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Ruchira Gupta delivers a keynote address at NGO CSW Forum Consultation Day

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To introduce Ruchira Gupta, the winner of NGO CSW New York's Women of Distinction Award. Ruchira Gupta is a sex-trafficking abolitionist, journalist, academic, and human rights activist from India. She first became aware of the problems of sex-trafficking when she was working as a journalist. In her words, "I was traveling in the hills in Nepal and noticed a village where there were no women or girls. I thought, how can this be? And when I asked what had happened I was told, 'Don't you know? All of them have been sold in the brothels of Mumbai.' I couldn't believe that modern day slavery was going on in my lifetime. This was the subject my Emmy-winning documentary, "The Selling of Innocents," and ultimately what motivated me to start my NGO Apne Aap." "The Selling of Innocents," was shown in the US Senate when Ms. Gupta testified for the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000. And it is said this is what led to its passage. She also lobbied with other activists at the UN for the protocol to prevent, suppress, and punish trafficking in persons the first UN instrument to address sex-trafficking. In addition, she worked with many governments to develop laws against sex-trafficking Apne Aap Women Worldwide is a grassroots organization working to end sex-trafficking by increasing choices for high risk girls and women. And to highlight the link between trafficking and prostitution laws. It also lobbies policy makers to shift blame from victims of trafficking to perpetrators. And was successful in changing the Indian penal code in 2013, to criminalize sex-trafficking. Apne Aap has also given voice to the voiceless by organizing victims and survivors from denotified tribes, who are trapped in intergenerational prostitution, into self-empowerment groups to access education, safe housing, legal protection, and job training. It also publishes "Red Light Dispatch," a newspaper written by, and for, victims and survivors of prostitution. In 2007, Ruchira Gupta received the abolitionist award from the house of Lords in the UK, and in 2009 the Clinton Global Award for Commitment to Leadership in Civil Society Since 2012, Ruchira Gupta has taught movement building around sex-trafficking at NYU's center for global affairs. May I present Ruchira Gupta. Namaste. I'm really pleased to be here to represent the voices of victims and survivors of prostitution, from my own NGO, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, in India, and also voices of fellow sisters across the world. According to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, there are more than 27 million enslaved, as I speak right now, for child labor, for domestic servitude and primarily in prostitution. Most of them are women and girls. My own journey to address this issue began as a journalist. I was walking through the villages of Nepal when I came across rows of villages which didn't have any girls from age 15 to 45 And I was really surprised, and I began to ask the men who were sitting drinking tea, playing cards, sitting in the sun, where the women were. And the answer was shocking, because they said, "Don't you know they are in Bombay?" And as a good journalist I began to look for the answer about how so many people could be in Bombay. These villages were at least 2 hours away from the highway and 1,400 kilometers from Bombay. And to my horror, I found that the sex trade existed in my lifetime, in my generation, in my country. There was a regular supply chain which started from the local village procurer, could get an uncle, a neighbor, a husband, a father, a brother, somebody, who gave the poor, starving farmers $50, $100 to take their daughters away Sometimes they told them that they would giver their daughters a job in the big city sometimes marriage, sometimes they would even tell them that it was prostitution but at least they would have a meal and a bed and send some money back home. These farmers were so isolated and so innocent that they would let their daughters go. Then these procurers would take these girls to the big cities of Katmandu, Biratnagar, clustered together 3 or 4 girls and then hand them over to another set of agents. These agents would take them to the borders of India and Nepal, wink wink, nod nod, and across the border they were taken. And there, on the other side of the borders were the lodge keepers, who were running small, shabby lodges with plastic sheets and corrugated cement sheets And these lodge keepers would lock up these little girls who were normally between the ages of 9 and 13 For 3 or 4 days, beat them, starve them, and tell them that they were of no value to their families and once their spirits were completely subjugated of these girls they would hand them over to another set of transporters who would take these girls on buses, on trains to the brothels of Bombay, Kolkata, Delhi. And there, there were the pimps who would negotiate the prices of these girls, depending on their beauty, and by beauty I mean age. The younger the better. The youngest I have met is a 7 year old. By beauty I mean fair skin. Fair skin was at a premium. Voluptuous. Docile, smiling. These were the qualities which were defined by the buyers of prostituted sex. And the pimps would negotiate the price of the girls based on the demand by the buyers. And behind that, after the pimps- the pimps would hand over these little girls to the brothel keepers and the brothel managers and there these girls were locked up for the next 5 years. Raped repeatedly by 8 or 10 customers every night, who would pay sometimes $10 and sometimes 30 or 40 cents over the years