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Ruchira Gupta has dedicated the last two decades to ending human trafficking. We caught up with her at Jaipur Lit Fest on Sunday and talked about her work.
Over to Ruchira Gupta, who founded the NGO, Apne Aap for a grassroots movement for women who are trafficked.
You’ve been associated with the feminist movement in the west, you’ve worked with Gloria Steinem, and you’ve obviously been associated with the movement here. Are there ways in which these movements draw strength from each other?
The women’s movement cuts across borders and boundaries. Not only do we take ideas from each other, but we stand by each other in terms of solidarity to change laws and policies on behalf of women. For instance, the women’s march in Washington last night against Trump: half a million women showed up there. But two and a half million other women marched all across America and in 29 other countries. So in the UK, in India, in Iceland, and in Antarctica too! The women’s movement has that much solidarity.
Our inequality is so universal. There is a commonality to our inequality across the world. That is based on patriarchy. We learn right at the beginning that it’s right for one class of human beings to order and one to obey, for one to work and one not to get paid for their work. Gender digs a trench into our brain at home, into which then all other inequalities fall. It starts at home and all of us experience it.
The other place where we all experience this kind of discrimination is not just in the workplace, but even accessing the workplace. Because there’s a glass ceiling, they can’t even get a job. Yesterday we raised this at the women’s march in Washington: a black woman gets 63 cents to a dollar. Sometimes it even goes down to 40 cents a dollar.
This is a universal truth: it’s not just America or India. The other issue is in terms of political representation. People fear female authority more than anything else. The US election is a case in point, where they were willing to trust China and Russia but not willing to accept female authority.
It’s a common issue; we have to tackle this together. We exchange ideas, we exchange information, we meet each other. I always say I was born into a family of birth, but I have a family of choice, which is the women’s movement. That’s my large extended family.
Gloria Steinem, who was the chair of the women’s march in Washington, is also the chair of my NGO Apne Aap. She learned about grassroots organising from her time in India 50 years ago when she went from village to village with some Gandhian organisers.
There’s such a circle of connections between women’s movements supporting each other.
Talking about the glass ceiling and the whole issue of equality in the workplace, how do you make your organisation a feminist workplace?
We have tried to have over-representation of women in our organisation, so more women are employed than men. We have also tried to feminise the workplace itself; in most of the offices there’s a bed with nice colourful rugs and cushions, so that women can bring their children and children can play there. Our work hours have become more flexible based on the needs of the women working there.
We also have tried to emphasise on not just feminising the workplace but making it simple enough that even the last woman, the prostituted woman or girl, feels comfortable in it. So we’ve made all our centres within walking distance of the red light areas, so that women don’t have to worry about jumping into a bus or a tram. We’ve also tried to make sure that it’s not intimidating. Straw mats, water, sewing machines, a place for children to sleep…
We have a lot of storytelling as part of our self-esteem building. Our program itself is designed like that. It’s not based on numbers. It’s based on experiences. Women tell stories to each other. We have a lot of oral history. Women march together.
From the clothes we wear to what we are to what we say and how we say it, it’s all very feminised.
You’ve devoted your life to ending human trafficking, but it seems to persist as a problem. Do you think we have made any progress in the last few decades?
I’ve been involved in this for twenty years. When I began as a journalist and I saw the immensity and depth of the problem, and ended up making a documentary for which I won an Emmy, called The Selling of Innocents. I hung out with the women in the red light areas of Mumbai and that changed my life. As a journalist I’d covered war and hunger and famine, but I had never seen this kind of exploitation of one human being by another.
So I decided that I would tell the story. Telling the story again changed my life. I quit journalism and started this NGO, Apne Aap, with 22 women. It’s been 15 years since Apne Aap began, and we have organised more than 20,000 women, girls and family members to access education, legal justice, safe and independent housing, and more dignified livelihoods not based on exploitation. It’s been transformative for me as well to be able to do that. It’s been a very long journey.
When I started there were no NGOs. Now there’s a mushrooming of NGOs. There was no UN protocol for ending human trafficking. I remember showing my film at the UN and pushing and lobbying for the UN to end trafficking and I played a role in that. There were no laws in most of the countries against trafficking. Now 140 countries have signed on to the protocol and changed their laws to meet the standards. Including India, where section 370 of the legal code penalises traffickers very strongly.
