Interview: Ruchira Gupta

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Interview: Ruchira Gupta

Emmy-winning filmmaker and activist Ruchira Gupta on the fight against trafficking and rape in India.

Interview: Ruchira Gupta
Credit: Ruchira Gupta

The first World Day against Trafficking in Persons was observed on July 30. The World Day was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly to end modern-day slavery, which has in its grasp an estimated 2.5 million people, most of them women and children. The Diplomat speaks with Ruchira Gupta, the Indian abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker.

Gupta has provided policy support to the Government of India on countering trafficking. She has worked with worked with UNICEF and UNIFEM in Thailand, Nepal, Iran, US, Kosovo, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines and South Africa. She teaches a course on modern-day slavery in Zanzibar, Tanzania and is adjunct associate professor at the Centre of Global Affairs, New York University, where she teaches graduate courses on human trafficking and movement building. She is the founding president of Apne Aap Worldwide, an organization working in countering human trafficking and helping women in prostitution.

She tells The Diplomat about trafficking and rape in India and the story of her own journey.

India is one of the major contributors to global human trafficking. It is a signatory to the UN Protocol on trafficking in persons. From your experience of being closely connected its policymaking, do you think India is doing enough to end trafficking?

Not enough, but it is doing something. On April 3 last year, it passed Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code, criminalizing the entire process of trafficking for sexual exploitation. What it did not do is criminalize the process of trafficking for labor exploitation. India is the epicenter of bonded labor in the world. More people are slaves through debt-bondage in India than anywhere in the world. Also, there are more prostituted children in India than anywhere else. Sometimes labor and sexual exploitation are interconnected. A person may be trafficked for labor and then may be sexually exploited as well. It is very important for India to have strict laws against trafficking for labor exploitation. India has to make bigger legal changes.

Also, while the law has changed, there are no budget allocations to provide legal, health, housing or capacity-building services to victims and survivors of prostitution. And on prevention, there is absolutely no policy at all. A holistic approach that links different departments, such as women and child, social welfare, education, police, is needed. Schemes need to be linked. The government must also identify those who are most likely to be trafficked and map them. I hear that the new government is apparently is setting targets for its ministries; I would love some of the targets to be around trafficking and prostitution.

Your organization, Apne Aap Worldwide, has been working in the field of intergenerational prostitution, especially among the de-notified tribes. What are your observations?

De-notified tribes were categorized as criminal tribes in British India. We have just finished a study for the Indian Council for Social Science Research on the status of education among the de-notified tribes in six states of India. During the course of the study, we found that there is a very high prevalence of inter-generational prostitution among them.

It is extremely difficult to map these communities and find out the extent of inter-generational prostitution in them because there is no data available. The government could not give us any data as to how many such tribes exist, what their numbers are and where they live and what’s happening among the girls. We had to literally go in and dig out information ourselves through word of mouth from one tribe to another. If its own citizens are invisible to the government of India, how are they going to create policies for them?

To ask you what every Indian is most asked these days, why are so many rapes happening in India in recent times?

Rapes have been going on, but they are now being reported more because of the success of the women’s movement. We have made it a mainstream issue. We marched on the streets, we have taken on water cannons, we have written about it, blogged about it, put it on social media (especially, in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi rape case). We have not only forced a change in the law, but we have also forced mainstream media to report on these issues. We have relentlessly made sure that media covers rape and now rape has become a “mainstream issue.” The media just cannot afford to ignore it. Earlier, the tendency was to hide, which is not the case anymore. Women have broken their silence. Now they don’t see it as their shame and guilt and are more open to reporting and talking about their rapes. So, it is not that more rapes are happening, but that more outrage is being expressed. The next good thing to emerge from this movement is that this outrage and public pressure will lead to better enforcement of laws and more convictions. Now, no police officer will be able to get away easily by not registering a complaint or investigating a rape case. And that will then lead to the number of rapes going down. It will take time, but the process has begun.

