Social Justice Activist, Feminist Campaigner & Founder President of Apne Aap Worldwide, Ruchira Gupta

A Desi Woman Podcast
Social Justice Activist, Feminist Campaigner & Founder President of Apne Aap Worldwide, Ruchira Gupta
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Transcript

Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before but their stories deserve to be told. What is a Desi woman? She’s a dynamic, fearless and strong woman. She’s your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale, and I am a Desi woman.

Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and today, we are so excited to be joined by Ruchira Gupta. Ruchira Gupta is the Founder President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, and Apne Aap International. Ruchira is a social justice activist, feminist campaigner, and award-winning journalist. She’s also a professor at New York University and a distinguished scholar at the University of California Berkeley. Ruchira won an Emmy award for her critically acclaimed documentary, The Selling of Innocents, which places a brutal lens on the trafficking of girls from Nepal to India.

Soniya Gokhale (01:29):
For over three decades, Ruchira has been campaigning and working towards a world where no girl or woman is bought or sold. She pioneered gender sensitive interventions to end inter-generational constitution among de-notified tribes in India’s Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and West Bengal regions, and she was instrumental in introducing anti-trafficking policies and laws around the globe, including the critical Indian anti-trafficking law. Ruchira has received numerous global awards for her advocacy, including the Clinton Global Citizen Award. She’s participated in discussions that led to the passage of the UN protocol to end human trafficking, with a particular focus on the trafficking of women and children.

Soniya Gokhale (02:25):
She also testified before the U.S. Senate for the passage of the first U.S. trafficking victim protection act, taking survivors to speak with her at the UN general assembly and to the human rights council in Geneva, Switzerland. She successfully advocated for the creation of the trafficking fund for survivors at the UN Office for Drugs and Crime. Ruchira, welcome to the show.

Ruchira Gupta (02:52):
Thank you, Soniya. Look forward to the conversation with you.

Soniya Gokhale (02:56):
Yeah. So, I came to be aware of your organization, Apne Aap, and the amazing work that you’re doing based on a program that you launched amid the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s entitled 1 Million Meals. And we know that the pandemic has been brutal for marginalized communities, but I wanted to hear more from you about what the impact has been in particular for the people that you’re helping through 1 Million Meals.

Ruchira Gupta (03:36):
The COVID pandemic has been devastating for everybody, but for the most vulnerable, it has been even more devastating because the bottom has dropped out of the world, and especially for victims of sex trafficking, it’s been extremely tough. They live inside red light districts, very small rooms which have basically beds in them and a window. They cook on the floor where they clients come. And when the pandemic happened, then obviously, all movement stopped, all people who came to the red light area stopped. All the women actually were cut off from food, from livelihoods, and the children were sent back from school to the brothels with no access to data apps or computers or WiFi connections.

Ruchira Gupta (04:26):
So, 11 people would be living in a small room with one window, and basically, the women had to live off their meager savings. And when the savings began to run out, they had to sell their last cold chain, take huge debts, uh, from money lenders at very high interest rate. Some women left their children behind and just ran away because they could not cope. Some began to talk of suicide, some have committed suicide. So the pandemic has been particularly bad for victims of sex trafficking and their children.

Soniya Gokhale (05:00):
Well, I think that is extremely important information that you outlined, uh, about populations many of us may not even think about that are being affected in such a deleterious manner. But I wanna go to the formation of Apne Aap and some of the story around that because then, we can speak to 1 Million Meals and- and its importance even more. But, uh, you were a journalist and you were traveling through Nepal and you saw scores of villages with missing girls, and so I wanted to hear more about how the documentary, The Selling of Innocents, which you produced in 1996, and by the way, congratulations, you won an Emmy award for it, but I want you to tell me just a bit more about how that journey began.

Ruchira Gupta (05:52):
You know, I was a journalist at that time and I was walking through the hills of Nepal looking at how villages manage their natural resources, then I came across rows of villages with missing girls. And of course, uh, my journalist instinct took over and I asked the men who were sitting there, playing cards, drinking tea, sitting in the sun, where these girls were. And some of the men were hostile, but few answered and they said, don’t you know? They’re all in Bombay. Now Bombay was like 1,400 kilometers away, and these villages were so remote that even the highway was far for them.