And then over a period of time, and these girls were no longer commercially viable when they turn into their 20s, and their bodies had been used up and completely broken, and they were disease ridden we had a few children, they were dependent on drugs and alcohol to block out this experience of repeated rape they were thrown out on the sidewalk to die a very, very difficult death Because they were no longer commercially viable. And behind these brothel keepers were the landlords, the moneylenders, the financiers, and the organized criminal networks. So as a good journalist, the first thing I did was I decided to tell the story and I ended up making "The Selling of Innocents" which then went on to win an Emmy, but making the documentary was a life changing experience for me because I spent a lot of time inside the brothels of Bombay, talking to the women in prostitution whose story I wanted to tell. At one point, while making the documentary, someone pulled out a knife on me inside the brothels, and said, "I'm going to kill you because I don't want you to be telling the story." And I was saved by the 22 women in prostitution who wanted to tell the story. They surrounded me. They formed a circle around me. And they said that "we wanted to tell our story, and if you want to kill her kill us first." And the man slumped away because he knew it would be too much trouble to kill 23 women. The documentary got made, I won an Emmy, and when I won the Emmy here in New York in the Broadway Markings Hotel I felt that journalism was too limiting and I wanted to do something more. I quit and got a consultancy in the United Nations to look at how women in prostitution were combatting AIDS in southeast Asia. At the same time, I went back to the brothels of Bombay to show my documentary to the women and share my award. And they said, "But you can't walk away. We have to do something." And I said, "What can I do? I'm just a journalist and I just know how to report." And they said, "No, you can read and write, you have education, you have access to networks, you know some people with money and influence So why don't you help us?" I said, "Yes, that I can bring to the table but remember that you all saved me and rescued me, so we can rescue each other." And based on that, with those 22 women, I started Apne Aap Women Worldwide. Apne Aap in Hindi literally means "self-empowerment." At the time we started Apne Aap, the women had four dreams. The first dream was that they wanted education. They wanted a school for their children. They said, "whatever has happened to us has happened, but we want a different future for our daughters. We want to send them to school." The second dream that they had was they wanted a job in an office. And I said, "What does a job in an office mean to you all?" And they said, "Well, somewhere where we can work 9 to 5, there are fixed hours, where we have old age pension, no body shouts at us and beats us and where we can be at peace." And I though of course, yes, of course you want a job in an office. The third dream the women had was they said they wanted a room of their own. And I was an English literature student and this was really strange to me. That I was hearing about Virginia Woolf in the brothels of Bombay. And I said, "What does a room of your own mean?" And they said, "Well, something just this big. Where nobody will kick us, beat us, nobody can walk in when they want to, our children can play peacefully on the floor we can sleep when we like and wake up when we like." And I thought of course you want a room of your own. And the fourth dream was they said they wanted justice. And I asked them, I said, "What does justice mean to you?" And the girls, they could not understand in this hell, where women were being controlled and bodies were being controlled, there was a whole system with pimps and brothel keepers and police and clients and so much going on. And I said, "What does justice mean to you?" And they said two things. They said they wanted protection. When they were pulled out of school and sold into the brothels, there was nobody to watch out for them. There was no district superintendent of education who would come to their homes. Because they were poor, they were female, they were low caste, and they were girls. They were disposable people. And I called them the Last Girls, they were the Last Girls. So they said they wanted to be protected. Even when they ended up in the brothels of Bombay when they ran away the police would simply send them back home, saying, "This is your home. You're devalued because you have been sexually abused or used." And the other thing justice meant to them was accountability. They wanted those who had brokered away their dreams. And they used these very words. That those who had brokered away our dreams. Those who had bought us and sold us They wanted them to be punished. And it was that got them subsidies, like low-cost food, ration, housing, and also made them citizens in the eyes of the law. So the next time they went to a police station to file a case against a trafficker, The police would have to listen to the complaint, the judge would have to listen to them the politician would have to listen to their demands and in the next 12 years, now Apne Aap is 14 years old, what slowly began to happen was that the women found a voice but also learned the importance of collective strengths and circles. Just as all of you in this room know. After the 16th December bus rape happened in New Delhi in 2012, it was the Apne Aap women who were out marching on the streets along with the students who were marching for stricter laws on all forms of sexual assault in India. It was at risk girls, it was prostituted women, it was their friends and family. And they were saying prostitution is