India: breaking the supply chain of human beings

There are more than one million prostituted girls in India. "Only when the buyers of sex are arrested will the brothels close down; and only when the brothels are closed will we be safe,” Uma Das, speaking to Hillary Clinton in India

Ruchira Gupta
2 December 2012

When President Barak Obama recently called human trafficking “one of the great human rights causes of our time” and vowed to take steps to end it, I felt greatly re-assured that our work for the last decade and more to end sex trafficking would gain momentum.

Sex trafficking is a billion dollar industry in India that is aided and abetted by entrenched attitudes of patriarchy, gender discrimination and a lax legal system. In Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata the great cities of India, girls as young as 9 years of age, are raped by eight to ten men every night. A million girls and women are forced into living in inhuman conditions of brutal violence and repeated rapes because there is a market created by men who buy sex. The Central Bureau of Investigation says that there were 3 million prostituted females in India of which 1.2 million are girls. And the National Human Rights Commission of India says that the numbers of the trafficked are going up and the ages coming down with the average age of recruitment into prostitution of an Indian female between nine and twelve years.

Research has established that trafficking of women and children has grown in  leaps and bounds because the sex trade often takes place under the facade of a legal venture.  Massage parlours, tourism companies, ‘Friendship clubs’ and even the institution of marriage have all become instruments of sex trafficking.

I was inspired to found Apne Aap Women Worldwide in 2002 after working closely with twenty two courageous young women in prostitution in the brothels of Mumbai. I first met them in the late 1990s when I was the field producer for the Emmy Award winning documentary, The Selling of Innocents .The documentary made visible the fact that prostitution was not simply poor women eking out an existence and migrant lonely men getting sex in exchange, but a whole system based on pimps, brothel owners, recruiters, transporters and money-lenders running a supply chain of human beings. I leveraged the Emmy and turned it into a road show, taking it to the United Nations and the United States Senate[1] to create and change policies to end sex-trafficking.

Bihar Apne Aap self empowerment group

Though the twenty-two founding women have since passed away from hunger, suicide, and AIDS-related complications, Apne Aap’s work continues. Small self-empowerment groups of ten women meet at Apne Aap community centres across the country to access education, improve their livelihood and receive legal rights training. Today, Apne Aap’s work reaches over 15,000 women and girls and continues to strive towards making the vision of the founding twenty-two women come true.

Over the years, we have been campaigning to promote the leadership of survivors in the global fight to end trafficking by bringing groups of survivors to speak before the UN General Assembly (in 2008 and 2009) so that their voices could be heard at the highest levels of global policy. Our most significant intervention in civil society, governments and multi-lateral bodies like the United Nations has been to highlight the link between trafficking and prostitution, and to lobby with policy makers to shift the criminal culpability from the trafficked victim to the paying perpetrator.

Along with other activists, we have lobbied the United Nations regarding the development of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children that resulted in the first UN instrument to address the demand in the context of trafficking in Article 9 of the Protocol. But the laws in our own country, India, need to be changed too. (Apne Aap Women Worldwide is currently engaged in the task of engaging with our Parliament and all levels of Government both local and national towards that goal).

Hunting for effective solutions, we have begun to organize state-level conferences of survivors to gain their insights on how to make a dent in the sex industry. After multiple meetings the survivors decided to launch a campaign to amend the Indian Anti-trafficking Law to penalize buyers and traffickers. The campaign argues that if the numbers of convictions against buyers and traffickers go up, the cost of human trafficking will become untenable. Increased convictions will also restore a sense of justice to the survivors of prostitution. “If there are no customers, there will be no sex-trafficking. We want the police to arrest the customers, not us”, said Janaki, who was trafficked when she was still a girl.

Our mission is to increase choices for at-risk girls and women in order to ensure access to their rights, and to deter the purchase of sex through policy and social change. We envision a world where every woman and girl can realize her full human and social potential through two principles taught to us by the Father of our Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. These principles are Ahimsa and Antodaya. Ahimsa is non-violence and includes resisting violence to the self and to the other. Antodaya is uplift of the last woman or person. Our Antodaya is the freedom of the last prostituted girl or woman.

Our work is not entirely free of threats and dangers. While working with prostituted women in the notorious Red Light Districts of India, we have been threatened with knives - and my colleagues have suffered worse fates. Mohammad Kalam, one of our activists, has paid a high price. . Kalam hails from the Nat community which had been notified as a criminal tribe by our colonial rulers. The Nat are a community of acrobats and entertainers who have traditionally been prostituting their girls and women for livelihood. The men in the community live off the earnings of their wives, daughters and sisters. Kalam’s mother and sisters were also prostituted. However, Kalam’s sister decided to educate Kalam so that he would raise the banner of change from within the community. Kalam is perhaps the only boy in his village and community who has graduated from a college. He joined Apne Aap and has been responsible for getting several pimps and traffickers put behind bars. He also rescued two dozen minor girls from being sold into prostitution.

However, all this was obviously not acceptable to the deeply entrenched vested interests in the business of prostitution. This summer, Kalam was falsely charged with trafficking by a corrupt police officer and put in jail. Hundreds of prostituted women and activists wrote in to the police to free Kalam and change the law. After much media pressure we have managed to get him out on bail, but the cases against him have not yet been withdrawn.

So we realise we have to bring about both systemic and attitudinal changes in our society. We have to make the traffickers and pimps accountable under criminal law and at the same time we have to make men stop buying sex. We are running a campaign called Cool Men Don’t Buy Sex with the help of Indian college students to influence men against buying sex, and for policy makers to change the law. This campaign has more than ten thousand members enrolled.

So why has the law not changed? In running this campaign, Apne Aap Women Worldwide has come up against some entrenched interests. Those of the sex industry certainly, but also of policy makers and International Foundation officials who believe that, ‘men will be men,’ and all that the sex industry does is provide a much-needed service to these men.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are among the big Foundations that accept the inevitability of prostitution and regrettably put more emphasis on protecting male buyers from disease rather than protecting girls and women from male buyers. They assigned more than $ 320 million for the purchase and distribution of condoms to what they defined as “high-risk groups.

Some HIV/AIDS projects began to hire pimps and brothel managers as "peer educators" to gain easy access to the brothels for distributing condoms. Ignoring our advice, they turned a blind eye to the little girls and adult women kept in a system of bondage and control, who cannot say no to unwanted sex let alone unprotected sex. In fact a representative of the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), once told me: "If the brothels didn't exist, where will we distribute the condoms?"

With pimps drawing salaries and condom manufacturers making profits, there is little incentive to dismantle the sex industry. This establishment, that is, the condom manufacturers and the organisation involving pimps in distributing condoms have been actively lobbying with Members of Parliament, the Health Ministry and NACO against amending the law so that it will punish buyers and pimps.

In May this year while on a visit to India, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put on our Cool Men Don’t Buy Sex wrist band and joined our campaign at the request of 19-year-old Uma Das, a member of Apne Aap from the red-light area of Kolkata. “Only when the buyers of sex are arrested will the brothels close down; and only when the brothels are closed will we be safe,” declared Uma to Secretary Clinton.

We wish to realise Uma’s dream.

Ruchira Gupta will be speaking at the Trust Women conference in London December 4th-5th.  Read other articles on openDemocracy 50.50 exploring the key themes of the conference






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