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January 2005
The Saving of Innocents
The Satya Interview with Ruchira Gupta

Journalist-turned-activist Ruchira Gupta went to the brothels of Bombay to make a documentary about sex trafficking and never left. Realizing she couldn’t walk away from the atrocities she had witnessed, she started Apne Aap (On Our Own) to help women and children who have been sexually exploited, regain their independence.

At Apne Aap, prostitutes are welcome any time during the day to sleep, bathe or drop off their children for care. The place isn’t fancy; they’re in dire need of more help and resources. Prostitutes are dying of AIDS, suffering from insomnia and schizophrenia, and watching their children succumb to the sex trade. And with the help of the Internet, sex tourism and pornography are on the rise. But Apne Aap is doing what they can—highlighting the situation locally, nationally and internationally; pushing men to use condoms and to treat women decently; and providing the women with the resources and confidence they need to break out. Meanwhile, Gupta’s Emmy award-winning film The Selling of Innocents continues to spread the word.

Kymberlie Adams Matthews had a chance to talk to Ruchira Gupta just hours before she was to fly back to India to work on another documentary.

You covered something horrific in your documentary The Selling of Innocents. Can you tell us about that experience?
Basically, I used to be a journalist. I was traveling in Nepal and I came across loads of villages that didn’t have women ages 14 to 45. So I began to ask, where are the girls? Some of the men smiled sheepishly and some would simply answer, “Don’t you know they are in Bombay?” I came to find out that there was this whole sex trade: starting with the parent who was really poor, then on to the procurer, an uncle or a family friend who would pay the parent something like $30. There is the middle man in a packed city, the border guard who takes a payoff, the agent who takes the girls across the border to the people who then transport them to Bombay and on to the brothel madame, who buys the girls for $50 to $100. Then there are the landlords who own the brothels, the money-lenders and then finally the customers. This chain, literally a food chain with a never-ending supply, was making a fortune. The girls are as young as seven. I was seriously appalled. I went to try to figure out how to do the story. I contacted BBC and they luckily agreed to put in the money, and I made the documentary.

What was it like going from journalist to activist?
I spent about 18 months on the research and more on the actual shooting and production. Throughout this, I spent a great deal of time with the women inside the brothels. You know, I just could not walk away. As a journalist I have seen all types of human suffering—war, famine, drought, natural disasters—but I had never, ever seen this type of exploitation of one human being by another. I was so very taken back.

It must have been life-altering, and I would imagine frightening?
Yes. There were and still are moments of fear, but it’s not long-term fear. In the brothels, in the villages of Nepal, I was always stopped by people who had an invested interest in the sex trade. I remember very clearly this one time I was inside the brothel (see, I had refused to take any help to make the film, no power structures—so no cops, no NGO, nobody) I had just gone inside when a man pulled out a knife at me. He said, ‘How dare you come and make a film here, I’m not going to let you.’ There was that momentary sense of fear that ‘Oh my God, I’m going to lose my life here!’ At the same time, there were these women who I’d been making the film with for 18 months, they came and surrounded me and said, ‘We have let her in. She is making the film to get our voices out to society, so you can’t stop her.’ So, the only reason I was able to do it was because women helped me. These were older women and they wanted to tell their story. They wanted people to know what was going on. And we really became friendly. That is how the story got done.

Can you tell us about Apne Aap, how it started?
I wanted the documentary to be fair. I didn’t want to be like a voyeuristic person peeking into someone’s life and then walking away. So we came to a deal where they could ask me as many questions as I asked them. They knew more about me than most of my friends and family. And I do too about them.

The process of making the documentary made the women talk to each other as well. They were always so isolated and scared, but doing this project together they began to [open up]. They soon began to tell me not to go away, to do something, but I told them, ultimately I can’t do anything for you, you have to do something for yourselves. Until you do, nothing is going to change. At first they were very hesitant. Remember, they were sold into prostitution when they were nine or ten, pre-menstruating girls, raped repeatedly, and for years they were locked up inside the brothels. They were used by men every day, for sexual favors, and by the time they realized they wanted more, it was too late for them. But then slowly, very slowly, they began to feel that yes, this was right. They began talking and hearing the others talking and it was very helpful for them.

And that is essentially how Apne Aap was born.

I agree, self-motivation is extremely powerful. Ahimsa and antodaya are Apne Aap core beliefs, can you tell us what they mean for you?
Apne App means ‘self help’ in Hindi—that is what it is about. All these issues are about changes from within and without. Rights aren’t just given, they have to be claimed.

Apne Aap is also based on two inner strengths, two Gandhian concepts. One is the strong issue of nonviolence, ahimsa. We believe that sex trafficking and prostitution are forms of violence [against] women. We also believe it is violence [against] men because men violate something within themselves before they violate the girl. And that brings out so much anger that it leads to more violence. That is how the whole cycle starts and it is so centered on shame and guilt, which all men are brought up to have when dealing with their masculinity and sexuality. They become misogynistic. We are designing a project to address the issue of “masculinity” itself and work with men to end the violence by training on anger management, alcoholism and prevention of HIV/AIDS.