commercial greed. And we want those who buy and sell us for prostitution to be punished and we did manage to get that into the law. The process of trafficking was criminalized for the purposes of sexual prostitution, for sexual exploitation, and prostitution in the Indian law. Now it is section 370 of the Indian Penal Code. But when we, as the NGO movement all over the world, sent a letter to UN women to lead women's issues and take up our issues with UNFPA and UNAIDS, to say that we wanted a report with which recommended the decriminalization of pimping and brothel keeping to be detracted the UN women sent back a note to us saying that they would not do so. That sex work was what was the choice of many women and they stood by it. And we wrote back to say, "Yes there could be multiple positions, but UN women should take neutrality as a stand and for the hundreds and thousands of women and girls for whom it was not a choice but an absence of choice. And the terminology sex-work actually sterilized the exploitation in their lives. Today I'm here to speak, to you, on behalf of those Last Girls who are not just poor, and female, and low caste in India but indigenous women in Canada, Romas in burqas, blacks in America, who are the first line of people preyed upon by traffickers. I call upon all of us, as a collective, feminist family who's fighting to improve the status of women every decade, every year, every day, to call on UN women to withdraw this note and to take a neutral position in which all positions and all sides are allowed to coexist. I also ask the UN women to take the lead, to implore all governments, all over the world, to increase investment in the Last Girls. So that we have more choices rather than less choices. Increase investment in education, in jobs, in livelihood trainings, in security and safety. We can only walk the last mile if we stand by the Last Girl. We cannot even skim the top of the bottom when we talk about the bottom third very often in development paradigms and development agendas what we have found is that we are stuck with getting easy numbers quickly big numbers fast, and what we find is because that we often end up skimming the top of the bottom. And we ignore the Last. But, unless we include the Last, we will never be able to bring about the paradigm change that we are looking for. Change begins at the bottom and transforms the top, so I'll again appeal to think about all those girls and women who do not want to be prostituted who do not want to be trafficked, and for all UN documents to include all the positions that women and girls reflect in this room today. Gandhi Ji was once asked by a British reporter, "Mr. Gandhi, why do you always travel third class?" And he answered, "Because there is no fourth class." So similarly, I appeal to UN women to think about how can we travel the third class when developing policies and agendas because we all are walking these paths together and we have equal passions. And we have an opportunity in CSW 59, we are 20 years after reaching I was there as a young reporter and my dreams and my heart was on fire. And it was with that hope that I started working on women's issues some progress has been made. More needs to be achieved. And I look forward to us working together. And not polarizing and not fighting But looking for something which I call the third wing. Which is to decriminalize women in prostitution. Because for many it is a survival strategy or absence of choices. But criminalize the traffickers. Not to decriminalize pimping and brothel keeping and advertisement of sexual services And penalize the johns, educate the johns, find them, give them punishment if they are repeat offenders. We cannot create a culture of masculinity in which men get away with sexual exploitation if they pay for it. In India, just recently, a documentary was released called "India's Daughters" which was on the 16th December bus rape. The documentary maker managed to get inside the prison and talk to one of the rapists. And the rapists said that their plan was to go to GB Road and enjoy themselves and GB Road is where the red-light district is in Delhi, in the brothels But suddenly they found a woman on the bus with a young man and they wanted to teach her a lesson. So the GB Road plan was dropped. One kind of crime is connected to another kind of crime. If we normalize the exploitation of some women just because they are poor or low caste or women of color we will normalize the exploitation of all. And with those words, I want all of you to shut your eyes and imagine the Last Girl. In Hindi I call her the Antyajaa. She is poor, she's female, she's a teenager, she's a 13 year old in a brothel who's raped by 8 or 10 customers every night. And how can we create laws and policies which she can access which she can understand. Remember when we create something like a child's line, she doesn't have a phone when we write laws in English she doesn't know how to access them she doesn't understand English, it's a hodgepodge of places where we create child welfare systems, get a small fee to work there. Think about her, and let us think about how, as the consultation proceeds, we can include her. Include the Last Girl. Thank you.

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Duration: 22 minutes and 19 seconds
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Language: English
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Posted by: us_apneaap on Jul 9, 2019

On International Women's Day 2015, our founder Ruchira Gupta took to the podium at NGO CSW Forum Consultation Day at the historic Apollo Theatre to deliver a keynote address.


Video recorded on 3/9/2015 at NGO CSW Forum Consultation Day. This is her full speech.

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