In honor of our ten-year anniversary, LifeWay Network is spending some time in conversation with the people who inspire us and whose work is changing the world. For our first interview in this series, Sr. Joan Dawber called Ruchira Gupta, a sex trafficking activist whose organization, Apne Aap, is fighting to abolish sex trafficking in India. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sr. Joan Dawber: You have been involved in human trafficking activism for such a long time, and I’m sure actually it feels like you’ve been doing it your whole life. But I’d like you to just tell me a little bit about the path that brought you to the place you are today. When did you first learn about human trafficking and why did you decide to focus on it?
Ruchira Gupta: I used to be a journalist, and in 1995 I was walking through the hills of Nepal when I came across rows of villages which didn’t have any girls from age 15 to 45, and I was really surprised. So I began to ask the men who were sitting drinking tea, playing cards, where the women were. And they said, “Don’t you know they all are in Bombay?” That was very surprising to me because Bombay was 1,400 kilometers away in another country and these villages were so remote that they were two hours away from the highway.
So, you know as a good journalist, of course, I had to find the answer and the answer really changed my life. Because what I found was that when I went into the villages that 12, 13-year-old girls were being recruited by procurers who would go to very poor, innocent families and offer them $50, $100 for their daughter and say that “We’ll get her a job in the big city or find her a good man to marry,” sometimes even tell them that they would be put into prostitution, but prostitution was a great lifestyle and they would send money back home, they would have food and shelter. And the families were so isolated and so innocent and so poor that they let their daughters go.
[Eventually,] these girls would be sold to these pimps for double the money that the recruiter had paid to the parents, and the girls would then be handed over by the pimp to the brothel managers. And the brothel managers would just lock up the girls for years and every night 8 to 10 customers would come and rape the girl.
As a journalist I covered war, and I covered famine, I covered hunger, I even covered caste and ethnic conflict. But I have never seen this kind of deliberate exploitation upon a human being by another. I was angry, I was outraged, and I wanted to do something about it. So that was my life-changing moment, and the first thing I did as a journalist was to tell the story. So I made a documentary at that time.
Sr. Joan: Was that “The Selling of Innocents”?
Ruchira: Yes, and I told the story as honestly as I could without the help of any powerful people. I didn’t have people working on the ground who could get me to connect with the women. So I had to build trust with the women who were in this slavery situation. The criminal networks were trying to stop me. There were many senior politicians who were in collusion with the traffickers, so they would simply not let us film. The police would chase us out of the villages.
Finally I got inside a brothel because of a friendship that I had struck up with three women in prostitution. I had a tall cameraman who was even more scared than I was. I remember sitting in this brothel room, surrounded by 22 women. We were sitting in some sort of a circle, and a man walks in and pulls out a knife at my throat. And he says, “I’m not going to let you film here.”
And my cameraman was so worried about his expensive equipment being broken or snatched, he immediately wanted to stop. I had no one to protect me, nothing. But in that moment the 22 women told this guy “If you kill her, you’ve got to kill us first. And we want her to tell our story because we have decided that we want to save our daughters from the same future at ours.”
Sr. Joan: How incredibly courageous.
Ruchira: Can you imagine? So they saved me before I did anything for them.
Sr. Joan: For me, this is a really important piece of working with other people. I say so often here at LifeWay Network that we are equals inasmuch as we can be equals because we’re all broken people with and need one another and can learn from one another in different ways. It’s not that we come in to save them. It’s for us to work with them.
Tell me about Apne Aap, the organization you started. Like LifeWay Network, there’s a core vision here of freedom for all these trafficked women. What’s your organization’s central approach in creating the future for them?
Ruchira: [After making that documentary,] I went back to the women, the 22 women who had saved me. And I said, “Here is what I’ve done, I told your story, I won an award, the world knows about it.” And they said, “But now what next?” So I was a little bit horrified because I was a journalist. I just knew how to tell the story. And I said, “You tell me.” So they said, “Oh, let’s form an organization in which we can educate our daughters.” We called the organization Apne Aap, because it means self-action in Hindi. We didn’t have any consultants, we didn’t have any donors, we didn’t even know how to write a business plan.
The first thing we did was rent a room and hire a teacher. Women would come and drop their children off in this little room which was nothing fancy; it was in the brothel district with straw mat on the floor where they could keep their things: a sewing machine, a phone which they could use to make calls home, water, a toilet, a blackboard, books. And the women would come and stitch clothes and the children would be taught and they would laugh and cry and share stories.
And then the children were ready to be admitted to real schools, because slowly they began to get used to sitting quietly and learning and paying attention. When the women began to see the changes in their children, and they then began to have hope for themselves.
Sr. Joan: What was one of the most rewarding things that happened in this time?
Ruchira: The fact that one of our members actually filed for election herself, printed her own poster, then campaigned. This was a woman who used to ask me, “Why does Apne Aap keep holding these meetings?” And now she herself is holding the meetings and being a leader.
When the December 2012 bus rape happened, our women were marching to parliament to ask for a change in the law, so that it included punishment for traffickers, which did end up happening. We changed the law, we changed individual lives, the women are powerful, they are taking it on. And the next generation, the daughters of the women, are now emerging as articulate, lovely human beings. Now we have organized over 20,000 women, girls, and their family members. So, from the 22 original women, Apne Aap has grown and grown.
Sr. Joan: I think it’s just amazing. Ruchira, what do you see is the most promising intervention in human trafficking?
Ruchira: I like what Norway has done, and Sweden, France, and Ireland have followed them. They have decriminalized the women, recognizing that the prostitution and the sex trafficking is not a fault of theirs. So they are not punished under any circumstances and they have criminalized the traffickers and the Johns. So they’ve criminalized the purchase of sex and that has acted as a huge deterrent.
Sr. Joan: Who else is doing this work in this area that you are particularly inspired by?
Ruchira: Gloria Steinem, of course. She understands that the root cause of prostitution is inequality. I’m also inspired by Ela Bhatt, who has founded an organization called SEWA, which helps organize 16 million women all over the world from the unorganized sector to collectively campaign for their rights as workers, selling vegetables, growing tobacco.
I read Gandhi constantly because the founding principles of Apne Aap are based on the twin Gandhi principles of Ahimsa and Antyodaya. Ahimsa means nonviolence, and I believe that prostitution is a form of violence to women. Antyodaya means uplift of the lost. Gandhi suggests that whenever you embark on action, think of the impact of that action on the most vulnerable person you know. And if it has a positive impact, do it. He said to help that most vulnerable person, you will gain control of your own destiny.
Sr. Joan: Thanks so much, Ruchira. This has been such a wonderful conversation. I have just one final question. What is the one thing you believe everyone needs to know about this issue?
Ruchira: That prostitution is a system based on supply and demand, and it is a demand-driven industry. So it is men who buy sex, who create the industry, because then the traffickers think that they can make money by supplying what these men want and they go and prey upon poor girls and women all over the world. So it’s not that the 13-year-old decided “I want to grow up to be a prostitute,” but it’s the other way around, when a 40-year-old man says, “I want to buy a 13-year-old girl.”
If you would like to join us in confronting human trafficking, learn how to get involved here.
For more information about Ruchira’s organization Apne Aap, please visit their website.
To keep up with Ruchira’s work, you can follow her on Twitter.