The Heart of Democracy

Young leaders spark change, lift up vulnerable communities and build a future where all voices matter.

By Michael Gallant

March 2022

The Heart of Democracy

Gitanjali Babbar (center), the founder and director of Kat-Katha. Photograph courtesy Gitanjali Babbar 

 

Far too often, young people are sidelined, your perspectives ignored. That’s unacceptable at a moment when so many of the biggest challenges democracies face today affect young people most acutely.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, shared these words at the Youth Town Hall during last year’s Summit for Democracy in Washington, D.C. The special event gathered young leaders from over 60  countries—including Gitanjali Babbar and Shreya Sen, two Indian women who play key roles in organizations that empower even the most vulnerable to make their voices heard.

Babbar is the founder and director of Kat-Katha, a nonprofit organization that helps women and children forced into the sex trade start a new life. Sen serves as a senior researcher and trainer at Nazdeek, a women-led organization that helps marginalized communities navigate the country’s legal justice system.

“Kat-Katha means ‘the story of puppets,’ ” says Babbar. “Like puppets, the women we help are controlled by so many variables, be it their traffickers, abusers, clients, owners, police, society. Our dream is to snap these ties of control and enable each woman to explore her potential and live a life of choice and dignity.” The nonprofit aims to achieve this through various programs including academic support, mental health support and vocational training.

Nazdeek uses grassroots legal education, research, advocacy and other strategies to achieve similar goals of empowerment. “Our work ensures that communities have access to tools and mechanisms to demand and secure their rights,” Sen describes. Her organization fills a vital gap between the law and vulnerable citizens, she continues. While many well-meaning policies already exist on paper, helping marginalized communities benefit from them is a different matter—hence Nazdeek’s efforts to engage with citizens, explain laws, and provide ongoing legal support and advice.

The journey toward leadership

Babbar never expected to create an organization that helped sex workers, but became inspired while working at the National AIDS Control Organization in New Delhi. “Through my very formal initial interactions with the sex worker community, I realized that their needs went far beyond AIDS control,” she says. “I started visiting the women beyond my work hours and would just spend time talking to them, listening to them.” A few women asked her if she could teach them to read. Friends and volunteers began to assist in Babbar’s educational efforts, and Kat-Katha grew organically from there.

Sen’s journey to join Nazdeek relied on similar happenstance. She was introduced to the organization through a mutual friend and immediately identified with their commitment to guiding people through the country’s legal system. “In all the communities Nazdeek works in, its efforts are informed by women who also fall on the intersection of multiple axes of oppression such as caste, class, geographical location, occupation and religion,” Sen says. By centering and amplifying their voices, Nazdeek ensures that “the priorities of the most marginalized groups are acknowledged and taken forward,” she adds.

For instance,  its Urban Legal Empowerment Project involved 25 members from two Delhi communities—Gole Market and Bhim Nagar—on advancing the maternal health rights of women from economically weaker sections. Nazdeek supported the filing of more than 20 administrative complaints by community paralegals seeking improvements in the delivery of maternal health, nutrition, housing and sanitation benefits. Their efforts have  renovated a dilapidated community toilet complex and increased access to drinking water.

Kat-Katha too has had significant positive impacts in the communities it serves. Babbar describes the rescue efforts of two young girls who were at risk of being enslaved and trafficked. “The girls showed such courage and bravery and coordinated their rescue with us,” Babbar says. “Today they’re 16 and 18 years old, studying in good schools, and thriving in a safe environment.” She also describes how, after 20 years of sex work, another Kat-Katha community member left her brothel and came to the organization for skills training. “She now is back in her hometown and is earning through her stitching skills,” Babbar says, “sustaining her husband and her daughter at the native village. These stories always inspire me and continue to ground me at what I do.”

 Activism and democracy

Babbar and Sen bring not just individual expertise to their organizations, but international perspectives as well. Both are alumnae of U.S. government exchange programs. As participants in the December 2021 Youth Town Hall, they joined discussions on topics including climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and issues of racial justice, equity and inclusion.

“I was so grateful to be a part of the summit,” says Babbar, adding it’s crucial for leaders across the globe to come together and address these issues at the global level in unison. “It was a wonderful learning experience and I hope that these spaces continue to exist and are accessible for diverse participants.”

Sen too is grateful to have participated in the Youth Town Hall, and to have had the opportunity to present a question to Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield. She describes the experience as particularly meaningful because she was able to share it with fellow participants from around the world, and gain insights on the most pressing issues young leaders everywhere face.

Sen’s and Babbar’s efforts to give voice to those in need—including many young people in the communities they serve—help reinforce the vitality of India’s democracy as a whole. “I believe participation by all citizens and residents is essential for robust, functional democratic systems,” says Sen. “However, young people have a unique and significant role to play in shaping today’s and tomorrow’s world. In India and around the world, young people are leading movements on the most critical issues, and are holding democratic systems to account. Unless their voices are listened to, supported and amplified, democracies will not be relevant or holistic.”

Babbar agrees about the power of young people to affect change and describes them as “the beating heart pumping life into any nation. They’re the changemakers of tomorrow, and they’re the ones that’ll keep all other sections of the democracy accountable” and mindful of working toward a better future.

Young Indians can benefit from Sen’s and Babbar’s examples by following their passions and helping others. “Combining heart-work with headwork can shake all barriers,” Babbar describes. “Anyone and everyone has the capacity for love, kindness and change, and we can all make this world a better place, whatever our resources.”

​​Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.


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