"The conversation has changed," says Gupta. "Now people say prostitution is actually trafficking."
Ruchira Gupta is a journalist turned women’s activist. Over the past two decades, she’s managed to put 66 traffickers in jail, has organised more than 20,000 girls and women trapped in prostitution against sex traffickers, and has educated more than a thousand children through her organisation Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an Indian-based NGO.
Gupta’s hard work and relentless efforts have paid off — she was behind the successful legislation to combat sex trafficking in India and many of the children of the prostitutes she has worked with have managed to break their cycle of poverty and exploitation.
Images caught up with Gupta when she was in Karachi to talk about how she first became involved in activism, her journey and the challenges she has faced along the way.
Images: You started your career as a journalist and then became involved in activism related to sex trafficking. How did that transition happen?
Ruchira Gupta: I was already a journalist for about 14 years when I was researching a story in the hills of Nepal and I came across rows of villages which tend to have girls from 15 to 45, and I began to ask the men where the girls were. And they said ‘don’t you know? They are all in Bombay’. And Bombay was …1,400 km away. So I began to look for the answer and I found out that the flesh trade existed in my lifetime, in my country, in my generation.
I thought I must do something about it and I ended up making a documentary on it called The Selling of Innocents and I won an Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for it but it didn’t seem relevant … I wanted to do something more.
So I quit journalism and did two things. I joined the UN as a consultant to see what women in prostitution were doing to combat AIDS in Southeast Asia and I went back with my award to the women in Bombay who had been in my documentary and I asked them ‘what should we do now?’ I’ve made the documentary, I’ve told your story’ and they said ‘you can help us’. I said ‘yes I can but ultimately the battle is yours and you have to take that on’.
"We’ve brought about a revolution in the places where the women were the most exploited — inside the red-light areas."
So they asked ‘what do you mean?’ I reminded them: when I was filming in the brothels of Bombay, a man had pulled out a knife at me and said that he wouldn’t let me film. Then … these 22 women…surrounded me and they told the man ‘if you want to [kill] her, you have to kill us first because we have decided to tell our stories so that our daughters don’t have the same fate’. And that man thought it would be too much trouble to kill 23 women and he slunk away.
Images: You then formed an NGO, Apne Aap Women Worldwide. How did you use the organisation to promote your goals?
Ruchira: You know the first thing was to protect their children so we opened small community classes. In that classroom we had a teacher [instructing] the children to prepare them for school [and] when the children were ready for school; we told the women [to] go bargain with the principal.
They said ‘oh the principal will not admit our children; he’s saying other parents will object’. So they went as a group and spoke to the principal … and an Apne Aap member went with them; they cried and they pleaded and they told the principal ‘our children are children too’ and the principal relented.
Then their children began to do well. They started to [attend] mainstream schools – one is an animation artist now, one is in a college in New York, [and] one is a manager of a Domino’s Pizza Parlour.
Images: And what about the women themselves. How were you able to assist them in escaping from a life of prostitution?
Ruchira: We [told them that] first of all you want to be able to stand on your own two feet because if you leave prostitution, if you leave the brothel, you need a roof over your head and you need food. To do that you have to get some ID to show that you’re a citizen of India because all the women who are in prostitution in India are all low caste [and don’t have documents].
The first thing we did was help them fill up the forms and we taught them how to bargain with local authorities to get all their IDs from birth certificates to voter ID cards to caste certificates — if you have caste certificates you get low-cost food and housing. It’s like a welfare thing.
Once they got that, we asked the government to give them low-cost food, housing vouchers, [and] healthcare which they had for poor low-caste people. Because of that their expenses came down and they were able to move out of the brothels [and] we created an exit strategy. And because they had an exit strategy, we began to ask them ‘do you know who the traffickers are?’ So they said ‘yes, such and such is a pimp, such and such person is a brothel owner’ and were willing to file a police complaint.
