Nineteen-year-old Tamanna spends 10 hours every day setting diamonds in intricately-designed jewellery at one of the many diamond export houses that dot Mumbai’s special diamond export promotion hub in its western suburb, Andheri East.
At the end of the month, she gets a stipend of Rs1,500 which, for most youngsters of her age, would be money to blow up on clothes, pub hopping or eating out. For this shy, almost reclusive teenager, the money represents a new life— a ticket to get away from the brothel in Mumbai’s infamous red light district, Kamathipura, where she was forced into prostitution by her aunt.
Tamanna (her real name has been protected for her safety) was brought from Kolkata a couple of years ago.
While most youngsters head back home after a hard day’s work or hang out with friends, home for Tamanna is the shelter for survivors of human trafficking. She has been living here for the past year after she was rescued during a police raid.
Tamanna and at least a hundred others like her are part of a unique seven-city livelihood skill training programme being carried out over the last seven months by the Human Development Resource Network (HDRN) and UNDP’s TAHA (Prevention of trafficking and HIV/AIDS project) in collaboration with a few corporate houses such as the Tata group, ITC Ltd, candy-maker Perfetti Van Melle India Pvt Ltd, Satyam Computer Services Ltd, along with a few others, including a diamond-processing firm in Mumbai.
What is unique about the programme is the way it has been promoted under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility (CSR), which has become a bit of a catch-call buzzword in Indian corporate circles.
“The definition of CSR has undergone an amazing transformation in the last couple of years,” says Afsana Cherian, a CSR specialist who works with HDRN. “This used to be something companies did by way of charity to promote their image. Corporations these days seem to have woken up to the fact that they have to give back a part of their resources to the community and society in which they live. When we initially approached corporate houses with a proposal for them to work with these girls, we had little confidence that it would work. But we were pleasantly surprised at the enthusiastic response we got from them.”
Indeed, at least one corporate house has taken ownership of the project activity—as part of its CSR—in each of the seven cities: Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi, Bhubaneswar, Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata. In some cities, such as Mumbai and Chennai, more than one firm is involved.
Tamanna and a group of five other traffic survivors were trained in the diamond-setting business. The diamond export houses in Mumbai will eventually employ them.
The Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, of the Tata group, also trained a few women in catering and house-keeping. Through with the catering course, the women are keen to start a kitchenette or an innovative canteen on wheels but they do not have the initial funds to start the venture.
Perfetti’s Indian subsidiary has adopted a group of eight girls in Chennai, sponsoring them for a comprehensive tailoring course. While some of these girls are now employed in garment factories in the city, one of them has become a tailoring teacher. Perfetti now outsources tailoring work to some of the girls who work independently. The girls make teddy bears and other toys with hollow tummies that the company fills in with its products during special promotions.
ITC too has trained a group of girls in catering in Chennai. The group now runs a kitchenette outside their shelter, supplying tea and snacks to a number of firms in the area, including the State Bank of India branch in the vicinity.
In Hyderabad, Satyam Foundation of the namesake software firm, which runs a number of CSR initiatives, including an IT school, trained a few of the girls. Of the six girls who had undergone the training, five are already employed.
“We work with the network of HIV-positive people and started a training school for people living with HIV/AIDS and are aware of how much society stigmatizes them. So when this opportunity came to provide livelihood training for girls rescued from trafficking, we wanted to be able to do something for them,” says Balaji Utla, senior vice-president, Satyam Computer Services and a director of Satyam Foundation.
The foundation runs eight IT training schools where school and college drop-outs are trained in typewriting, MS word and other tools and some spoken English.
Some of the business houses that the group approached had very little knowledge of CSR but responded out of sheer goodwill. For instance, the diamond exporter readily agreed to train the girls at his factory for four months. “I was completely taken aback when my own family asked how I could expose my other employees to the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS,” says the CEO of the company who, however, does not wish to be named nor his company identified.
The CEO then went back to HDRN and its local NGO partner Prerna for counselling.
“When we explained to him that HIV/AIDS does not spread through just sharing the same room with these girls and also that all traffic survivors don’t necessarily have HIV, he readily agreed to the training. He is so impressed by their hard work and commitment, that he has offered to employ them, once their training is over,” says Preeti Patkar of Prerna, the NGO, who worked with the girls after their rescue..
The CEO does not regret his decision. “The diamond industry has given so many economically-backward families a better life and these women too can earn about Rs4000-10,000 a month and I am glad I can be of help to them,” he says.
“The gentleman took a huge leap of faith to overcome his concerns and give those girls a chance to have a better life,” says Patkar. “The girls could not believe that this man actually would allow them to step into a factory where they would work with diamonds around them all day. To be trusted like this was like a dream for them.”
HDRN’s livelihood training programme is based on the knowledge that a large number of women who are trapped in sex trade are lured in initially by promise of jobs. Women are often wary of being rescued from the brothel as they have no other way of earning a livelihood. The organization had to convince the corporate houses to revisit their concept of CSR and requested them to be personally involved with the girls on a daily basis.
The project is unique in other ways too. It is the first time that the girls, all of who live in shelters provided by the government or by NGOs for survivors of trafficking, were taken out of their protected environment and exposed to the corporate world. “They were scared to go out of their shelters and some of them have been so traumatized that they cannot even interact with people” says Cherian of HDRN.
Just before they kicked off the project, the girls were also given a motivational training that included grooming skills, inter-personal communication and talks on morale building.
HRDN is looking for more corporations that will come forward to extend a helping hand to a larger number of such women. “When I met the girls working at the diamond factory after three months of training, I was amazed at the transformation in them. They look confident and are able to travel from the shelter to their place of work. They are happy that they have the money that might some day help them find their way back to their home towns. All they need is the initial hand holding by the corporations and some trust,” says Cherian.