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Success Against Slavery: Strategies for the Future & Promising Practices in International Programming

Ruchira Gupta, Founder President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide
Remarks at the Roundtable Hosted by the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives and the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Washington, DC
October 28, 2008

Good afternoon. My name is Ruchira Gupta and I bring greetings from the ten thousand trafficked women and girls who are members of Apne Aap Women Worldwide in India. It is a pleasure to be here today, and I appreciate the attention that the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the US. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons has devoted to the issue of human trafficking in the last eight years.At the outset I would like to thank Ambassador Mark P. Lagon, Laura Lederer and Eleanor Kennelly for their support. I am proud to be here in this room with so many committed activists who have turned the struggle against modern slavery into a movement. I salute all of you.

My organization, Apne Aap Women Worldwide has a membership of over ten thousand trafficked human beings. They are women and children trapped in prostitution. They are from various oppressed castes and indigenous groups such as Nats, Devadasis, Koelis, Sheikhs, Ansaris, Tamangs, Limbus and Kshettrys and live in the red-light areas and slums of India. They were kidnapped, sold, coerced, tricked or forced into situations of sexual exploitation. Some were as young as seven. They were kept in small locked rooms and raped repeatedly. Many died by the time they were thirty or thirty five.

They never had a past but now they have a future. They are rid of their terror. Apne Aap has found a woman-centred solution that transforms women in the community from victim to leader. Once slavery was perpetuated by the idea that there was and always would be slavery and now sex-slavery and prostitution are also perpetuated by the same idea of inevitability. Our intervention challenges this notion through the leadership of enslaved women who are some of the 18 million slaves still left in the world-a larger number than in the nineteenth century.

Today, I will speak on behalf of these victims and survivors of human trafficking who have found a solution and are fighting back-about the successful strategies that have impacted their lives and that they want to share with the 18 million women and children all over the world who are trapped in sex and labour slavery. We have organizing prostituted women to a)tell the truth about the harm of body invasion, b)develop economic autonomy so they cannot be forced to sell their bodies, c)address societal illness that creates prostitution by replacing domination with cooperation

The model developed by the victims and survivors of Apne Aap can be adopted by other cultures as it is localized and decentralized. It is cost effective and sustainable as it is led by women not segregated from their communities but living inside the communities. Our women leaders can be the trainers who can share experiences with other women and replicate the groups. This approach is also sustainable because it transforms the entire community rather than putting children, women and men into institutions. It has lead to red-light areas becoming non-red-light areas, brothels going out of business and women and children leading lives of dignity.

We understand that change does not happen from the top down in the lives of nations or women. We help women organize and imagine the change that they thought could not be achieved. Apne Aap Women Worldwide has been organizing these women and girls into small cooperatives known as Self Help Groups all over India. These self-help groups are linked simultaneously with livelihood, learning and legal protection by Apne Aap team members. These groups of victims and survivors are assisted in finding localized and viable economic options, provided a safe and accessible space to meet that is separate from the place of exploitation, enabled to have the courage to tell the truth through open mikes, conversations and a newspaper published by the prostituted women called Red Light Despatch and empowered by protecting themselves and their children from sexual exploitation through legal protection and learning in schools.

The options that we create for trafficked women and girls are more sustainable because the livelihood options are based in the local economies and are braced with legal protection and the small group structure that allows women to support and rescue each other .To rescue one prostituted woman is to improve her circumstances and survival, but it is also to leave her shame and feeling of helplessness within her. As with every example of profound transformation from Gandhi's experiments in living to the civil rights movement in the United States and Alcoholics Anonymous internationally, we help prostituted women to create their own small and continuing groups, and do the same for their children. These groups are the difference between being rescued from the outside, which leaves a conviction of helplessness, and transformed from within oneself through sharing, speaking and supporting strength within each other. Our groups seek not to mitigate the circumstances of sex-trafficking but to end sex-trafficking. We seek complete transformation, not simply reform.

Our intervention has a delivery model and a receiving model that makes it an equal exchange. We listen to the women and this empowers the women to speak. This discourse has enabled victims and survivors to lead their own change and forced a rethinking on who they are.

This re-thinking has had an impact on policy as well. We have been able to influence Members of Parliament to table an amendment to the Indian anti-trafficking law which will penalize buyers and profiteers that will be voted on this year. This has been because of the courage and relentless efforts of our members who are victims and survivors of sex-trafficking who say in Parliament and outside that they want a world in which it is unacceptable to buy or sell another human being and to imagine an economy in which one does not force one to sell oneself. Our work has resulted in two manuals which are being widely used by the Government of India to train Indian police and prosecutors to get higher convictions of traffickers.

We have been able to bring out the link between caste and prostitution and are currently working on recommendations to reduce the same for the National Commission for Women. We are nominated to the Steering Committee of the Planning Commission, Working Group of the Ministry of Women, National Human Rights Commission to help in policies affecting women and children.
We are trying to keep sex-trafficking profiteers from legalizing sex slavery in India even though more Foundation funds are spent on the supposed protection of sex buyers from AIDS than the protection of women and children from sex buyers. This has created a vested interest in the preservation of brothels in some parts of India for the distribution of condoms rather than protecting the women and children even though there is no evidence that increased condom distribution in brothel districts is leading to condom usage or a decrease in AIDS.

Increased numbers of women from red-light areas and slums have been approaching us to help them set up self-help groups and mentor their leadership. This is the best measure as women at the grassroots feel that our work is practical and making a change. We serve and plan to continue to serve survivors, victims and potential victims of sex-trafficking in the red-light areas and slums of India and Nepal. We also plan to reach out to those who enforce the law so that they arrest traffickers and not victims. We will be a platform for a coalition of survivors, victims and potential victims of trafficking that will give voice to women’s' and girls' groups against sex-trafficking and mentor new groups to be able to change their own lives and end their own exploitation. This platform will support all the groups, enable them to share experiences, raise their voices, and lead their own change. This platform will also help the groups find other economic options through finding localized and sustainable options in a network of self-help groups.

There are hundreds and thousands of women and girls who are still trapped and at risk to sexual exploitation and prostitution. There are trafficking prone areas in India which have missing girls from age seven onwards. They need to be protected. Our work needs to continue.

Today is Diwali-the festival that celebrates the Goddess of wealth and prosperity-Laxmi. While one goddess is being celebrated there are hundreds and thousands of young girls in our country who are in situations of captivity as bonded workers and as prostituted children. It is time for us to celebrate and protect our daughters who are each goddesses in their own right. I bring to you Diwali greetings and ask you to take a pledge in your hearts to think of ach girl at risk as a goddess to be celebrated not violated.

Thank you.

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