Ruchira Gupta (06:35):
So I was curious and I thought, how can so many people be in Bombay. I began to follow the trail, and I found, to my horror, the flesh trade existed in my lifetime, my generation, my country. There was a [inaudible 00:06:49] supply chain of traffickers from these remote villages in the hills of Nepal to the brothels of Bombay. There was the local village procurer who could be a- a neighbor, an uncle, there was transporter, a truck driver who would put these girls into these trucks and buses, there was the [inaudible 00:07:08] bodyguard who would allow the girls to be taken across the border, smuggled.

Ruchira Gupta (07:13):
On the other side were lodge keepers in India who would lock up these girls for two or three days in very shabby rooms, beat them, starve them, drug them ’til they were ready to do anything. And then these girls were handed over to another set of transporters, traffickers, who would take them to the pimps of the brothels in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, and sell them for as little as $100, $200, and then these girls would be handed over to brothel managers and locked up for the next five years and raped by eight or 10 customers a night who would pay $0.30, as little as $0.30 for the price of raping a girl. And most of these girls were between the ages of nine and 13. The youngest I met was seven years old.

Soniya Gokhale (08:04):
Oh my gosh.

Ruchira Gupta (08:05):
So, I saw this, I followed the trail, I saw… as a journalist, I’d covered war and famine and hunger and conflict, but I had never seen this kind of deliberate exploitation of one human being by another. So I wanted to do something about it, and of course, a journalist tells the story. I ended up making a documentary, it’s called The Selling of Innocents, and I won an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalism for it. But when I was being offered all these jobs in the Broadway Marquis Hotel in New York, it all just felt too glamorous and not really what I wanted to do.

Ruchira Gupta (08:48):
I had been transformed, uh, by the time I spent talking to the women in the brothels of Bombay and Delhi and Calcutta, and I wanted to do more on that. So I decided to say no to all the job offers and I decided to take a leap…

Ruchira Gupta (09:03):
… to all the job offers and I decided to take a leap of faith. I thought, “I’m going to do something about sex trafficking. How come the world doesn’t know about it when so many little girls are raped and locked up every day?”

Ruchira Gupta (09:16):
So, I quit my job and without knowing what I was going to do I did two things. One was, I went to the UN and I told them, I said that, uh, you know, “There’s a global problem. Girls are being smuggled from India to Nepal and then being trafficked and pimped into prostitution and this is happening not just in India and Nepal, what I hear is it’s happening everywhere. I’ve been to the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995 and I’d heard similar stories from other activists, so please do something about it.”

Ruchira Gupta (09:48):
And the other thing I did was that I went back to Bombay, to the brothels with my award and my documentary, and I told the women in prostitution there that, ” This is what I won and this is yours. Please use it in any which way you can.”

Ruchira Gupta (10:05):
And the women in prostitution at that time said that, “We just want to save our children from the same destiny we had. You know, whatever’s happened to us has happened but we don’t want our daughters to be trapped in prostitution.” I said, “I’m ready to help you. Tell me what to do.”

Ruchira Gupta (10:24):
And they had four dreams at that time. The four dreams were anyone’s dreams, basically. They said that they wanted school for their children. They wanted a job in an office. A room of their own and punishment of the perpetrators.

Ruchira Gupta (10:45):
Now, this is all very simple, but if you sat in a brothel in Bombay, you would see how far a job in an office was, which meant monthly income, old age pension, treatment with dignity, no side effects like physical health consequences or mental health consequences of repeated rape. You know, a good working environment where they were not beaten up and abused.

Ruchira Gupta (11:07):
Also, you know, a room of their own. When you looked at a brothel, a brothel is normally like room after room full of beds with a muscleman sitting in the door, taking money from customers as they walk in. And a room of their own seemed so far away because there were customers, there were vendors. Children playing on the floor, multiple women in beds stuck to each other. Musclemen, cops taking half the… All of that in the red light area.

