Among the large gathering expected in London early December for a major global women's rights conference is India's Ruchira Gupta who set up a grassroots organization to fight sex trafficking. TWF correspondent Sujoy Dhar in conversation with the journalist turned Apne Aap founder on the fight against trafficking and the mindsets that patronize prostitution
Women and men would gather in London early December for a high level women's rights conference co-hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the Reuters news agency, and the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times. At the "Trust Women Conference" the focus will be putting the rule of law behind women's rights by bringing together people from the legal, financial, government, corporate and non-profit sectors to drive pragmatic action to fight violence against women and other injustices like trafficking, domestic slavery and discrimination. One of the key participants from India is Ruchira Gupta, Founder President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a grassroots organization working on the issue of human trafficking and women's rights.
You formed Apne Aap a decade ago. What has been the achievements in all these years?
Apne Aap is almost ten years old. Our biggest achievement is that we have given voice to the voiceless-we have organized more than 15,000 women and girls who are victims and survivors or at risk to being prostituted to speak against the injustice in their lives, testify against pimps and johns and demand access to education, safe jobs and legal protection. Overcoming the fear and shame of speaking in public, these women have testified to the media and even in Parliament that prostitution is an absence of choice and that they would like the government to have laws and policies to punish perpetrators and invest in the education and job training of low-caste, poor and marginalized girls and women.
What difference has Apne Aap been able to make in fighting trafficking and minor prostitution?
Apne Aap women and girls have shrunk two red-light areas in Bihar's Khawaspur and Rampur from having 17 and 72 brothel respectively to one and 15 brothels only by saying no to customers and filing complaints and testifying against traffickers in court. In Kolkata they have managed to put 814 children in school, thereby preventing the inter-generational prostitution of their own daughters and siblings. Their voice has helped the UN to set up a Trafficking Fund for survivors and is now forcing the Indian government to amend the Indian anti-trafficking law.
You must have had a roadmap when you started Apne Aap. But as years roll on, do you think you are on the same track or have you improvised along the way.
I started Apne Aap with 22 women in prostitution, who had helped me make an Emmy winning documentary, The Selling of Innocents. At one time, while shooting inside the brothels of Mumbai, a pimp pulled out a knife on me. The 22 women surrounded me and told him that you will have to kill us before you kill her, we want her to tell our story! Apne Aap was born in that moment. The pimp moved away, because he thought it would be too much trouble to attack 23 women. The women realised that by organizing as a group they had more power. So when I finished filming, and the women said they wanted my help to change their lives, I told them that they could help themselves by working as a group, and that is what we did. Today, ten years on, Apne Aap organizes victims and survivors or girls and women at risk to prostitution into small groups of ten, known as self-empowerment groups and helps them gain ten assets that help them realise the very same dreams. The ten assets are safe space, nine friends, education, job training, ability to articulate problems to media, self-confidence to speak to authorities, legal knowledge, political knowledge, savings and bank accounts, income-generating skills and linkage to two government entitlements.
So what is the experience that enriched Apne Aap over the years?
Over the years based on the survivor conferences we realized that while on one hand prostitution was absence of choice for marginalized girls and women, it was choice with impunity for some men, who would buy or pimp girls. As Fatima, one of our members, said, " Didi jubtak grahak rahega tab tak dhanda band nahin hoga", meaning as long as there is a buyer the sex trade will exist. So we decided that while we would work on increasing choices for women and girls, we also had to work on decreasing choices for pimps and johns. We began to define trafficking as a demand and supply issue formed of the Buyer, the Business and the Bought. We also realized that we need to target the Buyer and the Business to make a dent in the sex industry. So we asked for a change in the law to punish johns and pimps and not the women and girls, we also stared training police officials to use the law to arrest traffickers and customers and not the women and girls and finally we launched a campaign to demand a normative shift in behaviours in society to stop men from buying sex. We want to put the business out of business.
Is battle sex trafficking also a battle against mindsets?
The biggest difficulty I face is the mind set that prostitution is inevitable. I have heard two sentences umpteen times: " Men will be Men´" and , " If prostitutes don't exist, girls from good families will be raped." These sentences imply that men have unbridled sexual desire and no control over their libido, which is an insult to most men I know. It also implies that poor low caste girls should be sexually available to protect their richer sisters. This mindset leads to laws and policies which don't even try to dismantle the system of prostitution. Most laws simply try to keep the women off the streets and protect the men from contracting AIDS.
West Bengal in India is one of the states which has a very poor track record in prevention of sex trafficking and we know of districts and villages and areas from where girls are constantly trafficked out for prostitution.
Kolkata has the biggest red-light area in Asia-Sonagachchi. Kalighat follows as a close second. The government, instead of dismantling these red-light districts, which were originally set up the British to provide disease free sex to British soldiers and clerks, has legitimized the brothel system by funding the salaries of pimps and brothel managers as "peer educators" for AIDS control programmes. Instead of punishing them for living off the earnings of the rape of these girls, the West Bengal AIDS Control Society simply funded pimps and brothel managers to distribute condoms to protect male buyers from disease rather than protecting girls from male buyers. The legitimization of the brothels has led to the sex-industry expanding in West Bengal, with every district becoming trafficking prone.
The political establishment apart, how cooperative are the police forces in various places?
There are both good cops and bad cops. Some cops are in collusion with the traffickers and take payoffs or free sex in exchange for allowing the sexual exploitation of girls and women. Some even own brothels anonymously. We have managed to train 2500 police officers over the years in combatting trafficking.
Recently Uttar Pradesh state's young Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav sought your assistance. What has been the outcome of that meeting?
We are working to design a holistic anti-trafficking programme for Uttar Pradesh, where we will work with different government agencies and departments to invest in marginalized girls and women who are at risk to being trafficked, uplift victims with access to savings, job training and education and dismantle red-light areas by prosecuting traffickers and pimps. Akhilesh Yadav stands for the new India. He is he first Indian politicians to come out openly and ask for initiative to be taken against trafficking.
We know about Hillary Clinton´s Kolkata visit this year when she was given bands with the words Cool Men Don´t Buy Sex. Can you elaborate on the campaign?
The Cool Men Don't Buy Sex campaign was started by students of Symbiosis College in Pune who wanted to take a stand against the purchase of sex and at the same time put pressure on the Indian government o change the law to punish pimps and johns and not victims and survivors. The campaign has been moving from campus to campus, we already have more than 10,000 signatures on a petition to the President of India, which is part of the campaign and we recently got a letter from the ministry of women and child to say that the our suggestions would be taken on board.
Are you working on the international border areas to prevent trafficking?
We work in Araria in Bihar on the border of Nepal, with a formerly nomadic community, known as the Nats, who are so marginalized that the men are forced to become pimps and the women are prostituted generation after generation. The area is crime-prone with the basic business being smuggling. It is in the chicken neck between Nepal and Bangladesh.