If prostitution is a system based on supply and demand, Ruchira Gupta appears to be taking clear aim at the “pimps and the johns” who buy sex or live off the earnings of sex workers.
Gupta, in London this week to take part in the two-day Trust Women conference, organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune, is the president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a grassroots movement that campaigns to end sex trafficking and offer women alternatives to soliciting. It’s an organisation she set up 15 years ago after exposing the involvement of girls in sex work while working as a full-time journalist. Her documentary on sex trafficking, The Selling of Innocents, won an Emmy award.
“My organisation works with survivors and victims of sex trafficking. We go into red light areas and slums, and very marginalised communities and villages where girls and women [are] likely to be trafficked,” she says.
Apne Aap, which means self-empowerment in Hindi, organises women into groups of 10 and educates them about their legal rights, offers vocational skills training, helps women access finances, and offers advice on setting up bank accounts. Just as importantly, it provides a space for women and girls to encourage each other and build up their confidence to speak to the police and in court so people who buy sex can be prosecuted. In other words, the organisation seeks to “reduce their dependency on brothels and prevents them [women] from being trafficked”. Classrooms are set up so young girls can be educated.
To date, Apne Aap has worked with 15,000 women and girls, mainly in Kolkata, Bihar, Delhi and Mumbai. The organisation is hoping to expand to other regions. “By doing this what we have really done is make a dent in the sex industry by increasing choices for women and girls, because we see prostitution as an absence of choice,” says Gupta.
“It’s a system based on supply and demand. The supply is formed by marginalised women and girls, who have very little choice, so traffickers take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Demand is based on pimps and johns, those who take advantage of the lack of choice these girls have,” she says. “On the demand side my organisation tries to get pimps into jail and tries to get people who buy sex to think differently, and about the consequences to the women and girls when they buy sex.”
The organisation is petitioning to change the laws in India related to sex work and tackle social norms that allow it to go ahead. Her team visits campuses to “tell them [male students] what happens when women are bought and sold, [when their] bodies are invaded”.
India has similar laws on prostitution to the UK. It’s illegal to have sex with a minor (a child under the age of 18) or to live off the earnings of women selling sex or soliciting in a public place. But police tend to “pick up women and girls who are soliciting rather than the men in the brothels”.
Gupta’s view that women become sex workers because they have no other choice is controversial among some women’s groups. Organisations like Vamp see sex workers not as victims who need saving, but as members of a profession offering greater freedoms than they previously experienced. In July, hundreds of sex workers met in Kolkata for the sex workers freedom festival to lobby for the decriminalisation of their profession.
Do they have a point? Gupta, who will be taking part in two sessions on trafficking and sex work at the Trust Women conference on Wednesday, believes the people at the Kolkata conference were not the young women who are controlled by brothel managers to “pimp themselves, sell their bodies and stand on the streets for long hours waiting for clients”.
“What happens to prostituted women and girls is that as they grow older … the brothel system does not require them any more and throws them out, or forces them to replace themselves with their daughters. These women are only in their 20s or early 30s. They’re disease-ridden, [have] had many abortions and they have dependency on drugs and alcohol.”
Very few sex workers become brothel managers, she says, and the few who do are “brutalised to such an extreme that they become desensitised and they think, well we have survived so we’ll do what we can, never mind what happens to the other girls and women”.
She adds: “I think women have a right to choose a lot of things, but sometimes they choose to be exploited because they have very few choices. No one chooses to be born poor, nobody chooses to be born low caste, and in India very often nobody chooses to be born a girl.”
“A combination of these three things takes away many of our choices. So, therefore, women who say they choose to be sex workers, it’s because they don’t have any other choices, it’s a survival strategy. And what Apne Aap and I are advocating for is that women are entitled to have many more choices, just like their brothers or their husbands or their fathers. So they have to have access to jobs, access to livelihoods and savings and education that men in their society do so that they can exercise equal choice.”