Ruchira Gupta (11:33):
And of course, punishment of the perpetrators was unheard of. You know, it was always the women who were treated as bad women and picked up by the police and put through the criminal justice system. Whereas the customers and the traffickers would just keep making a profit off the bodies of these women.

Ruchira Gupta (11:49):
So these four dreams of the women became my business plan. But then how? The how was really important and that is when I reminded the women that they had saved my life when I was filming The Selling of Innocents, and they had done that by fol-… Somebody had pulled out a knife at me when I was filming, saying, “I will not let you film here.” A man. And I would literally have been dead, except that about 22 women surrounded me and they told the man that, “We want to tell her our story, so if you want to kill her, you’ve got to kill us first.”

Ruchira Gupta (12:22):
The man slunk away, knowing it would be too much trouble to kill 22 or 23 women. And so, through their collective self action and their forming a circle, they were able to save my life. In a way, they rescued me before I rescued them. So I told them that that’s the how. You know, we have to act together, we have to act in a circle and so that’s how we decided to call the organization Apne Aap, and organizing in small circles. The Apne Aap mandala was born and that became a method. That for every little thing, we would do, make sure that we organized small groups of women who would enable the four dreams that the women had to become reality.

Ruchira Gupta (13:07):
The first thing we did was we hired a teacher, rented a room and began to educate the kids for school. When the principle refused, the women went in a circle, an Apne Aap mandala. They cried, cajoled, and managed to get the kids admitted. Today, not just their daughters, but there are thousands of children across the country that have been born in red light areas to women in prostitution who are now finished college, who have jobs in Domino’s Pizza parlors, as animation artists, as lawyers, as doctors, as teachers, and, uh, they have now been able to pull their mothers out of the red light area and support them through their old age.

Ruchira Gupta (13:50):
So the first mandala, the first Apne Aap mandala became many mandalas, and Apne Aap has helped more than 20,000 women and their children, um, who were trapped in systems of prostitution over the years. And we still continue to do so, and when the COVID pandemic hit, for us, it was really hard because the children were sent back from school and the red light areas, as you know, are very dangerous for children.

Ruchira Gupta (14:20):
On top of that, the women had no income, no food, nothing coming in. Police brutality was at extreme, and you know what the traffickers did during that time? They showed up and they said that online porn has increased in India. We are willing to give you or lend you some money for food if you give us your children who are back from school to perform online porn acts, online sexual videos, tapes.

Soniya Gokhale (14:48):
Oh my goodness.

Ruchira Gupta (14:49):
So this is what the women are going through when I realized that I’ve got to do something during the COVID pandemic. I could not let the situation undo the decades of work I had done. And so, I thought, you know, the basic needs are the most important and the reality is hunger can consume you. So I thought the be-, the least I can do is make sure that I get food to every last girl inside the red light area during the pandemic.

Ruchira Gupta (15:19):
And that’s how I started One Million Meals. It’s become the biggest food drive, I think, in the history of the world for victims of sex trafficking. And I, I’m still continuing it because, of course, everybody’s not vaccinated and we don’t know when the vaccine will go to the women in the red light areas, and so food is always going to remain a very big issue.

Ruchira Gupta (15:41):
Som I, I’m still continuing it. When it started, I thought I’ll do it for 10,000 women for 100 days and it looks like I’m doing it for 50,000 women and 500 days, five times more than I anticipated. But it is absolutely so critical, like when we talk about the words, life and death, it sounds like a cliché but in this case, it’s true.

Ruchira Gupta (16:05):
And so that’s what Apne Aap, my [inaudible 00:16:09] is doing, and the food drive is called One Million Meals. And I invite all the people listening to the program to support the project. None of us can go where the women are and we should not but we can help someone survive who is much more vulnerable than us, to just balance a little bit of the inequality in the world right now.

Soniya Gokhale (16:31):
Well, that is absolutely inspiring and I was going to say, I will have all of the links to this in the podcast notes and I would like to have you back on a recurring basis because I agree with you, there is a lot of listeners from India and South Asia to this program and, you know, we can all help and, and I will have those links. What you’re doing is absolutely remarkable.

