Roma Debabrata

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 2002
This description of Roma Debabrata's work was prepared when Roma Debabrata was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002 .


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.