Indian woman fights modern day slavery

2 03 2011

Ruchira Gupta works to empower girls to better their situation. Photo courtesy of Apne Aap

Today I was enraged when another car cut me off in traffic, and then proceeded to take the last parking space in the lot. I spent my morning driving around in circles in search of a precious space and then was late to my yoga class, disrupting the chi with my own frustration. I should have been relaxed, embracing the energy of the world with each breath. Instead, I was angry, fixated on that damn car that stole my parking space.

Today a ten-year-old girl in India was sold into slavery and forced to have sex with a paying customer. Her innocence was taken for a handful of rupees paid to her father, glad to be relieved of the burden of having a daughter. And she is not alone.

In India, there are an estimated 2.3 million in prostitution, a quarter of whom are minors and children, most of whom were forced into this profession through sex trafficking. These modern day slaves are forced to have sex with 10 to 25 customers a night and bred by their masters to produce future prostitutes and laborers. They are sold like animals from brothel to brothel, having no control of their own fate.

But Ruchira Gupta is fighting to emancipate these slaves. A former journalist, Gupta has spent the last 25 years working to end sex trafficking through her organization Apne Aap.

“It began as an assignment when I worked as a journalist,” said Gupta. “Walking through Nepal, many villages in the hills had no women between the ages of 15 and 45. It was strange and I started making inquiries. The answer was always the same: ‘They have gone to work in Mumbai.’”

Gupta soon learned all of the twisted elements involved in sex trafficking – parents selling daughters, women being grabbed off the streets. She contacted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) to work on a documentary and began to hang around the brothels to try to build relationships with the slaves locked behind the doors.

“I didn’t want to involve any government personnel,” said Gupta. “I felt it more important to reach out to the women, gain their trust, and let them know I was on their side.”

The documentary Gupta had been working on with CBC, The Selling of Innocents earned her an Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Journalism in 1997, but resulted in a much larger reward for the women she had met when filming.

“I believed that in order to really change their situation, the women needed to help themselves, and I would help them,” said Gupta. “Apne Aap means self-help in Hindi, and it began as an informal group of these women and myself as I helped them help themselves.”

Over time, Apne Aap has grown substantially, mobilizing and mentoring trafficked girls and women to empower each other. It has reached 10,072 women and girls, and of these 812 girls are in regular schools, 1,200 women have formed small business cooperatives known as self-help groups, and 3,042 women have submitted a petition to Indian Parliament asking for a change in the anti-trafficking law, according to the Apne Aap web site.

Gupta has continued to lobby for these women and believes her most significant contribution to be highlighting the link between trafficking and prostitution and moving the blame from the victim to the perpetrator. For her efforts Gupta has been awarded the Clinton Global Citizen Award, among other honors.

Today I was angry, and then I remembered I am free. I have a chance to shape my own life and happiness, and, because of Gupta, Indian women now have a chance too.