This video was made possible by a mixed media project funded by the French Embassy Cultural Fund.
A grassroots movement to end sex trafficking
By: Anne Ch. Ostby
Sometimes, life shows you a stop on the journey, and forces you to get off the bus. Makes you stay there and see what’s going on. It forces you to get your priorities in order; compels you to take stock of how you spend your time and your life’s energy.
Meeting the Nat women in Forbesganj, Bihar, was my stop. The first time I met Meena, Fatima and the others, I was unaware that this would be the first step of a long trek that would eventually lead to me writing a novel. Intrigued and impressed by the work of Ruchira Gupta and Apne Aap, I had accepted an invitation to visit their centers. Ruchira’s ambitious challenge for my visit became, ”You can write a book about it!” This at first seemed too daunting, but a book was what eventually developed. A chance meeting in Tehran in 2007 led to the researching, writing, and publishing of Town of Love, a fictional account of human trafficking and inter-generational prostitution based on countless narratives shared with me by the women in Prem Nagar, Kolkata, and the Apne Aap staff working with them.
We have all heard the stories of trafficking. We have seen the documentaries, read the news articles. So why did Forbesganj become such a sudden stop on my journey? A stop that changed me as a writer and a human being? Because, in Prem Nagar it was the heart of the mother that spoke to me. Having three daughters of my own, it was the anguish of the fellow mothers that I encountered that brought the tales of the women on to the pages. When I asked any one of them about their dreams for their daughters, the answers were almost always the same: ”I want a different life for her.” I realized in those moments that I could not just listen to their stories and then get up, thank them politely, and walk away. I realized their stories needed to be shared; again and again, in different formats and different forums, until the cruelty and indignity of human trafficking is exposed, talked about and condemned by all.
So I kept coming back. I kept asking questions, kept nagging the incredibly patient, incredibly resourceful Apne Aap staff for help with details on everything from food and crops to the meaning of names. I kept listening to the women. And though the stories of Tamanna, Amina, Rupa, and Fauzia may not exist exactly as you read them, the essence of them is painfully, brutally true.
Their stories have traveled a long way now. From its first publication in Norway in 2012, the book has reached audiences in Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK, Slovakia, and India (English version: Prem Nagar, Supernova Publishers). It has been presented at literary festivals and events in Norway, Australia and Fiji, and the Prem Nagar women’s stories will soon challenge audiences at the Ubud Writers Festival in Indonesia.
I am both sad and proud to be presenting these stories. Sad that they exist and demand to be told, but proud and grateful that the incredible and courageous women who I met trusted me to tell their stories. And I will keep telling them for as long as it takes.
Buy Anne’s book “Town of Love” on Amazon today.
This is the diary of Shweta Khattar- Jr. Program Officer at the Delhi Field Office in Dharampura. Last week Shweta partook in the rescue of a 15-year-old girl who had been forced into prostitution by her abusive husband. This is Shweta’s telling of the events.
“Prem Nagar Centre is around 8 kms away from Apne Aap’s Delhi field office. The center is within the village community of Perna, which practices intergenerational prostitution wherein young girls are married off early at a bride price, which the groom’s family pays to the bride’s family. Once the girl has her first child, then her own family members push her into prostitution. Through this method, the girl is exploited and the family recovers the money.
In April 2014, a teacher at the Prem Nagar Centre was approached by one of the girls, *Rachel, who complained of being sent to her in-laws forcefully. After being beaten by her brother, she complained again and explained her painful story:
When *Rachel was 12 years old she was married off by her parents, and her mother-in-law forced her to serve the clients at the family’s home-based brothel. One day, *Rachel hid in a train’s bathroom and ran away. She reached her former home in Prem Nagar hoping that she would be safe. To her shock, her brother beat her black and blue; her mother scolded and threatened her; and her family forced her to serve clients. Her mother warned her that regardless of where she stayed, this is what she would have to do.
Her fate was being decided by ruthless people who had put a price on her body. This is when she approached one of the teachers at Apne Aap’s center.
The teacher brought the picture to Apne’s field coordinator and me. On 10th April (the day of elections in Delhi), *Rachel started calling the teacher, pleading for help because she was being forcefully sent back to her in-laws. Apne’s Aap’s community mobiliser and the teacher engaged with *Rachel, rushing to talk to her at the center. Finally, a complaint was written down on Rachel’s behalf, which she signed.