Soniya Gokhale (16:53):
And I did have a question for you. Indicated that trafficking does appear to be inter-generational and often passed from mother to daughter. Is that indeed what you found out during the course of making your documentary?

Ruchira Gupta (17:07):
Yes. So, I saw little kids playing on the floor while the customers were with the mothers on the bed. You know, they had nowhere to go to and very often, the customers would just reach out for the children and sexually molest them. So children were very quickly taken into the system.

Ruchira Gupta (17:24):
The other thing I noticed was that, you know, a woman’s, uh, shelf-life, commercial life in prostitution is very limited. In three or four years, her body is consumed because the repeated rapes and body invasion has physical and mental health consequences, so she ends up with all kinds of diseases and begins to look like a caricature of a human being. And customers want what they call, fresh meat, [niyamal 00:17:51] and so they begin to demand their children and the brothel managers allow the women to stay on the fringes of the brothel system only if they put up their children as-

Ruchira Gupta (18:02):
Only if they put up the children as a substitute for themselves. So very often children are pimped on the very same bed that they were born in. And there are certain caste communities in India which have traditionally been subjected to inter-generation prostitution. These are nomadic groups who were labeled as criminal tribes under British colonialism, and they were so pushed out of their trading, manufacturing, and nomadic ways, because the British wanted to replace their products with made-in-England products, that they ended up, uh, basically as pimps and prostitutes over a period of 100 years or so. They’ve even forgotten what skills they had.

Ruchira Gupta (18:47):
And their prostitution is passed down from mother to daughter, and pimping from father to son. And it’s also ritualized, like the girl is married to a banana tree before she’s sold to her first customer, a nose ring is put on her and the nose ring is removed as a symbol of her lost of virginity. And you know, so on and so forth. So even exploitation can be ritualized.

Soniya Gokhale (19:12):
Well, and I think what’s interesting about your approach, I love the concept of the mandala and the circles, um, that you establish with women. But in addition, you have started, I believe, a program where you’re also calling out the men that frequent this location. And sort of not just putting all the blame on the women that happened to be in this industry through no fault of their own. But I just want to hear more about that. Because obviously they stay in business because there are men that frequent them.

Ruchira Gupta (19:45):
That’s right, Soniya, you know, prostitution is a demand-driven business. It’s not that a 13 year old gets up one morning and says, “I’m going to grow up to be a prostitute.” That’s the last thing she has on her mind. But there are traffickers who take advantage of her lack of choices. Uh, you know, she could be suffering from multiple or intersecting inequalities, intersectionality as we call it now. So she is poor, she is female, she is a teenager. On top of that, in India she’s low caste. In America, she’s often a black person or a native American. And all this already reduces or limits her choices in terms of access to food, uh, clothing, housing, education, even legal protection.

Ruchira Gupta (20:33):
And traffickers prey upon exactly these girls. I call them the lost girls because they are the most vulnerable of human beings that we know. And the traffickers prey upon them because they know there’s profit to be made and they know that profit is to be made because there is a demand from them, for them. There are enough sex buyers in the world who want very young girls and they are willing to pay a price for it, a money for it. So this is definitely a demand-driven industry. And I think one of Apne Aap’s and my own individual big achievements has been, uh, is to shift the blame from the victim to the perpetrator in prostitution systems.

Ruchira Gupta (21:12):
If you remember ’til 20 years ago people would say, “Oh, prostitution is as old as the hills. Men will be men. If prostitutes don’t exist, girls from good families will be raped,” et cetera, et cetera. But nobody thought to say that somebody’s taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of intersecting inequalities that these women and girls suffer from. Nobody thought of that. You know, when I began campaigning and I said that, you know, we need new laws and new protocols to shift the blame from the victim to the perpetrator by showing that prostitution is a system based on supply and demand, it is demand-driven. It’s not a poor woman eking out an existence and a poor man getting some sex in exchange. It is actually a poor woman who’s exploited by a pimp, a brothel manager, a landlord, a financer, organized crime. She’s getting deeper into debt as her body gets consumed, leaving her not capable of anything, and she dies early. And there is a sex buyer at the end of it who wants to consume her.

