“Stuff gets real”

There can be a lot of rhetoric around large meetings … but there are also moments when real stories and hard data bring home the nature of the challenges – and the possibilities for overcoming them – in such a direct way that people are galvanised.

One such moment occurred last Sunday (yes, I am just catching up!) when Ruchira Gupta spoke at Small Ruchira Guptathe opening briefing for NGOs. Ruchira Gupta is a journalist, activist, and Founder/President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide – a grassroots organisation that works to end sex trafficking by increasing choices for at-risk girls and women.

Gupta told us how her transition from journalist to activist began when she was working in Nepalese villages and realised that many villages had almost no women or girls between 15 and 45. When she asked where the women were, she was told that they had all gone to Mumbai.

Her quest to find out what had happened to these missing women led her to discover a chain of trafficking and exploitation and to follow it – to the borders where the women and girls were allowed through illegally, to “lodges” where women and girls were beaten and starved into submission, to the big cities, where pimps negotiated to buy them – “the younger the better”, to the brothels where brothel keepers and managers locked them away and sold them to multiple customers every night … to the streets, where broken women were left to  “[die] a very difficult death because they were no longer commercially viable.”

Gupta was driven to tell the women’s stories – and she made a film, “The Selling of Innocents.” It was a life-changing experience, she said, and not without its dangers. She spent a lot of time in the brothels interviewing the women. “At one point … somebody pulled out a knife on me inside the brothels and said ‘I’m going to kill you because I don’t want you to be telling this story.’ And I was saved by the twenty-two women in prostitution who wanted to tell their story. They surrounded me. They formed a circle, and they said ‘We wanted to tell our story, and if you want to kill her, kill us first.’ And the man slunk away because he knew it would be too much trouble to kill twenty-three women.”

“The Selling of Innocents” won an Emmy Award – but it marked the point at which Gupta left journalism, wanting to do something more direct to assist women in such situations. She became a consultant with the UN. But more significantly, she went back to the brothels, to show the women the documentary and share the Emmy Award. There, she said, the women challenged her: “But you can’t walk away. You have to do something” and reminded her of the assets she brought in terms of education and networks. “Remember that you all saved me and rescued me,” she responded, “so we can rescue each other.”

Together the twenty-two women and Gupta founded Apne Aap, which means self-empowerment. The women had four dreams:

  • education … a school for their children. “They said ‘Whatever has happened, has happened, but we want a different future for our daughters.'”
  • a job in an office … “where we can be at peace.”
  • a room of their own … “where nobody will kick us, beat us, nobody can walk in when they want to, our children can play peacefully on the floor, we can sleep when we like and wake up when we like”
  • justice … which meant “protection …When they were pulled out of school … there was nobody to watch over them … because they were poor, they were female, they were low-caste … . They were disposable people, and I call them the last girls” and “accountability. They wanted those who had broken away their dreams … to be punished.”

So Apne Aap rented a room, hired a teacher, and began preparing the children for school. Then they enrolled the children in schools – and when schools objected, the women organised as a group with Apne Aap and went to negotiate with the school leaders. Later the women got government IDs, becoming citizens with rights and benefits – and gradually they found a voice and discovered their collective strength. In time, thanks in part to their campaigning, “the process of trafficking was criminalised for the purposes of sexual exploitation and prostitution in the Indian law – now it is section 370 of the Indian penal code.”

Gupta’s story didn’t simply end on that high note: she had strong words for UN Women, which she felt was undermining anti-trafficking work by issuing a report that recommended the decriminalising of pimping and brothel-keeping, on the grounds that many women chose sex work. “And we wrote [to them] to say yes, there could be multiple positions, but UN Women should take neutrality as a stand, and there were hundred and thousands of women and girls for whom it was not a choice but an absence of choice, and the terminology ‘sex work’ actually sterilised the exploitation in their lives.”

She also spoke of the risk of seeking quick development wins to meet targets: “When we talk about the bottom 1/3rd very often in development paradigms and development agendas, what we have found is that we are stuck with getting easy numbers quickly, big numbers fast, and … because of that we often end up skimming the top of the bottom, and we ignore the last. But unless we include the last, we will never be able to bring about the paradigm change that we are looking for … We can only walk the last mile if we stand by the last girl.”

The description of the sufferings of trafficked women was the strongest possible challenge – a true call to action. The challenge to the ways UN institutions and development specialists operate  was also real – and a reminder of how important it is for those formulating policy to hear the voices of those who are experiencing its impacts.

But this wasn’t just about challenge – it was also about inspiration. Inspiration from women who had been so badly abused and yet were able to rediscover their own power and potential. Inspiration from the way that, with solidarity from others, they have been able to create better lives for themselves, their children, and other women in their region. Inspiration from the way in which work together can shift attitudes and norms that might seem intractable. Real stories. Challenge. And inspiration. It was a good way to begin our journey …

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