Indrani Sinha – India

Linked with Sanlaap India, with Oxfam (India) Trust, New Delhi, and with Terre des Hommes, divers groupes indépendants, also with its India Programme.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

When a study on sexually abused children took Indrani Sinha (born 1950) to the brothel areas of Kolkata, the lives of the women there shook her to the core. From then on, she and Sanlaap (sanlaap means dialogue), the organization she set up, have been working to eliminate stigma, and to integrate women in prostitution and their children into mainstream society. While the setting up of safe homes and motivating government agencies have been significant victories, Indrani’s greatest triumph is the fulfilling lives that the women in and from Sanlaap’s shelter homes now lead.

She says: “When I started in 1989, I did not have any role models from whom I could learn. Therefore, I learnt from the women in red-light areas through listening to their needs”.

Drawing a parallel with another form of violence, the use of child labor, Indrani says, “Would we advocate that child labor be legalized just because it exists? A form of violence cannot be accepted merely because it is there and has been for centuries; the basis of its existence needs to be challenged”.

.Indrani Sinha - India redim 60p.jpg.

Indrani Sinha – India

She works for Sanlaap.

Indrani Sinha was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in West Bengal on 15 March 1950, and grew up in Patna, Bihar. She completed her graduation in English literature from Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. Indrani’s life, as a young woman, was tough: when she was only 17, her father’s retirement meant that she had to manage both her work and studies, and shoulder the financial responsibilities at home.

She was married in 1973, but soon realized that she was in a dysfunctional marriage; nonetheless, she waited for their son to grow up before she left it. She married a friend who respects her work in 1985, and has two daughters now.

Although Indrani’s career began with teaching English, in 1973-76, in a well-known Hindi-medium school in Calcutta, she soon realized that her interest lay in the development sector.

In 1982, she joined Terre des Hommes (see the India Programme), “a network of ten national organizations working for the rights of children and to promote equitable development without racial, religious, political, cultural or gender-based discrimination” (see also on wikipedia), and then moved on to the Oxfam India Trust, where she worked for five years in women’s empowerment.

Her work took her to West Bengal and the Indian Northeast, where she helped small women’s groups unite and raise their voices against violence and abuse. She has since been working on the exploitation and abuse of women and the violations of their rights.

She started Sanlaap (Dialogue) in 1987 with three like-minded friends and professionals. Her first study, in 1989-90, on sexually-abused girl-children, supported by the Netherlands Embassy in New Delhi, took her to the brothel areas of Kolkata and the city’s suburbs. Sanlaap then was mainly involved in research on women’s issues and training for women’s groups.

In Kolkata’s “infamous” red-light areas, Indrani met hundreds of women and girls who spoke about their utter lack of power as women in prostitution. What shook her up were their stories of being tricked into the profession by people known and unknown, of their tenebrous health conditions, and of the torture they endured. She learnt how thousands of women work in brothels and accept misery because of the absence of support and for fear of the tyrannical prostitution mafia. She has been working since then on striking at the roots of the women-trafficking network and establishing support systems for women rescued from brothels.

Traditionally, women’s groups have been an ideologically diverse agglomeration on the issue of legalizing prostitution. Indrani’s conviction is that prostitution should not be legalized: she believes that 95 per cent of women in prostitution are coerced into the profession. She also speaks of the consequences of legalizing prostitution in a country like India, which would be akin to handing a gift to pimps, traffickers, and the sex industry, transforming them into legitimate “sexual entrepreneurs”. Prostitution, she says unequivocally, is slavery, whichever way you look at it. What is needed is strengthening of the existing law against trafficking, and building in clauses that protect women and their human rights.

“Before we speak on the issue of legalization of prostitution, we need to recognize prostitution for what it is: a situation which begins with rape and a choiceless choice, and continues with denial and exploitation,” she says firmly. “Simultaneously, as women and as activists, it is our responsibility to create the options and the spaces preventing the birth of this violence! And to draw the attention of all agencies, state and non-state, towards the situation”.

Sanlaap describes itself as an “Anti-Trafficking Human Rights Center”. Indrani’s focus is not only on fighting for the rights of the young girls rescued from brothels, but also mainstreaming them in education – in life itself. She tries to intervene collaboratively with the bureaucracy, the police, the legal system and local panchayats (grassroots governance units) to cleave the root causes of trafficking through advocacy, lobbying, and interventions. Sanlaap runs four shelter homes that house 200 girl-children who have been rescued from prostitution, bonded labor, and sexual abuse.

The Sanlaap shelter also houses HIV+ girls, many of whom have not been accommodated in state-run homes. The shelters are housed in quiet middleclass localities, without any distinguishing board of the organization. This helps to avoid stigmatizing and discriminating the girls, based on either their HIV status or their association with prostitution. Sanlaap’s well-established rehabilitation and repatriation program for the rescued girls are holistic, working on the body, mind, and spirit. In villages where trafficking is rampant, Indrani sets up “child protection units” by educating and training local panchayats in collaboration with local NGOs.

Indrani also networks with NGOs in Bangladesh for the safe repatriation of rescued girls, to prevent them from being “expatriated” back into the clutches of prostitution rings.

Sanlaap has also worked out a procedure through the Nepal High Commission for handing the over and safe return of rescued victims. These are just some of the many innovative and sound methods that Sanlaap has worked out over the years.

For its work, Sanlaap has received two national awards: an award in 1997 for the best welfare organization in India, and a National Commission for Women award in 2000 for Best Women’s Organization.

