new techniques. These girls of Sanved are brimming with confidence and look forward to pursuing career options different from the routine tailoring and stitching ventures.

The Person

Sohini always had a rebellious streak. It was this streak that prompted her to fight the protests and hurdles raised in her conservative Islamic college when she formed a group to perform in cultural events at the college level. Challenging the college authorities, Sohini persuaded them to allow the girls to participate with the boys in all college activities.
Sohini believes that her entire life has been a quest. It started with finding solace in dance when she lost her mother at a very young age. However, classical dance forms did not satisfy her, and Sohini looked for a dance form that would fulfill her desire to communicate difficult and contemporary issues with the audience. She found this form in the modern dance techniques of the Dancer's Guild. Sohini toured several countries in Europe and all over India performing with the Dancer's Guild, but she was not content to remain a performer or a dancer.
Starting off another quest, Sohini found her true purpose during her studies in sociology when she read about the citizen sector movement and started volunteering with Sanlaap. Sohini persuaded the director of Sanlaap to let her experiment with her program. She raised funds to sustain her experiment and received logistical support from Sanlaap and its staff. Today, Sanved is being launched as an independent organization ready to take its innovations to other organizations in the country.

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