Uma Chatterjee

Founder, Director of Sanjog

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Uma Chatterjee is putting survivors of human trafficking at the center of India’s anti-trafficking movement. She is activating their potential to become firstgeneration leaders, changemakers and policy advocates who are reforming the way India combats human trafficking, while supporting each other in their own recovery and in building new lives of dignity and purpose.



Every year, more than 23,000 people are rescued from trafficking in India. Yet this often marks the start of a second cycle of entrapment. Rescued victims, mostly youth between the ages of 17-26, are held in custodial institutions or shelter homes for years, as they await court-ordered release. Most ‘victims’ don’t have any decision-making power over their rehabilitation. Those in charge, including social workers and non-profit leaders, often view survivors as silent beneficiaries, incapable of decision-making and devoid of aspirations.

Uma is breaking this pattern by setting up new platforms of leadership and learning for young survivors. These ‘survivor-changemakers’ are setting up their own organizations, small businesses, and advocacy platforms to collaborate directly with governments, employers, and society. They are creating new livelihoods and laws that restore their self-worth, citizenship, and dreams. 

A trained clinical psychologist, Uma energizes survivors to create peer groups in trafficking hotspots, to support each other in moving through their shared trauma, stigma, and shame. Young people who have been trafficked as sex workers, forced laborers, domestic servants and the like begin to make their own decisions about their education, skills, and employment in recovery. Uma then scaffolds these peer groups into a supportive eco-system of non-profits, which help survivors with the legal, mental and health challenges they often face. Survivors collaborate first, to become powerful for themselves, then, build outward, putting their voices, intelligence and experience at the center of India’s anti-trafficking efforts. 

Uma’s approach is three-pronged. First, she energizes survivors to organize peer-support groups in communities that are centers of trafficking. These peer networks become the bedrock on which survivors help each other build lives of purpose. Second, she equips them to take charge of their own rehabilitation, livelihoods, and citizenship. Survivors plan their future with their own vision for their lives, rather than those supplied by rehabilitation templates and protocols. And they engage and advocate directly with the government and other stakeholders, rather than have social workers do so on their behalf. Third, Uma galvanizes these survivor groups from across India into a collective of collectives: ILFAT, or Indian Leaders Forum Against Trafficking. With 2,500 members, this national platform is rich with membership from diverse survivor collectives. It collaborates with the media, lawyers, and experts to conduct policy research, advocate for and monitor the government’s anti-human-trafficking efforts. In the process it surprises the survivors as they experience changing society.

Over five years, Uma and her team have facilitated 5,000 survivors in forming and leading 26 survivor collectives. Thirteen partner organizations are now replicating Uma’s model across ten states, and the Indian government has begun running such survivor centers at scale. In affect Uma has persuaded both the citizen sector and government that turning victims into changemakers is what really matters.

Among other accomplishments, peer groups have won greater government compensation for survivors, with individuals winning up to 24,000 USD, 100 times the usual compensation. Survivors have unlocked the full slate of government schemes, entitlements, and social protection programs mandated for them, directly approaching public officials whom they now recognize as public servants who can be held accountable. Uma has put technology tools in the hands of survivor groups to audit and rate the performance of their local governments and allied systems, which survivors then use as ‘citizen data’ when advocating with government, media, and policy bodies.

As survivors progress, their demand and ambition for non-traditional livelihoods grows. Through a unique, ‘trauma-informed’ livelihoods and entrepreneurship training program, Uma is opening pathways for survivors to become entrepreneurs. She is giving them the knowledge and skills to engage with markets, customers, finance, and regulators. Uma’s approach enables survivors to see micro-businesses as a tool for self-reliance and empowerment. In the last three years 200 women from 15 self-help groups have set up small individual and group businesses, forging partnerships with state bodies and earning start-up capital from local banks and organizations.

As they progress and join into larger networks, survivors are able to chart their own course, support themselves and their families, and advocate directly with the government and other stakeholders over India’s anti-trafficking policies and programs. Through ILFAT their goal is to pass India’s first broad-spectrum, anti-trafficking legislation, legislation inspired and influenced by the survivor community themselves.

Uma peer groups
“Me-We-Us Spiral Leadership Training” takes survivors into a deep immersion into their personhood, then gives them the skills and tactics for personal and community resilience and transformational leadership.


It is estimated that close to eight million Indians live in conditions of modern slavery. A majority are children and young adults between the ages of 17 and 26. They are exploited in ways that range from sex work to forced labor, domestic servitude, kidnap and adoption, even organ transplantation.

Every year a small number – about 23,000 people – are rescued and rehabilitated, but they are being failed by the anti-trafficking system in multiple ways.

Their rescue often leads to a second cycle of entrapment, as survivors are sent to custodial institutions or shelter homes, where, by law, they are detained for a period of one to three years. Many languish for more than seven years, and all exist in a situation akin to incarceration, with little decision-making power over their own lives. Their mobility is restricted. They cannot leave the shelter premises without the permission of the Judicial Court, and they have little or no say on how they are treated there. While they are entitled to services that address their trauma, it is caseworkers, not survivors themselves, who develop the plans for their rehabilitation and livelihoods, and those in charge often view them as silent beneficiaries, incapable of decision-making and without aspirations.