Ruchira Gupta (22:21):
So I said we have to shift the blame just like we’ve done in the domestic violence movement, where, uh, you know, domestic violence used to be called life. And today we say, no, it’s a crime. So I said the same thing has to be done for prostitution. We have to say that there is a trafficker, it’s not a victimless crime. The prostituted women or prostituted child is a victim. And the sex buyer is part of it. So I, I began to ask countries to… and the UN, United Nations, to create laws to punish the demand, to confront the demand. And basically I wanted the traffickers, that is the pimps, the brothel keepers, recruiters, transporters, to be punished, to be criminalized, and the sex buyers to be penalized.

Ruchira Gupta (23:09):
And I went around the world showing Selling of Innocents, my documentary, to show how it was a system, and I began to build friends and allies to whom I began to articulate this concept. And the first success I had was in, uh, Sweden, and the second was in the US. I went and testified to the US Senate for the passage of the first Trafficking Victim Protection Act. Through that act, two things happened. One was that a victim of trafficking was no longer treated as an illegal immigrant, but given a T visa to stay on in the country. And the second was that the, the punishment of traffickers became law. That was a federal law and now every state has also similar laws. And I go to speak inside uh, states, you know, to the judiciaries, to the law enforcements, and all of that.

Ruchira Gupta (23:59):
I did the same at the UN. I went and uh, spoke, uh, first in a Security Council briefing. And then in the General Assembly special session, demanding the same thing. And there were activist from all over the world demanding the same things parallelly. And my documentary Selling of Innocents played a role too. And therefore I became instrumental also in the passage of the United Nation’s protocol to end trafficking persons, especially women and children, and to which we were able to incorporate a call to action for all countries to change the law to address the demand.

Ruchira Gupta (24:33):
And then I travel across the world to different countries, speaking about the same thing. In South Africa, France, Iceland, uh, you know, across the world. And many of those countries changed the law and have given me honors and awards for my help in being able to do so. And in my own country, of course, the change came much later. It was in 2013 that I was able to mobilize enough opinion. And that too, it was because there was an outcry about the rape of a young paramedical student who was going home, uh, going back after watching a movie in a bus, when she was raped, December 12, 19… 2012. December, 6th December, I think, 2012. She was brutally raped and murdered. And that led to a huge outcry in the country and uh, everybody wanted stricter punishment for sexual assault.

Ruchira Gupta (25:26):
And Apne Aap, my NGO’s women, were the most vocal. They marched on the streets, they went and testified to the Verma Commission, they held press conferences. And I even, we, you know, we, we spoke in parliament. Uh, and I remember even going with some of the survivor leaders of Apne Aap to meet political leaders who did not want to change the law. But after they heard the girls and women of Apne Aap speak up, they changed their minds overnight. And so thus we played a role in the passage of section 370 Indian Penal Code, which now is India’s law on trafficking, in which traffickers are punished.

Ruchira Gupta (26:03):
So you know, we, we did all that at a global level, at India’s level, and hopefully that law is going to be impacting millions of lives and saving girls from being preyed upon by traffickers who will feel scared. And that law finally led to the first life imprisonment to, of a trafficker in India, and now of course there have been many more. So definitely it acted as a deterrent. Uh, police officers, I wrote up two manuals on trafficking called Confronting the Demand for Trafficking for… one for law enforcement and one for prosecutors on behalf of the UN. And those manuals were used extensively to train law enforcement officers and prosecutors, to shift their thinking.

Ruchira Gupta (26:45):
Because you know, they also have sexist bias. And so I’ve done that and I design courses at New York University, uh, to train the next generation of people on addressing trafficking and it has students who come from state department, FBI, NYPD, uh, mid-career people, people who’ve been-

Ruchira Gupta (27:03):
… NYPD, uh, mid-career people, people who’ve been to the Iraq war and are back now and looking for a career change, uh, you know, and people who go to work in foundations, in the UN, and all of that who are now taking courses on human trafficking. So what began as a movie and a way to show the world that here is a problem which is in plain sight and invisible, just by sheer patience, hard work, and building friends and allies across the world and using a tool like a movie and my communication skills, we were able to build it into a field.