The Apne Aap staff took up *Rachel’s case relentlessly. However, beyond the staff’s best efforts, *Rachel was sent back to Patauda to live with her husband and in-laws.
But we didn’t give up.
On 25th April, we scheduled a meeting with BBA, a prominent India NGO that fights child trafficking, to understand the legality of *Rachel’s case and seek their support. On May 5th, a team of 8 people left Delhi to rescue *Rachel.
A police force was arranged for us, and the protection officer was called right away. We left for the rescue at 2:30p.m. A convoy of 4 cars arrived at 3p.m. and *Rachel was identified and rescued. Her husband was taken into custody.
*Rachel was shining her brightest smile looking at us. She was brutally beaten an hour earlier by her husband, but at that moment, she was filled with joy to see us. She knew she had been saved and went in to put her dupatta on, ready to leave behind the shackles of her brutal family members.
It was 3:10 p.m. – everything had changed in a split second.
Since her rescue, *Rachel has been placed into a safe children’s home, and Apne Aap is filing charges against all of the accused in the case.
On the day of *Rachel’s rescue she told our Apne Aap staff: “I knew my didi would come and save me, I had complete faith and you did”.
*name has been changed.
by B.J. Epstein
Town of Love by Anne Ostby tells a story that arguably has not previously been discussed quite so openly, beautifully, and sorrowfully in literature before. It is a depressing read, yes, but it also has a welcome aura of hope, and belief in the human spirit. Human trafficking and prostitution are issues that must get more attention; while this novel is set in India, this is not just an Indian tale. Early on, the narrator notes; ‘Principles were a luxury that no one in Prem Nagar could afford.’ Again, this could apply to many other locales around the world. Continue Reading…
Jillian Dunham: You made a pretty major mid-career change, from being a BBC journalist and a documentary filmmaker to an activist who created Apne Aap. Was there something in that point in your life that pushed you to make that change?
Ruchira Gupta: Anger and outrage. As a journalist, I had covered war and famine and hunger and conflict, but when I spent time inside the brothels of Bombay and spoke to the women and saw what I saw, I’d never seen that kind of deliberate exploitation of one human being of another.
What angered me further was the attitude of friends, politicians, police officers, that if these women were not prostituted, women from good families would be raped, that ‘men would be men.’ War, hunger, and ethnic conflict were considered evil, but the daily commercial rape happening in brothels was normalized, justified and even romanticized. I thought, I can do only so much as a journalist. I wanted to do more. Continue reading…
Indian politicians are courting women in this year’s national elections, but one group of women still feels ignored: sex workers.
Decades of being snubbed and harassed by the police, the government and the general populace have convinced many sex workers there is no place for them in the political process.
“Most sex workers feel, ‘what is the point of voting if none of the parties have anything in their manifestos for us?’” said Seema Sayyed, manager of Aastha Parivaar, a Mumbai-based federation of sex workers.
The Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi has called for the empowerment of India’s women and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi has promised “security to every mother and daughter.” But sex workers feel the promises are not directed at them. Continue Reading.
CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Founder of TrustLaw and Trust Women, Monique Villa, was welcomed by Apne Aap staff on April 8. Girls, aging from 10 to 16, from the Dharampura centre in Delhi, joined the discussion in order to communicate some of their concerns as part of the Perna community, a denotified tribe.
The discussion between Villa, her colleague Serena Grant (co-head of Legal for Thomson Reuters) and the girls was largely concerned with issues of identification. Villa and Grant expressed surprise upon finding out that these girls, as well as their parents, make up a fringe group of society that has neither a political voice nor legitimisation from the state. None of the women and girls hold caste certificates, which would grant them subsidisations and access to many governmental programs, as well as schooling. One of the girls, no more than 15 years old, already understood the stigmas her tribe held in society, claiming that government officials avoided their area at all costs. The point was made: this community is criminalised by others and suffers from resultant marginalization and discrimination.
Sadly this community is not small, in Delhi alone it makes up approximately 50,000 people. There are at least 198 of these tribes spread across the country. With these approximate statistics in mind, Grant agreed to work with lawyers she knew in India, who could work on this systemic issue. For a group of people in the 21st century to be ostracised from their society because of a cultural heritage imposed on them by the British and blocked from developing as a community with very few formal job opportunities, is a problem stemming from a severe lack of political will.
