Photo Credit: David Goldman (davidgoldmanphoto.com)
Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter
Ruchira Gupta is the Founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organization, Apne Aap, which has helped more than 20,000 at-risk and prostituted girls, women and their family members in red-light areas and slums across India to save themselves. In 2009 she won the Clinton Global Citizen Award for her work to end sex trafficking, 15 years after she won an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism for exposing sex trafficking in the documentary, The Selling of Innocents. Ruchira helped create the first UN Protocol to End Sex Trafficking as well as the Trafficking Fund for Survivors at the United Nations by addressing the UN General Assembly on behalf of survivors and taking a panel of survivors to speak at the UN General Assembly in New York alongside Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. She has opened groundbreaking avenues within India for survivors to communicate their ideas by rallying their voices for the successful passage of Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code – India’s first law on trafficking after the infamous bus rape in Dec, 2012.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Ruchira Gupta: I was a journalist when I stumbled upon rows of villages with missing girls in Nepal nearly twenty years ago. As I investigated the reason for this I found that like 19th century slavery, a sex trafficking chain existed from the villages of Nepal to the brothels of Mumbai – from the local village procurer, to the corrupt border guard, to the lodge keeper, transporter, pimp, brothel manager, landlord, money lender, and organized criminal networks. I ended up making a documentary called The Selling of Innocents on this. I spent a lot of time talking to the women, sharing their anguish and their dreams. At one point during filming, they saved me when a client/pimp pulled a knife to stop me.
This was a life-changing experience for me. I went on to win an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism but decided to quit mainstream journalism. I still love writing and story-telling, but now I try to do it from the point of view of the last girl – who is poor, female, low-caste and a teenager.
Women LEAD: You are the Founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an organization dedicated to ending sex trafficking by increasing choices for at-risk women and girls. What inspired you to found Apne Aap, and what has its impact been so far?
Ruchira Gupta: When I want back to the brothels to show the selling of innocents, after the Emmy, the 22 women in prostitution who had told their stories in the documentary said they wanted my help to change their lives. They had four dreams: 1. A school for their daughters to save them from the same fate as themselves 2. A job in a office, where they could work fixed hours, nobody would beat them, where there was old age pension and 3. A room of their own: where nobody could walk in when they wanted, where they could sleep as long as they liked and where their children could play safely and 4. Justice -severe punishment of those who had brokered away their dreams by selling and buying them and those who failed to protect them from being trafficked or when they tried to escape.
I said they could save themselves if they organized to speak up and resist the violence just as they had saved me from the knife when I was filming. They said they did not have money, education or networks. We together decided to form Apne Aap, which means “self-empowerment and self-achievement” in Hindi. Our aim was to create a world in which no woman is bought or sold. We decided to hire a teacher and in a small room in the red-light area, we started preparing the children for school. When they were ready, the women went as a group of mothers to the local school principle and cried and begged till he became his prejudice and admitted them. That was the first victory for the women and the Apne Aap teacher. Emboldened, the women then wanted to do something for themselves.We realized that to access anything they needed citizenship documents, like birth certificates or passports or other government-issued IDs. We helped them fill forms and then campaign with local authorities to get the documents. The women wrote slogans, made posters, signed petitions to put pressure on authorities to give them the IDs. If that failed, they spoke to the media. That helped them get both the IDs and the linked government subsidies like low cost food rations, low-cost health care, low interest loans, slowly reducing their expenses and desperation. Of course their was pushback from the pimps and brothelkeepers as their dependency on the brothels came down. They were beaten. We helped with legal support to go file a case in a police station or testify in court. At the same time we started linking with livelihood promotion organizations and helping women open bank accounts to save some money safely. The whole process created everlasting friendships between the women; we called this the self empowerment group. Over the years, the program grew and we took this approach to other red-light areas in Bhiwandi, Delhi, Bihar and Kolkata. We called it the “ten asset approach” and defined each step as an asset – a safe space, to school, to self-confidence, to political campaign skills, to government IDs, to government subsidies, to bank accounts and loans, to legal support, to livelihood skills and finally nine friends or membership of a group and a network.
