Trafficking is a familiar word. We’ve read and watched stories of human trafficking in the news. We’ve seen dramatic renditions of it in the movies. The narrative is everywhere and despite the horrifying figures, it is often ignored. Kolkata-based Smarita Sengupta heard these stories and decided to take a stand against it.
Smarita is the founder of Destiny Foundation, an NGO in the City of Joy that works with survivors of trafficking and offers them training and employment opportunities.
A commerce graduate, Smarita Sengupta dabbled in various jobs before launching Destiny Foundation in 2007. “Despite being educated myself I often faced inequality and suffered from low self esteem,” she says. But there was a fire inside me to bring about social change, and while seeking my own independence, I found the strength to dream and start Destiny.”
Having worked at Apne Aap, a well-regarded Kolkata NGO, she became aware of the serious trafficking racket in West Bengal and came to empathise with the women who were conned into leaving their homes and families for a life of exploitation. She wanted to work to not only rescue these women, but rehabilitate them.
“The economic opportunities available for at-risk or trafficked victims are severely limited,” she says. “Only rescue and aftercare support cannot eliminate trafficking, there is always a risk of re-experiencing exploitation once these women are out of shelter home.” During this transition from the shelter home to the real world, Smarita and her team step in to support the women through counselling, rehabilitation and employment opportunities.
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The organisation is divided in two units—Destiny, the charitable wing, and Reflection the business unit of the organisation. These women create an assortment of products under the Reflection label—yoga mat bags, wallets, scarves, home furnishing and quilts, all handmade by the women using recycled saris and block-printed cotton.
Presently, the team works with 80 beneficiaries. Full-time employees include 25 women and more work with the organisation on part-time and freelance basis.
In addition to girls from all over India, Destiny has also worked with women trafficked from Bangladesh and Nepal.
Working with girls rescued from trafficking is a delicate duty. The Destiny team works with rescued women and girls as well as those who continue to work in brothels. Smarita mentions that repeated acts of being cheated and abused often lead the women to give up hope entirely.
“It takes patience to handle a traumatized girl — they have regular bursts of emotion during the training period which needs to be handled carefully. They have trust and anger issues and do not believe they are capable of doing any work and earn with dignity,” she says. Once they open up, we see their personality develop. Some of the young women are very creative, they have strong leadership skills. They talk about inequality of in society which bothers them. Many of them are taking leadership roles within the office.”
Over the years, the foundation has rehabilitated over 100 women and also initiated workshops and projects in government shelters and local communities.
The Destiny team also holds counselling sessions, basic literacy and skill-generation classes, hygiene workshops and other initiatives for the well-being of the women, and also treat them to celebrations and retreats.
Destiny products have found themselves a fan-following around the world, including USA, UK, Canada, Australia and Japan.
They have celebrity fans too, like reality TV star and lifestyle blogger Lauren Conrad who visited the Destiny workspace in 2013 and has also used Reflection products and written about the organisation. More recently, the team also welcomed models and activists Monika Watkins and Diandra Forrest in Kolkata.
Her work has earned Smarita a number of awards and accolades, including fellowships from Columbia University, the “Leader of Impact Award from GWLN, Silicon Valley in 2013 and the Iconic Women of the Year Creating a Better World for All, 2015 at Women Economic Forum, which she won with her sister Jayeeta Bhowmick, who also works at the Foundation.
Yet, Smarita considers her interactions with the women among her most memorable moments as a social entrepreneur. “When we see a brutal victim of trafficking able to complete her training and earn her first salary or when a girl faces her trafficker in court with courage, when once traumatized girl takes leadership role and mentors newer girls, those are our biggest moments.”
Smarita admits her work isn’t easy—keeping the women and herself motivated—but strives on. “This is not only a journey to empower these girls but empowering myself along with them,” she says. “While hardship gives us resilience, economic independence gives dignity. Together we can have the strength to combat vulnerability.”
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