A lot has changed. People have realised that prostituted women are vulnerable women whose vulnerabilities are taken advantage of. The blame has shifted from the victim to the perpetrators. Many countries are now punishing the traffickers and the buyers instead of the women — Sweden, Norway, and other countries — and that has made a huge difference.
So you think victim blaming around this has gone down? You’ve also spoken very vehemently that there’s a whole system of johns and pimps that is to blame.
The demand. It’s a demand driven industry.
And even the system that’s supposed to protect these women doesn’t work. You’ve written about young girls escaping the brothels and going to the police and being sent back because everyone’s part of this network. Has that changed at all?
The ages are coming down and the numbers are going up. The vulnerability of women and girls is increasing, traffickers are getting more organised. On top of that they are getting away with impunity. There’s a toxic masculinity which is being promoted through the political culture right now. People occupying more and more space — 56 inches, big turbans and all that. It’s creating an aggressive culture, which is impacting vulnerable girls in a very negative way. Buying of sex is getting normalised. Commodification of women is being normalised.
Has demonitisation had an effect on trafficking?
It’s increased the trafficking of under-aged girls. What happened with the 2000 rupee notes; men would say we are not going to buy an adult woman, we want an under-aged virgin. And with daily wage workers who were not getting an income were being recruited by traffickers at that time.
You’ve written about how violence by clients is normalised, and sex workers themselves accept it as part of the deal. How do you change that?
It’s a whole process of self-realisation — that’s why our organisation is called Apne Aap. Our attempt is that as women find their own voice, as they find their own memory — their memory and identity has been obliterated — they stop normalising the exploitation once they begin to value themselves. The first thing the pimp and the brothel keeper do is try to break the identify of the woman by making her hate herself. That’s also a feature of domestic violence. That’s how you can control someone.
You’ve also talked about how schools refuse to take these children.
It’s hard. One aspect is caste stigma: all the women and girls are low-caste. Then there is the red light area stigma, the prostitution stigma. Government schools are a little better in terms of admission. It’s the private schools that say, other parents will object. But once we put a girl in and she starts doing well, the school changes completely.
I think transformation is possible in any human being and any institution. That’s the Gandhian way also. Gandhiji himself changed from a man in a three-piece suit who was trying to assimilate with the British to becoming more gender fluid, even in his personality, becoming more effeminate, occupying less space, changing himself within and without.
You talk about the ‘last girl’.
This is an idea I’ve coined from Gandhiji and Ambedkar. Ambedkar used to say ‘antaj’, which means the last born. Gandhiji spoke about ‘antyodaya’, the uplift of the last. And we’ve moved far away from there. We want to do top down approaches rather than bottom up approaches. That doesn’t changed the system.
Through all your books you’ve tried to rise awareness of this issue. Does that help or is one-on-one intervention the only way?
Awareness helps us change policies and laws, effect changes like budget allocations. It also helps men think differently about buying sex. It does make a huge difference.
Do you conduct such sensitisation programs for men?
Yes, we run a campaign called ‘Cool men don’t buy sex’ on college campuses. We want men to think about happens when you buy a girl. That it’s not manly to buy sex.
What do you think of antifeminist slogans like #notallmen?
I agree that a majority of men are not rapists or buyers of sex. It’s a minority of men who repeat this and they give all men a bad name. But the problem is the other men remain silent. Unless other men start objecting, this culture will not change. Men have to speak on behalf of women.
Men have to join women — like the men’s movements for violence against women — and do so in a non-threatening way. They should do so by not hogging space, but by occupying as little space as possible.
Do you have a message for our readers at Women’s Web? What can we do to combat this problem?
I want to ask that question of your readers. The time has come where we will have to match every negative action — the act of defiance, the act of civil disobedience, the act of transgression — with a positive action which is visible. I would like your readers to send me comments on my Facebook page and my Twitter, and send me ideas on what constructive actions we can do.
We also have the World Congress against the Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls in Delhi on 29-31 January, and would love your readers to come. Just RSVP online.
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Image source: apneaap.org