More than 21,000 girls, women and their family members became members of this network and reduced their risk or dependency on prostitution. The first generation of daughters of these women are in college now. Over another 1200 are in schools for the first time in their families. They have put 66 traffickers in jail.
In 2013, this network was vocal and strong enough to get trafficking made a penal offense as part of the anti-rape law passed after the Delhi Bus rape on December 16, 2012. And this year they won a comprehensive judgment at the Patna High Court forcing the Bihar government to launch a holistic anti-trafficking program.
Women LEAD: You are also on the board of Coalition against Trafficking in Women. Can you tell us more about your experiences?
Ruchira Gupta: The Coalition has promoted the Nordic model against trafficking. These are laws in Norway and Sweden which punish the purchase of sex – that is clients and traffickers (pimps, brothel-keepers etc.) and de-criminalize the girls and women, recognizing even their choices as based on gender and other inequalities. This has at last shifted the blame from victims to perpetrators. I have seen the Coalition promote this among NGOs, governments, universities and foundations. I have also been part of the Coalition’s efforts to influence the United Nations to create a victim-friendly anti-trafficking framework. It was successful in influencing the passage of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, and ensuring that the framework shifted the blame to the johns and traffickers and de-criminalized the women. Most importantly, it introduced the concept of vulnerability making choice irrelevant in a trafficked person being defined as a victim. This led to an understanding of the context of trafficking as the intersection of gender, class, race, ethnicity, age and caste inequalities.
The Coalition also gave me a group of allies to campaign for laws in my own country and expert opinions and ideas when I needed them. It gave me a global platform to promote my own ideas and of the survivor leaders of Apne Aap.
Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Ruchira Gupta: I have always longed for equality and justice. I have joined any campaign or movement for social and political justice. I slowly began to see that sex was a kind of class or caste; that of any group, females were the largest group that were universally unequal. So I began to campaign for women’s empowerment to to create a world which respected the full social, political and economic equality of women.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Ruchira Gupta: I am deeply and fundamentally impacted by Gloria Steinem. With her I have experienced how movements grow and how immense our movement is. Walking through the red-light areas of Sonagachi or lobbying in Albany with New York state Assemblymen, our lives have interwoven into shared writing sessions, rallies, meetings, dinners, books, conversations, late night phone calls across continents, brainstorming and sometimes movies. A desk in her living room, across from where she writes is my writing desk in New York, just as my desk in New Delhi has her notes written on yellow paper, left behind from her last visit.
She has taught me that there are always more than two choices, and that there is a third way of proceeding that is familiar to human experience; that small acts have a big impact and when you do something you should not worry about how big its outcome will be; that only time will show, you have to do it as if it matters. Her feminism is rooted in the deep truth of our own experiences and if we do not challenge inequality at home, we will normalize and accept inequality everywhere. If we accept that one sex can be unequal, then why not one class or one race? She has influenced me to measure my actions in its value to the least powerful.
In my own work, I have gone on to call her “The Last Girl.” She is weaker than the poor man, because she female, but she is weaker than the poor man’s wife because she is a teenager and on top of that she could be the “last” because she is black, low-cast , first nation or native American. I have learned from her that we have to be open to listening to identify the weakest. I have seen her listen all the time.
And most importantly, I have the courage derived from watching her, from talking to her, to stick to the Truth when I talk to my sisters. It has been painful but rewarding. We have been able to collaborate across boundaries and cultures to stand up to Big Money and Big Power that promote a culture of masculinity harming us all.
Such an adventure of experience happens all too rarely, where the sense of being an Indian or American is lifted off the mind and where the profoundly political is the simplest truth.
Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future champions of anti-trafficking?
Ruchira Gupta: Join other movements for social, political and economic justice; after all, trafficking is an outcome of multiple inequalities and all will have to be rooted out together.
Women LEAD: Are there books inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?
Ruchira Gupta: The Birth of the Maitreya by Bani Basu, about a woman living during the Buddha’s time in Bihar. The Round House by Louise Erdrich, about a Native American Woman rape survivor and Sharmila Rege’s Against the Madness of Manu and Janice Raymond’s Not a Choice, Not A Job.