“Suppose you’ve had an abortion — don’t stay silent about it. If you’ve been sexually abused, talk about it. Because by talking about it we’ll all realise we’re not crazy, the system is crazy.”
And so fast forward, we’ve managed to put 66 traffickers in jail, we’ve managed to organise more than 20,000 girls, and the women and their family members with government IDs, and educated more than a thousand children. We’ve brought about a revolution in the places where the women were the most exploited — inside the red-light areas.
Images: How do you make such social justice movements effective? What’s your approach to lobbying for legislation to counter such practices?
Ruchira: I had a lot of difficulty changing the law in India so I thought hard about it and I thought ‘ok where are the two centres of power?’ — the UN because India is a member state and the other was the US government. I said ok I’m going to try and push those two and then come back to India.
So that’s what I did. I used The Selling of Innocents as a tool to build friends and allies, and I would show it, talk to people, convince them, badger them so that’s how I changed the law in the US and the UN protocol, and then got India to sign onto the UN protocol and because [of this] it was mandatory [for India] to change its law.
Images: Do you think women are in a better position now than they were 30 to 40 years ago. How effective do you think the feminist movement has been so far?
Ruchira: Yes and I’ll tell you why: remember at one point domestic violence was considered life and people would say 'unka maumla hai' [it’s their problem]…Right? Today it’s considered a crime.
That’s a big success for our women’s movement. [Before] do you know how many universities had women studies departments? Now there are women’s studies departments and all kinds of men in a festival like these – I was using the word ‘feminism’ and people were listening. It’s not considered some side thing now. And half the audience [for my talk] was men today.
The other challenge [of activism] I want to mention is a personal challenge. It’s very, very traumatising. It’s emotionally just so tiring. Sometimes you just feel very lonely and I keep thinking ‘who is going to rescue me?’ And then I find that I come to a country like Pakistan and there [are] a hundred people listening to me.
Now it’s no longer fringe — we’ve broken that glass ceiling so things have definitely changed and it’s because of the women’s movement and it hasn’t taken that long.
Trafficking — I remember when I had started working on prostitution and trafficking, people said ‘prostitution is as old as the hills you know, it’s the oldest profession’ and I said ‘no it’s the oldest oppression’. Now people say ‘no, no prostitution is actually trafficking’ so things have changed, the conversation has changed.
Images: What would say has been the most challenging moment(s) or aspect for you in your fight against trafficking?
Ruchira: Sometimes it’s just funding — money — because you know I put 10 children into school and 20 more mothers show up saying what about our child? So I’m always running around for funds, always trying to put one more child into school. Also sometimes the traffickers [interfere].
One of the [girls] who had joined Apne Aap had begun to learn a little bit of computers; we had got her an audition in a TV serial, she had started learning a little bit of English, and then she refused a customer, and she was murdered three years ago.
And the other challenge I want to mention is a personal challenge. It’s very, very traumatising. It’s emotionally just so tiring. Sometimes you just feel very lonely and I keep thinking ‘who is going to rescue me?’ And then I find that I come to a country like Pakistan and there [are] a hundred people listening to me.
So many feminists are coming and talking to me. Kishwar Naheed is reciting a poem for me. And this is the way we rescue each other as activists — we laugh with each other, we recite poems for each other, we come and share a cup of coffee and that’s rescue.
That’s how one feminist links up with another feminist. And I always tell people I have a family of birth and now I have a family of choice which cuts across all countries and all cultures and inhabits that republic of hope — not just the republic of India but the republic of hope.
Images: Any message for aspiring activists?
Ruchira: I have some tips. Feminist tips — one is always honour your sister with the truth. So suppose you’ve had an abortion, don’t stay silent about it. If you’ve been sexually abused, talk about it. Because by talking about it we’ll all realise we’re not crazy, the system is crazy. And we also break our shame, guilt and fear.
By speaking with each other, and honouring each other with the truth, the perpetrator gets exposed — his silence is a big lie and we expose that.
Ruchira Gupta photograph by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star