For any progression to occur within the dynamics of these communities, the state needs to understand the demographic of this population in society. Only then can they understand the kind of programs needed to help sustain these people. What we need, what is important right now, are lawyers, government officials and researchers willing to take on the task of providing an identity these individuals can relate to in society.
During the Move to End Violence journey in India, Ruchira Gupta, founder and director of Apne Aap, a grassroots organization working to end sex trafficking, shared her perspective on our movement to end violence. Ruchira’s focus on the “last girl” deeply informed and radically transformed our work at the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence and my own vision of leadership. I invited Ruchira to come to Idaho to share her vision of the last girl and of the movement with our staff, Idaho’s tribal and community domestic and sexual violence programs, and the larger community.
On Ruchira’s first day in Idaho, we created spaciousness and rest, driving through the mountains alongside a creek to a hot springs an hour north of Boise. Soaking under the open skies and snow draped mountains, Ruchira shared stories about her recent month long tour with Gloria Steinem.
We spent the next day with the staff of the Idaho Coalition, sharing a meal and talking about current feminist thought, readings that have inspired our respective work, and Ruchira’s perspective on the last girl. We talked about the challenges and the opportunities of federal funding, and the importance of movement building. Ruchira asked each staff what our purpose was or why we did the work, creating a powerful moment of reflection.
On the following day, the executive directors of Idaho’s tribal and community domestic and sexual violence programs came together to engage in conversation with Ruchira on reaching and standing by the last girl. From the Coeur d’Alene reservation to the agricultural community of Weiser to the conservative Mormon community in southeastern Idaho, the leaders of community and tribal programs shared their personal experiences of the last girl. Ruchira asked everyone to close their eyes and imagine the last girl in their community. Homeless teenagers in the northern forests of Idaho to a young woman raped and found in a ditch to an immigrant woman economically tied to an abusive partner, everyone could clearly envision the last woman or girl in their community.
The Apne Aap approach of a building a community of ten women, then building self-empowerment through ten assets from the articulation of their problem to speaking out, resonated with many in the circle. This concept also resonated with the sixty community members who joined the program directors the following the day for a luncheon in celebration of International Women’s Day.
That evening, Ruchira was our featured speaker at a public event for International Women’s Day. Over 600 people, over half of whom were students from Boise State University attended the event at the restored Egyptian Theatre in downtown Boise. She spoke on her personal journey and the values that guide her work. After Ruchira’s presentation, the question and answer session sparked a powerful community conversation on movement building, power and privilege, the impact of violence on girls and women, the vital role of men as allies, and the links between pornography and violence.
The Idaho Coalition raised over $5,000 for Apne Aap, but more importantly raised the consciousness of movement builders in Idaho. In recognition for Ruchira’s contributions to the movement to end sex trafficking, the Idaho Coalition and the Idaho Human Rights Education Center presented Ruchira with a paver with her name and contribution to humanity that will be placed at the Anne Frank Memorial, an educational park dedicated to human rights and one of the only places in the world where the full Universal Declaration of Human Rights is on public display. Along a curved wall of stone, quotes from human rights leaders are embedded in the wall. When we visited the memorial, Ruchira was excited to find a quote, one that speaks directly to her work and to ours: Make injustice visible. Mahatma Gandhi.
The victim had been testifying for hours, and through the whirlwind of anecdotes, digressions and tears, Ada County Sheriff’s Office Detective Ryan Pacheco had pieced together enough information to start verifying her story about being forced into prostitution. Her body advertised and sold to johns over the web and via word of mouth, she had escaped an organized sex ring to find safety and tell her tale–but a few traces of the life she was trying to flee remained, giving police hints they could follow back to their source. Continue Reading.
When we give to international aid organizations such as the Red Cross or UNICEF, we don’t generally get to see that aid in action.
A generous Blowing Rock couple got to see their donations at work in January and traveled halfway around the globe to do so.
Jamie and Bonnie Schaefer, owners of Westglow Resort and Spa, traveled with legendary women’s rights advocate Gloria Steinem and a group of five others through Calcutta, India, from Jan. 24 through Feb. 7. Continue Reading.