W Power 2024

How Ruchira Gupta has dedicated her life to helping sex-trafficking survivors

Ruchira Gupta helps women escape sex work and has made significant strides in helping curb inter-generational prositution

Published: Mar 29, 2024 11:24:40 AM IST
Updated: Apr 8, 2024 02:02:56 PM IST

How Ruchira Gupta has dedicated her life to helping sex-trafficking survivorsRuchira Gupta, Anti-trafficking activist; UN advisor, visiting professor, NYU; co-founder, Apne Aap, author. Image: Subrata Biswas for Forbes India

Where are the girls?” asked Ruchira Gupta to the men sipping tea and playing cards by the roadside in a remote Himalayan hamlet called Sindhupalchowk in Nepal. This was in 1994, when, as a young journalist, Gupta was researching a story on how villages managed their natural resources. During this time, she had come across rows of villages with missing girls. She was told they were all in Mumbai. Something seemed amiss, as Mumbai was about 2,000 kilometres away.

She decided to follow the trail of suspicion and ended up in Kamathipura, the red-light district of Mumbai. She found the little girls locked up in tiny rooms. Some were on display in cages. “I was determined to do something about it, so I made a documentary, The Selling of Innocents, for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, to expose the trafficking of young women and children from the villages of Nepal to the brothels of Mumbai,” Gupta says.

She spent a lot of time talking to the women and girls, understanding their trauma and their back stories—how they did not have a choice because they were from marginalised communities and castes, and because they were poor. During the filming, someone pulled out a knife at her throat to stop her. The women surrounded her and saved her life.

How Ruchira Gupta has dedicated her life to helping sex-trafficking survivorsIn 1997, Gupta won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for the documentary. Amid the thunderous applause and the bright lights, all she could see were the eyes of the mothers whose story she had captured in the film. “I knew in that instance that I was going to use my film not to build a career in journalism, but to make a difference,” says Gupta.

She approached then US Secretary of State for Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, and sought her help with stronger laws against traffickers. Shalala connected Gupta to the United Nations (UN), where she showed her documentary and spoke to about 180 delegates who were from different countries. Gupta played a role in the passage of the US law on trafficking and the federal law known as the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.

Gupta and 22 women founded the non-profit Apne Aap Women Worldwide to empower marginalised girls and women to resist and end sex trafficking, along with offering them access to education, health care, livelihood skills, legal protection, citizenship documents, government subsidies and friendship circles. Unfortunately, the 21 co-founders of the organisation died due to AIDS-related complications, and one died by suicide.

After the brutal Delhi gangrape in 2012, when the Verma Commission was formed to recommend amendments to the criminal law, Gupta and other members of Apne Aap marched up to Parliament, and called prostitution “commercial rape”. Gupta testified in Parliament and helped in getting the law amended.

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To date, Gupta has helped more than 20,000 women and girls escape systems of prostitution and provided education to more than 3,000 children. Owing to her sustained effort, the red-light area in Mumbai is slowly getting gentrified, and many of the kids and women there have found safe and independent housing.

In Forbesganj, Bihar, Gupta had begun work in 72 brothels. That number is reduced to two, and the other 70 have become homes, with the front rooms turning into small businesses, like tea shops, masala shops and chai shops.

Her recently released debut fictional novel I Kick and I Fly is a hopeful tale of success about a girl from Forbesganj, who manages to avoid being sold into the sex trade by learning the value of her body via kung fu.

Also read: Rajshri Deshpande: Rebel with a cause

Working with nomadic tribes of the Banjaras in Kolkata, West Bengal, the Nats in Forbesganj, Bihar, and the Perna community in Delhi, Gupta has managed to reduce intergenerational prostitution, which had been practiced for more than a century.

To sensitise the Mumbai police, Gupta, supported by the UNODC, has written two manuals for law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

She has received numerous awards, including the French Ordre National du Mérite, the Clinton Global Citizen Award, and the UN NGO CSW Woman of Distinction.

American actor, writer, and humanitarian, Ashley Judd, who serves on the advisory board of Apne Aap Worldwide says, “Ruchira Gupta is a woman of the highest values and ethics. Her soul is with the most marginalized and forgotten of society -The Last Girl - and her thought and work life is indefatigably aligned with finding and uplifting her wherever she is being exploited.”

How Ruchira Gupta has dedicated her life to helping sex-trafficking survivors

A cancer survivor, Gupta takes on advisory roles at the UN and teaching roles at New York University to concentrate on building the next generation of activists.

Gupta has been a role model for Kiran Modi, founder and managing trustee of Udayan Care. She says, “Her nurturance and joie de vivre despite so much chaos around her are evident in the way she has evolved her organisation and her beneficiaries.” She adds, “Her efforts in bringing reform to the policies of several countries, her work with the UN, etc, show the expanse of her thinking and reach.”

Gupta says that her dream is to “create a world in which no child is bought or sold”. 

(This story appears in the 22 March, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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