Interview With Ruchira Gupta, Founder and President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide

Ruchira Gupta
Ruchira Gupta

On August 23, the Urban Democracy Lab sat down with Ruchira Gupta, founder and president of Apne Aap Worldwide,a grassroots organization in India working to end sex trafficking by increasing opportunities for girls and women.  We asked what she thought the root causes of sex trafficking were and what strategies might be employed to fight it.  We also learned about some of the projects she currently has underway and how those interested in these issues can get involved.

Your organization, Apne Aap, aims to end sex trafficking. What broad strategies do you feel are necessary to move in the direction of meeting this goal?

[We focus on] the empowerment of girls and women who are the most vulnerable to trafficking, which is women suffering from multiple oppressions or intersectionalities. In India, they are poor, female, teenagers—and low-caste. In America, they are poor, and female, and teenagers — black or Native American. So we think that by organizing women and girls in collectives — small groups known as mandalas, or circles — they get the strength to fight against all the injustices imposed on them. So, that is our first strategy. The second strategy is that we make sure that the women and girls and their groups have a safe space to meet in. Safe space is a very integral part of our strategy, so that they [the women and girls] have a place where they can share stories, cry, and laugh together, and know that it’s not the place of exploitation. It has to be within walkable distance from wherever they are so they can go to it, and they know psychologically it exists. It does not have to be fancy; it can be a mud hut with a straw mat on the floor, but to them it has to mean that it’s safe. The other strategy is that most of the girls and women are undocumented either because they come from the poorest of poor communities and they’re low caste, or black, or Native American, or migrants, or refugees—and these are the vulnerabilities that traffickers or recruiters often take advantage of. So, one of our strategies is to make sure that we teach the women political skills to campaign for these documents. Our approach is a very rights-based approach. It’s a political approach, and it’s based on linking to anti-poverty programs as well as addressing the demand. We see the demand of sex trafficking as the root cause for prostitution, because, on one hand, we see prostitution as an absence of choice, but based on two systems—supply and demand.

One of Apne Aap’s campaigns is called Cool Men Don’t Buy Sex, and attempts to shift the focus from criminalizing and punishing victims and survivors of sex trafficking, to place culpability elsewhere — onto the people, mostly men, who buy sex and present a demand for the industry to traffic more women and girls. Tell me more about the intention and motivation for this campaign.

Basically, what we realized was that the root cause of sex trafficking and prostitution was the demand. And, the demand was by men who wanted to buy sex, and so traffickers saw a profit in it and ran around preying on poor, low-caste girls in different villages to recruit them into prostitution so they could sell them to these men for a profit. So, one prostituted woman in Bihar, Fatima, said that, “Didi [“older sister” in Hindi], as long as there’s a customer, the prostitution system will never be dismantled.” So we realized that we had to go after a customer, and we also realized that we could file cases against a few customers; but finding evidence, taking a case to trial, seeing it through, takes years and years in India. In the meantime, the demand keeps growing and girls keep getting sucked in. If Apne Aap would work in one area to prevent trafficking there, the traffickers would simply shift to another area where Apne Aap did not exist, and bring in girls from there, because there was a demand. So we realized that we have to also do a cultural shift in consciousness about the demand, besides the legal cases that we were filing against traffickers and buyers, and also the law that we were trying to change against demand. Cool Men Don’t Buy Sex had one specific target at that time. It originated on a campus in Pune, India with some male students who said that the new India they wanted was not about buying sex, or even about arranged marriages. The new India they wanted was where relationships were based on collaboration and friendship, not on domination and violence. They sang songs, they did street plays, they organized a petition to the president of India asking for a change in the law in which girls and women who are victims of prostitution should not be punished. They asked for Section 8 of the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Law to be deleted, so that women and girls were decriminalized. They asked that the traffickers be criminalized and those who buy sex, customers, be penalized. We called this the third way, and we wrote this petition to the president of India. The president did listen to us and we managed to change the law and get a new law on trafficking called Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code, in which trafficking was defined as a criminal offense and who are traffickers was also defined so that traffickers were punished very severely under the law, from recruiters to transporters to those who harbor and transfer and receive girls. Also, the law removed the blame from women and girls and said that [they] should not be punished under any circumstances, recognizing their vulnerability in absence of choice. That law was huge in shifting the blame from the victim to the perpetrator. But now we feel that the law is not being implemented because there has been no cultural change in the mindset of those who buy sex. We are now trying to revive the campaign to make men envision a different kind of masculinity. Who is a cool man, you know? Is a cool man someone who buys sex? Or, is a cool man someone who is gentle, like the term gentleman. Where did that term come from? A cool man is someone who likes animals, who wears cotton clothes, who loves the environment, who paints, who sings.

In urban areas, because there is an increased population size as compared to rural areas, it would seem that there is generally more of a demand for prostitution. Would you say this is true?