So, it is much better now than in the 1990s when you had spoken against the molestation you faced while on duty as a journalist? What was your experience, how did you deal with it?

Of course, it is much better now. (In 1992,) I had gone to cover the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. I went inside the mosque because as a journalist I had to be as close as possible to the source of news. I was wearing a pair of jeans, a loose shirt and had tied a hanky on my head. The Hindu kar sevaks (volunteers, who brought the mosque down) thought I was a Muslim and tried to strangle me to death, all the while molesting me. I was pulled outside and was about to be thrown into a trench when a kar sevak, whom I had interviewed earlier, recognized me and intervened. When I spoke up against this incident publicly, a whole section of society tried to make the shame mine. They tried to say I was doing it for publicity and that I was a liar. They asked me if I had scratch marks in my body. They asked me all sorts of questions: did I believe in god, did I smoke cigarettes, did I have male friends. So, first they tried to make me hide it, then they tried to trivialize me, blame me, and when, nothing would make me stop, they tried to marginalize me.

This experience had a deep impact in your life and work, resulting in your Emmy award-winning documentary film, The Selling of Innocents, in 1996. 

It was painful to have that credibility challenged, my character questioned. But in the end it made me stronger. Later, when I went inside the red light districts, I could empathize with the girls I interviewed because they were also made to believe that the shame and guilt were theirs. My truth connected with theirs and they agreed to be in the documentary and spoke about things that were not exposed before in any other documentary. The film brought me the Emmy award for investigative journalism (in 1997), but my bigger joy is in the fact that it had a huge impact in the anti-trafficking movement across the world. The documentary was shown in the U.S. Senate. Later, U.S. Senator Sam Brownback wrote to me saying that the film and my testimony at the Senate led to the passage of the first U.S. law against trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

How did Apne Aap happen? What does it do?

I began to build friends and allies wherever my film was screened. Through them I was able to create a coalition which became part of a worldwide movement against trafficking. The movement has had an impact in about 110 countries which then changed their laws to address trafficking based on the UN Protocol. In the meantime, the 22 girls and women who I interviewed in the film told me that they wanted to change their lives. It was with them that in 2002 I started Apne Aap (meaning “on one’s own”) from a red light district in Mumbai. We hired a teacher and started a community classroom where the women would drop their children. Then we moved the children into boarding schools, which were removed from the brothels (so that children could study in a free, healthy atmosphere). The women then organized themselves to fight for their rights, such as getting government documents (voter cards, ration cards, caste certificates, below poverty line cards) which are very important to avail of any government scheme and subsidies. Slowly the dependency on brothels came down. But that riled the pimps and brothel managers. It was then that we trained the women on rights and the process of seeking police help.

Based on the success of Mumbai, from where we have eased out, we now have centers in Delhi, Kolkata and Forbesganj (Gupta’s hometown) in Bihar state, touching the lives of 21,000 girls. We work to empower women in prostitution by making them aware of their rights, imparting them with vocational and income generating skills, getting their children educated and connecting them to media and political representatives to give them a voice and social visibility. Women are organized in groups that gives them a collective bargaining power.  Of the 21,072 girls we have been able rehabilitate, 20 per cent were victims of trafficking. We were able to help 13,000 women get government IDs and subsidies.

How do you think the observation of World Day against Trafficking in Persons will take the campaign against modern-day slavery forward?

The World Day against trafficking marks the success of the anti-trafficking movement in a way to show that we have recognized it as a problem, we have changed laws in countries, and we have a UN Protocol against trafficking, which was passed in 2002. Going forward I feel, it may even mark the end of trafficking in the world, where we say, “Oh, trafficking is history. It used to happen in such and such century or in such and such decade,” just like we say about slavery.

Anuradha Sharma is an independent journalist based in Kolkata. She writes on politics and culture in South Asia. She was a journalist fellow at Reuters Institute for Study of Journalism, Univeristy of Oxford, 2013. She tweets @NuraSharma