The vocational training programs they are offered in shelters are not attuned to markets, jobs, or industry demands. Programs do not account for the age, education, interests, health, responsibilities, or liabilities of the survivors. Nor do they commonly lead to jobs offering sufficient income for a survivor to support a family. Skill-building programs do not address the trauma, shame, and stigma survivors live with. As a result, most are unlikely to get or hold down a job. When survivors are able to integrate back into their communities, they often find themselves in a situation worse than before. They realize that the chasm separating them from having a real chance for a life of dignity has only widened. Most survivors return to their old patterns. Too many end up becoming part of the criminal network of trafficking, thereby perpetuating the system.

The legal process itself penalizes survivors more than traffickers. The rate of acquittal for traffickers is as high as 83%, while fewer than one percent of the victims identified from 2010 to 2018 have received compensation. These statistics can be attributed to the limited awareness and training of the rural and grassroots CSOs that provide survivors access to rehabilitation and legal services.

Additionally, the long tail of paperwork for victim compensation, and the process of convicting traffickers, lead to more shame than benefit. As survivors navigate courtrooms, they are subject to the biases and stigmatizing gaze of bureaucrats, elected representatives, medical and police officers.

Traditional non-profits working in this sector often have a savior mentality. They implement rehabilitation services ‘for survivors,’ instead of ‘with them.’ Most times, survivors are called revictimizes them. Moreover, these non-profits are also fragmented and unable to build bridges with each other.

Survivors collaborate and strategize to make vital decisions about their education, skills, and employment, and develop leadership skills to prepare them for larger sectoral roles.


Uma brings her training as a clinical psychologist and her earlier leadership in work combatting gender violence to her work to fight human trafficking and give real power back to the survivors. She works through a CSO she founded, Sanjog.

The first step in her three step strategy is to build survivor peer communities. In trafficking hot spots, Uma and her team help survivors to set up peer groups as they re-enter the world of family, community, and work. Survivor peer groups are force multipliers. They enable members to break through their shared trauma, stigma, and shame. Survivors collaborate to seek compensation and in the legal fight against traffickers. They help one another make vital decisions about their education and employment. These survivors receive and support newly arrived peers. Taking responsibility leads them to daily wins and learning. They develop leadership skills – goal setting, problem-solving, and stakeholder management – that prepare them for larger sectoral roles.

A trauma-informed leadership training program fuels and sits at the heart of this model. A methodology pioneered by Uma – the “Me-We-Us Spiral Leadership Train-ing” -- takes survivors into a deep immersion into their personhood, then gives them the skills and tactics for personal and community resilience and transformational leadership. The training bolsters survivors to heal internally, first as individuals (“Me”), then to integrate into communities of survivors (“We”), and finally to grow into high-capacity leaders (“Us”) in collectives that are creative, courageous, and collaborative. It trains them to network, share narratives, advocate, and build alliances as the most powerful representatives of their sector. Survivors are also equipped with the tools for strategy, fundraising and team building to strengthen their organizations. To augment this intensive training, Uma and her team offer mentoring and coaching to survivor-changemakers.

For Uma, citizenship and livelihood with dignity are the two levers that can move local survivor organizations to the nexlevel of change-making. She and the survivor groups therefore focus strongly on both.

Uma peer groups
Survivor peer groups in trafficking hot spots help survivors to set up peer groups as they re-enter the world of family, community, and work.

As peer groups set up collectives and formal organizations, they develop the norms, roles, and activities of their entities independently. One powerful example is the non-profit Utthan. It conducts workshops on victim compensation with stakeholders from government, civil society, and media. It is the survivors themselves who organize, host and are principal presenters at these training sessions.  Stakeholders attend as participants and guests. This upending of roles is changing the perceptions about survivors—from sad, weak victims to people who are powerful, assertive, and resourceful. Here’s another illustration: When survivors take charge of their own victim compensation cases, the results are unprecedented. Some survivors have been able to win compensation of up to 24,000 USD – 100 times more than the standard payment victims usually receive.

Citizenship becomes real when, for example, survivors start to unlock the full slate of government schemes, entitlements and social protection programs mandated for them. This process has opened direct dialogue between survivors and public officials. It has also led survivors to see themselves not just as beneficiaries of government services, but as a citizen base that can audit, give feedback, and hold duty-bearers accountable.

Uma has equipped survivor groups with technology tools to audit and rate the performance of their local government and allied systems.  One tool generates a scorecard on the responsiveness of public systems to the survivor community. This ‘citizen data’ is used by survivors for advocacy with state and national governments, media, and other policy bodies.  