I would totally say that urban areas have more demand for prostitution for two reasons—one is that men are living in groups, and they tend to influence each other so what happens is that pimps often show up in these areas where men are living in groups to entice them to come to the red light districts to buy girls. The other is that urban cultures are promoting a notion of masculinity which is based on domination and violence against women. It’s being promoted. So, many men who are migrating to cities are feeling very dislocated from their roots, they’re not able to earn enough, they see women in jobs and they feel these jobs are being taken away by the women. There’s a misogyny which is being bred in urban places, and that is coming out in all kinds of ways, including buying girls for sex. So, there is definitely a bigger demand for buying sex in urban areas than in rural areas, which is not to say that there is no demand in rural areas. There is a demand in rural areas too.

In an interview that you did with Gloria Steinem in 2013, you tell the story of visiting “rows of villages” in Nepal and hearing that all of the women in that village were sold and prostituted in Bombay. Does this happen in more places than just Nepal and Bombay? How does the urban demand for prostitution affect nearby rural areas globally?

It happens everywhere. As you know, recent research is showing that the United States has the highest demand [for prostitution] in the world. There is a culture of masculinity that is being promoted through the porn culture in America, and the porn culture is so ubiquitous here, where men are taught that sex is connected to violence and domination. Boys surfing the net to do homework will suddenly be accosted with a cartoon character who will say “want to have some fun?” and their first sexual encounter will be to watch this woman being raped, and they’ll begin to think this is what sex is about. Sex is connected to violence, “no means yes,” when she is crying, she’s actually enjoying it—it’s sending a message and it’s creating a demand for the purchase of sex and for violent sex and misogyny. America is one of the biggest places which is driving the demand for sex trafficking. Also, what’s happening is that girls are recruited right here in Brooklyn, in New York, in Chelsea, anywhere. And there is something called the Minnesota Pipeline, where blonde-haired and blue-eyed girls are trafficked to New York City, not just for sex tourism but for domestic help. All the taxis you see for gentlemen’s clubs being advertised; basically, what are these gentlemen’s clubs? They’re providing trafficked girls behind the scenes. You go to Jackson Heights, you’ll see Korean girls on sale, Indian girls on sale. So there’s a huge demand and it’s white, blonde girls being sold. The majority of the girls being sold are, of course, from the more vulnerable sections of society. So, they are definitely black, Native American, poor, female. They are what I call “The Last Girl.” By the “last,” I mean somebody who is the most vulnerable person in society. To me, that person is someone who is suffering from multiple inequalities. Homeless, transgender youth are being exploited by traffickers who sell them. So, poor, female, transgender, black, Native American teenagers—because teenagers are more vulnerable. In America, the average age for a girl being pushed into prostitution is between thirteen and fifteen. That is the last girl for me.

So, you’re supporting a new project called Girls for the Last Girl, and it was founded by four students at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. Tell me about that.

I am launching a campaign called The Last Girl. What I want to do is walk around the world—the last mile for the last girl—and talk to her, and highlight her problems. What are the inequalities she suffers from and why can she not access housing, education, or justice? Legal protection—why can she not access that? I want to make visible to all the policy makers and foundations who she is and what she cannot access, so that we can create more sustainable initiatives to reach her to prevent her from being trafficked. She’s the most vulnerable human being I know. To make her visible, I’m asking the support of “first girls” everywhere, girls who have access to education, housing, and legal protection, to help me make that girl visible. So, my call to action is to girls who are of privilege, who I call the “first girls,” to put the last girls first. I spoke about The Last Girl at Crossroads School, and there were four students who decided to form a group and start Girls for the Last Girl there. One of them is Bob Dylan’s granddaughter, another one is the daughter of John Reiss, a documentary filmmaker who has written a book called How to Sell Your Movies Without Selling Your Soul. These girls have together raised the consciousness of what happens to a girl when she is trafficked and prostituted in Los Angeles. They want to show that these girls for the last girls are like the last girls there. They have the same dreams and hopes, but just the birth lottery has separated them.

How can people learn more about Apne Aap and contribute more to efforts to end sex trafficking and support The Last Girl? How can people engage in culture change regarding sex and masculinity?

I would like people to like us on Facebook, as well as follow us on Twitter because we constantly update different campaigns and interventions that we want people to join in over there. The other is to go to our website. We have some resources for people who want to learn. There is a video called Cool Men Don’t Buy Sex. They could show that on their campuses, as well as videos about The Last Girl. We have a PayPal donation system set up on our website, so we seek funds urgently, all the time, and we also want people to join our latest campaign against the legalization of child labor in India through the new child labor law. The campaign is on Change.org. We want people to sign that petition to the Prime Minister and Chief Justice of India, asking them to not allow the legalizing of child labor, which is what the new law in India has done. In terms of the campaign on Cool Men Don’t Buy Sex, we are planning to create PSAs and put them out on TV channels and also to put them out on YouTube and to put it on different social media and also regular media all over the world, so if anyone wants to make a video around the theme of Cool Men Don’t Buy Sex, or take photographs around that theme, we would welcome it. Send us an email, create the content; we will upload it and share it. We would also like, if there’s a community of bloggers out there, we would like bloggers to blog about what do they think a cool man does? What do cool men do as opposed to what cool men don’t do? So we would love for people to put up ten things cool men do versus ten things cool men don’t do to just generate the conversation all the time. We also have videos and factsheets [on our website]. I would encourage people to organize small salons and to show our videos and share the factsheets. Conversations really help.

Thank you for your time, Ruchira.