Indrani’s key strategy is collaboration, which, through a continuous process of interaction and education, makes accountable the systems that are supposed to work for the community. She challenges, sensitizes, educates, motivates, and pressures, through lobbying and advocacy, the judiciary, the women’s cells of investigative agencies, social welfare departments, rescue homes, lawyers, the media, and all other she considers stakeholders.

Indrani now says that strategizing with senior government officials in the social welfare department, senior police officials, and members of the judiciary on the rescue and restoration or reintegration of children from brothel prostitution was a learning experience that has now stabilized into a strategy practiced by government and NGOs, with the support of the judiciary.

Sanlaap has won considerable, even high-profile, victories against the system. The team’s dedication has gradually attenuated the apathy in the judiciary, the police, the youth of the red light areas, and the administration. Says a government officer: “We are interdependent. Sanlaap is solving many problems that government departments are unable to solve. If Sanlaap does not take charge of the safe custody of girls, where can we keep them? Madams (women in charge of brothels) will fake identities and take them back into prostitution.”

Sanlaap rehabilitated more than 600 girls from 1989 to date. The economic rehabilitation includes vocational education, skills training, and collaboration with the corporate sector for jobs, volunteers, programs, and mainstream occupations. The social reintegration of rescued girls is a focus of Sanlaap’s work: the interventions are need- and not project-based. Once the needs have been identified, interventions are designed, and then Indrani looks for resources to fulfill those needs.

“When I started in 1989, I did not have any role models from whom I could learn,” she says. “Therefore, our mode of functioning was to learn from the women in red-light areas and listen to their needs and work on them. That is how we have moved on our path. Our philosophy has changed along the way. Now we do not call the women ’sex workers’, but ‘women in prostitution’. Now we know that they did not have any agency or choice to be there, and the traffickers have exploited their vulnerability and put them there.”

The Sanlaap team and Indrani personally continue to face considerable personal privation from the entrenched prostitution mafia – the nexus of politicians, police, and traffickers is formidable. Indrani has, in fact, sent off her daughters to a far-off government school to protect them from the malevolence she herself faces from these powerful people. She receives phone calls and threatening letters asking her to step back from tackling trafficking.

The traffickers, with the help of the so-called “mothers” of the girls, families, lawyers, and the media continuously broadcast a negative image of Sanlaap’s work.

The divide within the NGO sector on the issue of the legalization of prostitution has also taken a toll on the organization: Sanlaap has been pressured to reverse its position on the issue through the subtle denial of funds meant for HIV/AIDS initiatives. Although the four shelter homes run by the organization have been highly appreciated for the atmosphere, opportunities, and facilities they provide, funds continue to be a predicament.

Among the considerable highs are that in 2003-04, Indrani was invited by the UN to work at their mission in war-torn Kosovo.

She helped start a rescue-and-safe-shelter-homes program – that is running successfully – based on Sanlaap’s own programs. But perhaps the greatest personall satisfaction for Indrani and her team is that the Sanlaap shelter’s women today live productive and comfortable lives in mainstream society. Sanvad (Voice of Sanlaap) – formed by a group of women who were formerly in Sanlaap’s shelter homes – is both an example and a tribute.

Sanvad uses dance as therapy for the victims of trafficking in the Sanlaap shelter homes. From receiving help to giving help, the women have come a long way. (1000peacewomen).

Indrani Sinha, One Woman Against the Tide India, by Women’s Feature Service and Sangat.

… Her first study on sexually abused girl children, supported by the Netherlands Embassy in New Delhi, in 1989-90 took her to the brothel areas of Kolkata and the suburbs. At that time, Sanlaap was mainly involved in research on women’s issues and training for women’s groups.

In the red light areas of Kolkata, however, Sinha met hundreds of women and girls, who spoke about their powerlessness when living in prostitution. Their stories about being tricked into the profession by known and unknown persons, their dismal health conditions and the torture they endure shook her up. She learnt how thousands of these women continue to work in brothels and accept torture because of the absence of any other support, and for fear of the powerful prostitution mafia. Indrani knew without a doubt that she would work to improve the lot of the women she met then … (full text).

Talk by Indrani Sinha, the founder of Sunlaap.

Trafficking: There have been 1 million Bangladeshi and more than 200,000 Burmese women trafficked to Karachi, Pakistan. (Indrani Sinha, SANLAAP India, “Paper on Globalization & Human Rights”)

200,000 Bangladeshi women have been trafficked to Pakistan for the slave trade and prostitution. (Trafficking in Women and Children: The Cases of Bangladesh, p.8, UBINIG, 1995)

.200,000 Bangladeshi women were trafficked to Pakistan in the last ten years, continuing at the rate of 200-400 women monthly. (CATW – Asia Pacific, Trafficking in Women and Prostitution in the Asia Pacific)

In Pakistan, where most of trafficked Bengali women are sold there are about 1,500 Bengali women in jail and about 200,000 women and children sold into in the slave trade. (estimates by Human Rights organizations in Pakistan, Trafficking in Women and Children: The Cases of Bangladesh, p.14, UBINIG, 1995)

India and Pakistan are the main destinations for children under 16 who are trafficked in south Asia. (Masako Iijima, “S. Asia urged to unite against child prostitution,” Reuters, 19 June 1998)

More than 150 women were trafficked to Pakistan every day between 1991 and 1993. (Indrani Sinha, SANLAAP India, “Paper on Globalization & Human Rights”) … (full text).


Indrani Sinha on Health Groups.



UNICEF, Girls At Risk;

Mubashir Bhutta Human Rights MBHR;

South-Asia Network for Advocacy against Trafficking in Persons SANAT.

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