Ruchira Gupta (27:36):
And today the field has government departments and trainings and action. So it’s been, it’s been a positive thing. What is harder is how to shift the mindset of the men who are still going out and buying sex. And that is… And of some policy makers who still want to have women sexually available for sale. So to communicate with them is harder because they’re so entrenched in the way they think. And to do that, you know, we began a campaign call Cool Men Don’t Buy Sex in colleges. Because we thought it’s better to start earlier and educate people, that you know, it’s really not cool to buy sex. Uh, you know, there’s no harm in sex, we are not against sex, but we are against sexual exploitation.

Ruchira Gupta (28:24):
And how can sex be fun when only one person has fun out of it. You know, it has to be mutually pleasurable. These are the kind of things we’ve been trying to do, uh, you know, legally, policy wise, girl by girl, and casually, you know, in every possible way. And I try to reach people through culture, also in different ways, by writing comics. I just wrote a comic, two comics, I was part of. Uh, one is called Priya and the Wolves, and it’s available for free on the Apne Aap website. And then there is another comic called Priya and the Lost Girls, which is based a little bit, partially on my life, uh, and it’s about trafficking.

Ruchira Gupta (29:02):
I work with the people who make movies and write books to get the story out. So most recently there was a movie called Love Sonia, it’s available on Hotstar. And it’s got people like Freida Pinto and Richa Chadda, and Manoj Bajpayee, like the top Bollywood starts, um, who’ve acted in it and it’s about trafficking and it ends in an Apne Aap shelter. And it has all the twists and turns of Indo-US trafficking, so it’s very, very well made. I would recommend it highly if anybody wants to know more about the subject.

Ruchira Gupta (29:34):
A lot of the Apne Aap survivors actually helped to make the movie by sitting on set, uh, with the director and uh, taking the actors around the red light areas to see what lives was really like. You know, so that’s how we try every which way that we can. And of course we continuously work on the ground, so we educate the children, we file cases against traffickers. Many of the traffickers are in jail because of us. You know, so we, we just hang in there, trying to take on a system which has been entrenched for way too long.

Soniya Gokhale (30:12):
I mean the impact you’ve had already is like absolutely incredible, I mean, just so inspiring the way you’re using your life, but also really making a difference. I wanted to ask, I will have all the links that you mention in my podcast, and I’d like to have you back on a recurring bases or people from the organization because like you said, you’re really taking on a, a system that’s been in place for, for a very, very long time. And, and I wanted to ask, ask this, what can listeners do if they want to get involved and help? Go to your website, make donations? I guess maybe a link will, will explain how they can contribute.

Ruchira Gupta (30:53):
Yes, so you know, uh, we take both donations in cash in kind. Uh, in cash is very helpful. One dollar buys one meal and some medical supplies for a girl. It’s all there on our website, the explanation. So they can go and donate. It’s ApneAap.org. A-P-N-E-A-A-P.org, or 1millionmeals.org. One million meals is one word with the letter one, not the alphabet one, but it begins with the letter one, 1millionmeals.org. And you know, they can donate. Uh, we also take social media ambassadors. They can spread awareness. We also take help in terms of interns and volunteers who can do a little bit of online work for us sometimes.

Ruchira Gupta (31:38):
So you know, there are different ways. They can invite me to talk, you know, they can hold Zoom meetings. And I can speak about the subject. They can go and watch Love Sonia and then do a quick Q and A with me. So there are different ways that people can participate. They can write to their congressman and their senate to, to tell them to make sure that the Trafficking Victim Protection Act keeps getting reauthorized year after year, because that of course needs to stay intact. You know, there are hundreds of ways.

Soniya Gokhale (32:06):
Wonderful. Well I am gonna list a lot of this, thanks, on the episode notes and we cannot thank you enough, Ruchira Gupta, for joining us today.

Ruchira Gupta (32:16):
Thank you, Soniya Gokhale, for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to share my work.

Soniya Gokhale (32:23):
Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.

 

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