Achievements of Apne Aap Women Worldwide
Ruchira Gupta is the founder-president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti-sex trafficking organisation that has helped thousands of girls and women in India leave a life of forced prostitution. She has spoken at the US Senate and UN General Assembly and is also an Emmy Award-winning journalist and documentary maker. Ruchira has dedicated her life to creating a world where no child is bought or sold.
‘Any work from Ruchira Gupta is sure to further the cause of liberating women, especially, and in this novel, girls.’
I Kick and I Fly is your first YA published book. Can you tell us the journey of writing this book?
So I began writing I Kick and I Fly, during the time I founded Apne Aap Women Worldwide. A girl just like the main hero of my book, Hira, won a gold medal in karate. There is a back story to her winning the gold medal in karate. This girl, the real girl who is like my protagonist Hira, lived in a mud hut, which had no roof, there was no food at home and her mother was breaking stones on the highway. So when she went to school, that was the only source of food. She was also being bullied at school, and there were many other girls in this situation.
However, I was still trying to convince them to still go to school, stay in school even if times are hard. Even if their parents tell them to go to work, or even being sold into prostitution, because parents can not feed them, or we help them.
I felt I needed to share her story with the rest of the world. Because it was a story of hope, triumphs and courage. And it was a true story. So I thought, if this girl can do it, then everyone needs to know about her because they might find some inspiration in her.
Can you tell us about Apne Aap Women Worldwide? What inspired you to launch this organisation?
The journey began much earlier as a journalist because the subject came to me after over 20 years of working as an activist against sex trafficking. I was hiking through the hills of Nepal, when I discovered rows of villages with missing girls, and I asked the men who were drinking tea and playing cards where the girls were, and they said “Don’t you know they are in Bombay”. Now Mumbai, or Bombay, as it is known, was 1400 kilometres away. These villages were literally even two hours away from the highway, but fairly remote in the Himalayas. Of course, as a journalist had followed the trail, and ended up in the brothels of Mumbai, where little girls were knocked up in tiny rooms for years. And I was upset and angry. I was determined to do something about it. So I ended up making a documentary on the subject. I won an Emmy for outstanding investigative journalists.
So I was onstage, getting the award. People applauded the bright lights everywhere. And that is when I can clearly see, not the bright lights, but the eyes of the women in the province of Bombay, who told their stories and broke their silence, even though they were scared, because they said they wanted a different future. In that instance, I used this documentary not to build a career in journalism, but to make a difference. So I took the documentary to the United Nations, and to the US Congress, and proposed better laws, which would punish the traffickers and protect the girls. After many years, I am proud to say we have the UN protocol to end trafficking in persons and we have the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and I played a role in both of them.
I wanted to continue to help the women. So I travelled back to Mumbai, sat on a straw mat on the floor with them, and asked them what they wanted in life. Many of the women had glorious dreams. They wanted their children to attend school; they wanted an office job and a home to call their own. Lastly, they wanted punishment for the perpetrators, those who had bought them and sold them. I began my business plan for Apne Aap Women Worldwide, which I established with these 22 women. We rented a school room, hired a teacher and provided education for these women.
Apne Aap, which means self action in Hindi. We wanted to unite with women across the world who were all dealing with the same issue, as I know it was a universal problem. I have seen it all over the world. Fast forward, we have educated more than 20,000 Women and Girls helping exit systems or prostitution. Our team helped them find schools, colleges, and jobs, including putting traffickers in GE. We have helped change the law in India; we have helped change the law in other countries. Human trafficking is the second largest organised crime in the world, according to the United Nations.
Heera is the main character in I Kick and I Fly. We follow her experiences as a young girl through her culture and learning to fight for what she believes in. What do you hope young readers will take away from this story?
I had a wonderful story of hope and courage, where a young girl escaped this extreme with the help of karate kung fu. I wanted to share this with other young readers. Human trafficking is the second largest organised crime in the world, according to the United Nations. The numbers are growing and the age is coming down. The average teenage girl being sold into prostitution is just between nine and thirteen. I feel young girls need to know, so they can become supports for girls their age. Various children are going through issues, whether at school, home and we do not discuss these issues. There is never a discussion of body shaming, bullying, sexual abuse. Maybe through the story of my hero, Kiera, who learns to fight for herself, taking on international trafficking rings, maybe they will find some clues in the story.
Friendships fall apart, friendships come together. Kiera learns to fight for herself. So I thought if young readers read my book they will realise that they can come together. I hope they will find clues in my book. To do that, along with the book, we have created a discussion guide. For adults who find it difficult to talk to young people about these subjects. It has been written as a fast-paced social justice adventure. I wrote it as fiction, as I wanted young readers to connect with Hira's feelings.
Can you explain how you got into activism?
This is partially connected to me being a journalist. It also began while I was walking through the hills of Nepal, when I discovered a village with missing girls. I followed the trail and saw little girls locked up in small rooms for years. After discovering this, I felt sad and depressed and I wanted to do something about it. How can something like this exist in my lifetime? That is how I ended up first telling the story. Talking to the women who were mothers themselves and wanted to save their daughters from sex trafficking. It changed me and I wanted to become a lifelong activist after that.
Are you working on any new projects?
I am always working on new projects. It would be great to see the book become a TV series or a movie, so that I can reach more people. I would like to break this urban legend of people thinking that we cannot change the sex industry. Prostitution is not inevitable. We can challenge it. Girls who are poor can go to school and win gold medals for their achievements. I am challenging? I am changing the end and breaking the culture of silence. As I travel from city to city, a new book is created. It is set in the Arizona desert, about an Indian family. Including a book based on Iran and the Kurds who are trying to take off their headscarf and walk freely. So you know, I am just doing different things in as various ways as possible to write about girl power, writing it as a social justice adventure. And of course, I continue to do the work with my NGO, to inspect trafficking. So I still have two brothels to close down. I do hope that the UN keeps its focus on sex trafficking and does not drop the ball. So I will always stay alert and keep them alert, keep them on their toes.
What advice would you give a young activist?
I would tell them, first, to buy the book, and share the book because by reading the story, you are joining the movement against sex trafficking, and then by sharing it on your social media and letting people know about it. Again, you are increasing the growth of the movement against sex trafficking, and there are lots of resources for social media on my website. Young activists can volunteer in any local organisation where they can fundraise.
About the author
Ruchira’s debut novel, an interesting coming-of-age YA novel, I Kick and I Fly, is the inspiring tale of Heera learning to fight for what she believes in. The novel has a wide appeal beyond the Young Adult market.
More information on: ruchiragupta.com