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Empowering from within will bring true societal change

Ruchira Gupta, founder of the NGO Apne Aap Women Worldwide, talks to Nidhi Gupta about the grassroots impact made by the organisation in its 11 years and the impediments that lay ahead.

NIDHI GUPTA  26th Oct 2013

A ‘Balika Vikas Kendra’ at Forbesganj, Bihar.

ou started Apne Aap Women Worldwide as an initiative to end sex trafficking in the country and elsewhere, and as a movement to empower women caught in the sex trade with an awareness of their rights. How has the movement and the organisation evolved since its birth?

A. Already in the 11 years that Apne Aap has been working, I can see a change in the organization as a whole and in the anti-trafficking movement more broadly. Apne Aap has also experienced significant growth since its inception. Since 2002, we have formed 150 self-empowerment groups in brothels, red light districts, slums, and villages. Through this work, we have developed a community-centered solution to end sex trafficking and have helped to transform the most marginalized girls and women into leaders within their communities.

This year, the anti-trafficking movement celebrated a huge victory when India's Parliament made trafficking a penal offense for the first time in India's independent history. Apne Aap had been working to define and criminalize trafficking since 2002, based on the standards in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol).

Moreover, since the Palermo Protocol was put into effect in 2003, 157 nations have signed onto the protocol and all countries are trying to improve existing laws.

Q. Can you tell us about these self-empowerment groups – how are they organised, where all they are present and what impact they've had?

A. The self-empowerment groups are made up of women who are currently in prostitution, at-risk of being prostituted, or survivors of prostitution. When the women first join Apne Aap, they learn about their Four Essential Rights: The Right to Legal Protection, the Right to Education, the Right to Sustainable and Dignified Livelihood and the Right to Safe Housing. As a member of a group of 10, with the help of Apne Aap representatives, the women work collectively to gain ten key Assets found to be vital factors in their ability to reduce gain independence. Each Asset is crucial to a woman's ability to reduce her dependency on the brothel system and increase her security or prevent her own trafficking and that of her children.

Recently, ten women formed the self-empowerment group 'Sonar Bangla', which means Prosperous Bengal, in the Khidderpore red light area of Kolkata, and were successful in starting a canteen business. Sonar Bangla first began selling food in January 2012 for an Apne Aap event. Since then, the proceeds and clientele of the business have grown and with the help of Apne Aap, the women established a bank account for their profits.

“Since 2002, Apne Aap has been advocating to define and criminalize trafficking in the Indian Law. Over the years, AAWW has made submissions to the Indian government’s Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Planning Commission of India, and the Home Ministry.”

Q. The latest NCRB report shows that the arrest rate for human trafficking in India is at an abysmal 3.7% in the past year. Why, in your experience, do you think it is so difficult for our law enforcement authorities to deal with this issue?

A. Unfortunately, Apne Aap is finding that the police are often working in collusion with the traffickers and has filed several reports with the National Human Rights Commission on this. We also have been aware of a lack of training on gender sensitivity for law enforcement officials, which we have been working on. In 2007, I published a Manual for Law-Enforcement Officers to Confront Demand for Human Trafficking with UNIFEM to help provide tools to law enforcement officials to increase the conviction rate of traffickers and curb the demand for women and girls. Apne Aap also provides training for law enforcement personnel. Moreover, Apne Aap is still pushing for victim-friendly laws, that punish the demand side of trafficking (recruiters, transporters, agents, middlemen, pimps, brothel owners, brothel managers, financiers, moneylenders, landlords, and other traders). This will also buttress law enforcement efforts to combat trafficking.

Q. It was only after the Justice Verma Committee came up with their recommendations following last December's public outrage that the issue of sex trafficking came to fore again. Why do you think it is a subject not often looked at? What amendments have you suggested to the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956? How has this process been coming along?

A. Since 2002, Apne Aap has been advocating to define and criminalize trafficking in the Indian Law. Over the years, AAWW has made submissions to the Indian government's Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Planning Commission of India, and the Home Ministry. Moreover, we have brought survivors to testify before the Standing Committee in Parliament and have held survivor conferences to define and ask for the new law.

Although we have had great success in criminalizing trafficking under Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code, there is still a long way to go in establishing victim-friendly laws. For instance, Section 8 of the Immortal Trafficking Prevention Act, which criminalizes women for being forced to stand in a public place, punishes the woman, not the trafficker.

Apne Aap is advocating for laws similar to those in Sweden and Norway, which have made the purchase of sex illegal while removing all culpability from women for selling sex. This has resulted in a drop in the demand for purchased sex.

Q. You have also 'attacked' the demand side of the sex-trade economy with your Cool Men Don't Buy Sex campaign. Can you tell us about this initiative – how is it constructed and what impact has it made?

A. The Cool Men Don't Buy Sex Campaign is a call to end demand for sex trafficking. It highlights the role that men play in fostering the sex industry. Without demand for purchased sex, traffickers, pimps, and brothel owners will be driven out of business. Apne Aap's ultimate goal is both societal and legal change. The campaign enlists both men and women to put pressure on the Indian Government for the enactment of the proposed Section 5C of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA). This amendment will shift the burden of criminalization from women and girls in prostitution to the men who buy sex and the pimps who profit from violent exploitation.

As part of this campaign, we are also trying to change social attitudes as a means to curb demand. We are working to define what it means to be a cool man—someone who is polite, intelligent, articulate, successful, and most importantly, someone who does not buy sex.

Q. The sex trade has always been a grey area in terms of defining and identifying 'choice' – both academically and in practice, it is hard for society to arrive at a conclusion about the 'rightness', so to speak, about prostitution. How do you draw the line between forced and voluntary prostitution (if such a thing exists in our society, for reasons of livelihood) in theory and practice?

A. At Apne Aap, we believe that prostitution is not a choice but instead results from an absence of choice. Given that most women in prostitution come from marginalized castes, classes, races, religions, and ethnicities, prostitution could, at best be considered a survival strategy, but in the absence of any legitimate means of earning a livelihood, I would never consider this a voluntary choice. Most women and girls are forced into prostitution by circumstances or actual physical brutality.

Q. What plans do you have for the near future?

A. By 2016, we plan to scale our model to link 500,000 women to a nation–wide support network and to empower 100,000 girls with the access to educational opportunities.

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