I would tell them I was a feminist. They would ask me what’s a feminist and I would say I was fighting patriarchy. They would become even more curious and ask me if it was because I had no man in my life. Or did it mean that I didn’t need men, they would ask. I would tell them that neither was the case. I wanted men on my terms. I was not against sex. I was opposed to sexual power.
Set against the lamentable world of sex trafficking, Ruchira Gupta is a determined visionary. Her life is a catalogue of groundbreaking work: in 1997 she won an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism; in 2002 she wrote the first ever manual in the world teaching police officers to investigate traffickers and clients not their victims; and 2002 was also the year she co-founded Apne Aap, an organisation that campaigns to end sex trafficking.
In a context where Bake Off and Brangelina make the headline news, the Ruchira Guptas of the world feel woefully under-celebrated, their circumstances too complex or distant. Details of Gupta’s early life are remarkable for their absence. The earliest any biography goes back is about her career as a journalist, where her focus was on women’s rights, caste struggles and armed conflicted in the north-east of India. She has spoken about the harassment she faced after entering a mosque to follow a story: several people attacked the mosque, trying to strangle her and simultaneously molest her. When she reported this she was publicly shamed as people questioned her: ‘did I believe in god, did I smoke cigarettes, did I have male friends.’
So, first they tried to make me hide it, then they tried to trivialize me, blame me, and when nothing would make me stop, they tried to marginalize me.
In 1996 she produced a pioneering documentary, The Selling of Innocents, which would go on to win global acclaim. It traced the sex trafficking industry from its source in Nepal to the brothels of Mumbai. Gupta asserts that India is the ‘epicenter of bonded labor’ and that there are more prostituted children in India than anywhere else in the world. In the film the crew managed to secure unparalleled access to the trade, even capturing on camera the moment a Nepalese farmer sold his daughter into prostitution.
After the documentary, Gupta joined with twenty-two of its subjects to found Apne Aap. The women of the film had continued to meet informally and were inspired to create a legal framework to support their aim to end sex trafficking. In 2002 Apne Aap, meaning ‘on one’s own’, registered as an NGO in Mumbai. Their mission statement is to ‘increase choices for at-risk girls and women in order to ensure access to their rights, and to deter the purchase of sex through policy and social change.’ One woman who benefitted from the charity’s services commented ‘Apne Aap gave me a job, so I did not need to prostitute myself. Now I have a home. I can spend my life in a respectable way. Now I’m not afraid of anything.’
They have a network that provides a legal and social foundation for girls, supporting them when they are at risk of being trafficked or helping them find a way out of prostitution. By setting up centres that combine legal casework, education, self-empowerment schemes and access to housing, Apne Aap seeks to tackle wider socio-economic factors that make women vulnerable to forced prostitution. At the same time it gives them the immediate practical support they need to stay safe. They also campaign to stop demand for sex, emphasising that it is the customers not workers that are culpable for the ‘recycling’ of women – as Gupta calls it.
All of Apne Aap’s twenty-two founding women have now passed away from hunger, suicide, or AIDS-related problems, but their organisation – and Gupta – continue campaigning. Gupta has testified to the Indian Parliament on amending its trafficking law, as well as contributing to the first US law against trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. She also lobbied alongside other activists at the United Nations which resulted in the first UN structure to address demand for trafficking.
There is more self-confidence among women to speak out… While in upper class families there is a silent abuse of children in and outside the home, in working class families it is sex trafficking and prostitution. This is one inequality which cuts through class and caste.
From twenty-two women, Gupta helped to build an organisation that now supports over 20,000 low-caste girls and women in India. But there is more to do. As Gupta says, ‘Going forward I feel, it may even mark the end of trafficking in the world, where we say, “Oh, trafficking is history. It used to happen in such and such century or in such and such decade,” just like we say about slavery.’ The challenge is that the communities that can be most affected by sex trafficking are voiceless and vulnerable. Gupta is ambitious about the possibility of change as these issues are more discussed than ever before, particularly in the wake of the 2012 Delhi rape case. She will continue to campaign for the right of women and girls to determine their own future, free of pressure and threat.