After Ruchira Gupta, an Indian journalist, produced an Emmy Award winning documentary, “The Selling of Innocents,” about trafficking of women and girls from Nepal to India, she and 22 other women, from Mumbai’s red-light district who were featured in the film, founded Apne Aap Women Worldwide in 2002. They wanted to forge a world where no woman was bought or sold, to shift the blame from victim to perpetrator.
Apne Aap is based on the twin Gandhian principles of ahimsa — nonviolence in actions and thought — and antodaya, the uplift of all people, down to the very poorest. Though all 22 founding members from the red-light district have since died from hunger, suicide and AIDS-related complications, Apne Aap has helped thousands of women and girls trapped in prostitution or affected by sex trafficking in India by offering services and advocating for them in the government. It also lobbied the United Nations during the writing of the 2000 protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children.
Gupta’s group, which is run from New Delhi, has also joined Donor Direct Action, a new network of women’s rights groups that increases their access to fund-raising, advocacy and promotional resources. It was originated by Jessica Neuwirth, who was a founder of Equality Now, the women’s rights group based in New York.
Gupta is 48 and married to Sunil Narula, chief of the peace and security section in the UN’s Department of Public Information. Gupta answered questions from PassBlue on Apne Aap’s work, including information about a plan with another women’s group, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, called Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence (Synergie des Femmes Pour les Victimes de Violences Sexuelles), run by Justine Masika Bihamba, whose interview with PassBlue was published on Aug. 30, 2012.
PassBlue: What does Apne Aap mean and can you summarize its scope of work?
Gupta: Apne Aap means “self-empowerment” in Hindi. We are a grass-roots organization empowering girls and women to resist sex trafficking. We have formed 150 small groups of 10 members each in brothels, red-light districts, slums and villages. We plan to organize 500,000 girls and women affected by sex trafficking into a nationwide support network to trigger political and legislative change to address the purchase of sex, which fuels sex trafficking. By joining an Apne Aap group, each woman or girl gains 10 assets that either prevent her from being trafficked or reduce her dependency on the sex industry. The assets are: access to a safe space, nine friends who collectively form a group, education for herself or her children, political knowledge, ability to speak to authorities, a bank account and access to capital, livelihood training, legal knowledge, an ability to testify against traffickers and johns and links to government rights and entitlement.
PB: Where are the women that Apne Aap helps?
Gupta: In the slums and red-light areas of Bihar, Bengal and New Delhi in India.
PB: In Apne Aap literature, it says you strive to link trafficking to prostitution; what is the difference between the two and how are they linked? How have you tried to address the links?
Gupta: Trafficking is a process and prostitution is its outcome, which is based on the supply and demand of human beings, primarily marginalized women and girls. Trafficking involves selling, purchasing, kidnapping, harboring or receiving and abusing a person’s vulnerability based on their sex, class, caste, race, disability, etc., for the purpose of exploitation. We work to reduce the supply by increasing choices for women and girls, which reduces their vulnerability and makes it harder for traffickers to prey on them. We also work to reduce trafficking by reducing the demand for the purchase of sex by legally holding traffickers and johns accountable. We do this by taking them to court, getting women to testify against them and asking for stricter laws to punish buyers and traffickers. Individually, we help women with job training, capital to begin small businesses, links with government to increase their choices and training so they can testify against traffickers and clients.
PB: Apne Aap has been advocating for the “demand” side of prostitution be addressed by calling on the Indian Parliament to pass more severe laws punishing buyers of such sex. Has that approach been useful?
Gupta: This has been useful because it has humanized women and girls, the victims of prostitution, to the public. It is also useful because it has made people realize that prostitution is not a victimless crime, but that there are perpetrators. We have been running a campaign called “Cool Men Don’t Buy Sex” to make people realize the consequences of being part of the demand. The campaign has resonated with more than 16,000 people signing an online petition asking for a change in the law to punish the perpetrators. We also recently heard back from the Indian Parliament and the ministry of women and children, saying it will incorporate our call to change the law.
PB: You have worked in various posts with the UN in Nepal, Thailand, Philippines, Kosovo, United States, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Burma, Indonesia and Iran. What stands out the most? What work has a long way to go?
Gupta: What stands out the most is how common the inequalities of women and girls are, and how, in all cultures, men think that prostitution is inevitable. The work that has a long way to go is changing the mind-set of people that women and girls will always be prostituted.
PB: Can you tell us about an Apne Aap training course that has helped the effort to lead women away from trafficking and prostitution?
Gupta: We trained more than 2,000 police officers in India to address the demand for trafficking by arresting the perpetrators and not the victims. This course included teachers who were former prostitutes so that officers would understand what happens to victims.
PB: How has Apne Aap improved vulnerable girls’ and women’s access to education? What courses do they like the most, and which do they have trouble with? Has the government helped?
Gupta: Apne Aap has enrolled the daughters of women in prostitution into both government and private schools by preparing them for more than a year for school and then negotiating with the school principals for admission. Apne Aap staff also provides after-school help with homework because most of these girls are first-generation learners. The most success we’ve had is putting girls into residential schools away from the red-light area. We have had mixed reaction from the government. On one hand, the government has partnered with us to run some of the residential schools. On the other hand, corrupt local authorities, from the district magistrate to the police superintendent, stood by when girls were pulled from our hostels and put into prostitution.
PB: Can you give an example of how your small groups collectively obtained their rights locally?
Gupta: A group called Sonar Bangla, based in the red-light area of Kidderpore in Kolkata [Calcutta], saved a small amount of capital, opened a bank account, got a loan from the bank and started a catering business. They are now thinking of starting a small restaurant. This has enabled them to put their daughters into school, and they are now planning to move out of the red-light area as their income increases.
PB: You and Justine Bihama, the founder of Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence, a nonprofit group in the Democratic Republic of Congo, may work together on a project. What is it?
Gupta: We are thinking of taking 10 women from Congo who have been victims of sexual assault to India to get training and learn about self-organizing from the Apne Aap women in Bihar. The Congo group will also learn from Indian women peacekeepers about self-defense and managing security for other women. We want the women to go back to the Congo and run a training academy for other women so they can resist the rapists and protect themselves.
PB: How else would your two groups synergize? How do your groups differ?
Gupta: We imagine that our groups will synergize based on the common experience of sexual violence and a desire to resist. Our strategies would be shared with each other, including the experiences of healing, overcoming and resisting. We differ because one has experience with militarized violence, when men hold guns to them, and the other is our experience with being locked up in brothels and controlled through repeated beatings and abuse.
PB: How can Apne Aap grow in the future? How can the UN help?
Gupta: I would like Apne Aap to become a movement led by victims and survivors of trafficking who can define their own needs and struggle for their own rights. The UN can help by ensuring that all states change laws as per the UN protocol and then by monitoring the implementation of those laws. The UN can also make sure to put survivors at the center of its policies.