Back in December, I found myself sitting in a quaint backyard, surprisingly peaceful despite its location in the center of Delhi, India. This backyard belonged to Emmy award winner and Founder/Director of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, Ruchira Gupta, who granted me 20 minutes of chat time before she boarded a flight to Nepal. 20 minutes isn’t long to learn about a woman who has lobbied with Indian policy makers, testified in the US Senate, addressed the UN General Assembly (twice), won an Emmy (1997) and the Clinton Global Citizen Award (2009), founded an NGO, and been held at knife point, all to stand up for the rights of women and girls, specifically in ending sex trafficking.
I arrived in Delhi late the previous night, stopping specifically for this meeting on my way to Southern India. Ruchira paused between packing her travel bags to sit down with me. I opened my notebook and chose my first question, noting I would have to set aside my curiosity for minute details during this short interview. “Can you tell me what originally motivated you to start Apne Aap?” I inquired. Ruchira filled the next twenty minutes with facts, personal experiences, stories of horror and despair, stories of hope and triumph, and answers to each one of my written questions, without any further prompt.
On a journey to Nepal prior to 1996, Gupta, a journalist at the time, noticed villages missing women aged 15-45. She inquired and learned these women had been sold and trafficked to Bombay (now Mumbai), where they were pushed into prostitution. Gupta began working closely with 22 of these women in the brothels of Bombay to produce a film documentary, The Selling of Innocents. The involved women took comfort in one another and formed a support system that provided “the strength to resist their situation”, which later evolved into the foundation of Apne Aap.
Since 2002, Apne Aap has helped women organize self empowerment groups across India, to help other women trapped in prostitution and to prevent their daughters from falling into the sex trafficking cycle. Apne Aap provides women with access to education, legal rights training, and the opportunity to share their courage. The organization approaches both the supply and demand sides of the sex industry by lobbying with policy makers to provide relief to victims and to shift the blame to the chain of perpetrators.
My time with Gupta opened my eyes to the change one woman can instigate when her motivations are combined with the dreams and knowledge of those around her. As a journalist, Gupta was unfamiliar with the sex trafficking industry. But her willingness to ask questions and her ability to read and write allowed her to join forces with 22 women who originally thought themselves too powerless to bring about change. Together, they have helped over 15,000 women overcome their circumstances.
Ruchira Gupta represents the core idea of Lead Now – to take whatever talent you have and try to use it to make a positive impact. The concept of combining rock climbing and philanthropic fundraising is new to me, so I’m learning along the way. Each day I recognize something I could do better or differently. But moments like those I spent with Ruchira Gupta are the most valuable of all. Her words inspire me. She has opened her heart to a world where pain and fear blur out happiness and hope. She has helped women garner courage, not only in India but around the world. We might not understand what the women supported by Apne Aap experience, but we can use their example as a way to live our lives, to reach out to those in need. Even a smile can go a long way, try it.
You can help Lead Now support Apne Aap by visiting crowdrise.com/leadnowtourindia. So far we’ve raised about $2,500. Can you help us get to $10,000?
Our Lead Now India episode will be out next week! Check back to hear more from Ruchira Gupta and learn about our time climbing in Badami.
The following photos are unrelated to Apne Aap and the women Apne Aap helps. They are my photos from Southern India, of girls and women I saw on the street who waved, smiled, or invited me to peer into their door. Photos often provide a way to interact, as strangers can share a quick laugh or compliment about an image on the camera screen. These interactions are some of the best modern tools for learning.