Antodaya, meaning the awakening of the last person, is a core principle. Change is possible and sustainable only if it is led by the last woman and affects and elevates the lives of the poorest of the poor.

Tell us a bit about your outreach programs.
We have five community centers based on the model that you have to train women on rights, and how to access their rights. We created a youth club and a women’s club called the self-help group. We look at education and health care. The women decide how the community center should be run. They decide on the advisory group. They find their own sense of activism.

These girls and women come in, they don’t have a sense of what is right, and what is constitutionally their entitlement, so they can’t challenge the police. They don’t know that it’s not allowed to extort money from them; that men cannot go inside the brothel anytime and smash the furniture or their walls. So Apne Aap is also trying to tell women how to fight the police, how to tackle HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and all these kinds of things.

Second is of course organization. You have to work together, because isolated, the police can be more brutal. We want to eradicate sex trafficking—just buying the girls off is no solution, because that still creates a demand. And as long as there is a demand, there will be a supply.

Do you find that children born to sex workers become involved in the industry?
Yes. In fact the biggest method of trafficking is what we call intergenerational prostitution. That is really dangerous; when a woman’s children and her children’s children are also sold into prostitution, it becomes institutionalized.

None of the girls want to become prostitutes. They’ve seen the exploitation, the repeated rapes, the diseases, the kind of lifestyles that their mothers have. They live in back rooms, locked up forever, looking for clients. They have to sexualize their persona. They can’t be thinking people, they don’t know that there is any other use for their body.

Also, on the other side, none of the mothers want their daughters to get into prostitution, they want to protect them for as long as they can, but when they become older and disease-ridden, and their earning capacity comes down, they push their daughters into prostitution, because otherwise they starve.

What helps you?
The inner strength of the women. No matter what they do or see, they keep supporting me to go on. They motivate me. Inspire me. I was in the Philippines once—I visited a teen prostitute—her father was an African American U.S. Marine and her mother a Filipino. Her father moved on and this girl was born into the slums and ended up as a prostitute. She has a son and when she found out she was HIV-positive, she decided that this was not the fate young girls should go through. So she began to do peer outreach. She would go from brothel to brothel, from beer bar to beer bar, and tell women about the consequences of AIDS. She began to live her life for somebody else even though her life was limited now.

She took me on one of her bar-hoppings. We were in the slums facing the docks along a highway and the bars were really nothing more than benches, ripped canvases and a small TV or karaoke station. The thing was, she would not let me pay. Her earnings were like 120 times less than mine, and she was probably spending a day’s wages every time we went into a bar. But she insisted on paying because I was her friend and I had come from India. You have to understand she was so worried about her son and what would happen to him when she was gone—with no source of income. And then here we were in this karaoke bar and she starts to sing a song dedicated to me. The song was “I’m On Top of the World Right Now”. It was so special. Something like that will never leave me. The women, they all give me the hope and strength to go on. If they can do it, I can totally support them to do it.

Is HIV/AIDS an issue for most of the women?
Actually, most of the women in Apne Aap are HIV-positive. So one of my problems is, what are we going to do to help them? Of course, one thing is instant relief in terms of medicines, taking them to hospitals whenever they get opportunistic diseases.

But the big issue is what’s going to happen to their children, because most of them don’t have any support from their families. They don’t have a husband, their extended family has thrown them out. These children could literally be growing up on the streets when their mothers die. The boys will become part of gangs and the girls will end up becoming prostitutes. We are trying to get the girls placed in boarding schools, the boys are given some vocational classes. We want to really save these children, because the future is theirs.

Do you think that this will be the battle you’re fighting in 15 years?
Hopefully not. Already in 10 years I can see a change: the UN put a protocol on sex trafficking; the same year they passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act—with the help of Senators Paul Wellstone and Sam Brownback—to protect all victims, and I testified at the U.S. Senate for that. Today, 67 countries have signed onto the protocol and all countries are trying to improve existing laws.

The second sign that things are improving is that the area highlighted in the documentary was so dense with little girls and women, and now is much less dense; there are regular raids and police protection.

What’s the recipe for moving people from complacency to activism? Because I think people can hear this story, what’s going on here, but be horrified and do nothing.
Two ways. One is to always keep the focus on this issue. We are just beginning to make a dent. So whoever your senator or congressman is, write them and tell them to keep focus on this. Second, spread awareness throughout organizations and groups, have speakers, movie presentations. Do whatever you can to spread the word.

You have to find how to connect, and explain to people about sexual trafficking. I’ll even ask if they’ve ever been raped. Most people say no. I say, ‘Have you ever had sex with your husband when you don’t want to?’ and they all say yes. I say, ‘Did you have an orgasm at the end of it?’ And they say no. So then I ask, how much of it was rape and how much of it was consent? And they begin to think, and then you can move forward.

See, you always have to look for these moments of connectivity—from outrage, exploitation, and victimization to moving on. It truly is a bipartisan issue.

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