On the eve of a speech Ruchira Gupta was to give on International Women’s Day in New York as the recipient of a Woman of Distinction award, she got a strange email. Gupta, who has collected numerous awards for her work against sex slavery in India — including an Emmy for her 1996 documentary, “The Selling of Innocents” — was asked in the message not to speak on prostitution “or put UN Women on the spot.”
The email came from the organization that had chosen Gupta for its highest award, the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, NY (NGO CSW/NY), which supports the work of UN Women and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, whose annual session was about to begin on March 9. The NGO Committee had itself used the word prostitution in its announcement of the award in January.
“I was surprised that the UN was trying to censor an NGO, and that they should tell me not to speak on prostitution, when my work was with victims of prostitution,” Gupta said in an email interview to PassBlue. She is the founder of Apne Aap (meaning “self empowerment” in Hindi), a multifaceted support group for women trafficked into sex slavery in Mumbai and other South Asian cities. Apne Aap now has international reach.
In her speech at New York’s iconic Apollo Theater, where UN Women’s executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa, was also on the program, Gupta ignored the request and chose to speak forcefully “to represent the voices of victims and survivors of prostitution” in her own organization and others around the world. In late 2013, UN Women, in a note on the issue of terminology, had said it would use the terms “sex work” and “sex workers” and “recognize the right of all sex workers to choose their work or leave it and to have access to other employment opportunities.”
UN Women’s decision and recommendation not to “conflate sex work, sexual exploitation and trafficking” sounds outrageous if not ludicrous to people like Gupta, who work in the squalid brothel quarters of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and other cities, to which young girls from around South Asia are lured by traffickers — or sold by poor families — into a life of miserable bondage, with no chance to make choices. In her speech on International Women’s Day on March 8, Gupta said the youngest girl trafficked into bonded labor she has met was just 7 years old.
“The pimps would hand over these little girls to the brothel keepers . . . and these girls were locked up for the next five years,” she said. “Raped repeatedly by eight or ten customers every night.” By their 20s, Gupta said, their youth is gone and bodies are broken, and they are “thrown out on the sidewalk to die a very difficult death because they were no longer commercially viable.”
In January 2014, 61 South Asian victims and survivors of prostitution as well as women’s groups representing communities marginalized by caste, class and ethnicity and antitrafficking organizations helping girls and women “trapped in bonded labour and other forms of servitude” wrote to Mlambo-Ngcuka to protest the new UN Women policy of avoiding the word prostitution.
“We do not want to be called ‘sex workers’ but prostituted women and children, as we can never accept our exploitation as ‘work,’ ” the letter signers wrote. “We think that the attempts in UN documents to call us ‘sex workers’ legitimizes violence against women, especially women of discriminated caste, poor men and women and women and men from minority groups, who are the majority of the prostituted.”
They are still awaiting an answer from UN Women, Gupta said.
Groups working with victims of sexual slavery in developing countries often see a widening gap between Western women — particularly “academic feminists,” in Gupta’s view — and the women working to help the most exploited girls at street level in some of the world’s most dangerous slums, where pimps and brothel owners may be not only slave masters but also killers. Gupta had a knife held to her neck on one occasion when she was filming her award-winning documentary. Women rushed to surround her, separating her from her would-be attacker, and saved her life.
The women working with victims and survivors of sex trafficking and bonded prostitution who signed the letter to UN Women fear that campaigns in richer nations, almost all of them in North America and northern Europe, will lead to more moves to decriminalize pimps and brothel keepers — making not only sex workers but all aspects of the sex industry legal.
This is not the only issue that has opened fissures between the richer, progressive nations or societies where women construct views of social change based on their own advanced social and legal environment or well-intentioned views of developing nations’ cultures. They do not always reflect what most poor women — the majority of women in the world — who lack power over their lives really need and want.