As survivor collectives progress, their demand and ambition for non-traditional livelihoods grows. Through a unique, ‘trauma-informed’ livelihood and entrepreneurship training program, Uma is opening pathways for survivors to create and run businesses. She helps them develop the knowledge and skills they need to engage confidently with markets, customers, finance bodies, and regulators. For a community that has only experienced work as brutal and exploitative, Uma enables survivors to see micro-businesses as a tool for self-reliance and empowerment. Recently, 200 women from fifteen self-help groups have set up individual and group businesses – salons, tailoring, and the like. For example, several of these first-generation micro-entrepreneurs in West Ben-gal have forged a partnership with government offices that promote rural livelihood and businesses and have received start-up seed capital and small loans from local banks and organizations.

Sanjog’s work centers around a restorative approach to care for human trafficking survivors, facilitating partnerships among NGOs working in the source, transit and destination points of human trafficking, to ensure that survivors have the best chances of remaining free.

- Como Foundation 

For Uma, the emergence of survivor-leaders cannot be possible without an enabling ecosystem of community-based grassroots organizations. Sanjog’s thirteen partners in trafficking hotbeds across eleven states build the ground for survivor-led groups to thrive. Uma and her team run parallel capacity-building, peer learning and cross-pollination programs for partner organizations. The non-profit partners are coached to be the ‘guide on the side’ for survivor collectives. They are trained to facilitate survivor organizations while providing stimulus to local communities and stakeholders to become allies.

Even as she works hard at helping survivors build peer organizations and then survivor-run businesses and citizen groups, she’s also been building a survivor-sup- porting all-India movement. She is orienting large global anti-trafficking funders to embed survivor leadership in all their programs. Combined with her role modeling and strong public advocacy, she is growing the number and power of a network of survivor leadership citizen groups all across India. That alliance in turn is the core of the national survivor-led advocacy platform, ILFAT, which is working towards survivor-centric laws at the national and state levels. All of this multiplies the spread of ever-more savvy and powerful survivor-led organizations and businesses and the CSOs supporting them.


From a clinical psychologist to transformational leadership for young survivors of trafficking -- Uma’s story shares many common patterns with the young leaders she is launching.

While her father was serving in the army, Uma moved to multiple cities and towns in quick succession as a child. The shock of being uprooted, then having to quickly drop roots in a new place, left a deep yearning for friendships, life anchors, and relationships that would be enduring.

Cross border trafficking between India and its neighbors, particularly Nepal and Bangladesh have been a persistent problem. The proposal of such shelters, for care and protection of trafficked girls, intercepted at the border, is a need often voiced by community-based anti-trafficking organizations like [Uma’s] Sanjog at these borders.

- The Indian Express

Uma walking
Through a unique, ‘trauma-informed’ livelihood and entrepreneurship training program, Uma is opening pathways for survivors to become entrepreneurs.

College was a turning point in Uma’s life. Studying psychology helped her ‘find’ her own self.

But as she moved from the safe army bases of her youth, Uma discovered how unsafe, violent, and traumatic life in a big city like Delhi could be. She experienced sexual assault in public places, including being physically molested, Eve-teased, and stalked. When Uma reached out for support, she felt unheard and told to adjust. She kept quiet, but a deep-seated anger made its home inside of her. As a response, Uma volunteered extensively in local non-profits. She ran student clubs and initiated several college activities on issues of gender and violence.

Uma went on to build a successful career as a clinical psychologist. Yet the rootlessness of her childhood kept her on the quest to find her own community. She set up counseling programs across schools – new to the education system in the 1990s. She then turned her attention to community-based healing for survivors of sexual assault. This eventually led her to a leadership role in an international organization that funded and facilitated rehabilitation programs for survivors of sex trafficking across South Asia.

One day, a conversation with a rescued sex worker stopped Uma in her tracks. The young woman had been trafficked from Bangladesh to work in the brothels of Pune and Mumbai and had been placed in an interim Mumbai shelter before her return home. Uma asked if she was excited to return. The young woman flatly responded that home, a brothel, or the shelter – all three for her were the same. All were spaces of stigma, shame, exploitation, and unfreedom for her.

Uma was shaken and deeply moved. To validate what she had heard, she started having conversations with social workers. She asked them what they loved most about working with survivors of trafficking. Their responses reflected a protectionist mentality. A majority saw survivors as beneficiaries of rehabilitation protocols and services. They said they found fulfillment in counseling the survivors to adjust to their families, even if that sometimes meant living with the same people who had sold them to traffickers. Voice, decision-making, freedom, dignity, citizenship of survivors -- these themes found no place in Uma’s chats with social workers. Uma realized that she had been complicit in deepening a custodial and non-empowering approach to rehabilitating survivors. She acknowledged that more than anything else, the young woman from Bangladesh, and others like her, needed allies and champions, not saviors or heroes who would rescue and then counsel them to fit in.

With this conviction, Uma founded Sanjog in 2012. In the next five years Sanjog conducted evidence-based research with survivors, which led to the establishment of survivor collectives and ILFAT. Through Sanjog and ILFAT, India’s anti-trafficking efforts now actually free survivors.

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