Survivors of Prostitution Changed the Law in India

In October 2006, a timid young woman in a bright blue sari named Kumkum Chettry, got up before a parliament committee in India, and described being kicked, punched, abused and raped repeatedly.
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By Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap women worldwide and anti-sex-trafficking organization in India.

In October 2006, a timid young woman in a bright blue sari named Kumkum Chettry, got up before a parliament committee in India, and described being kicked, punched, abused and raped repeatedly. Kumkum was 32 at the time, and had been in brothels for 20 years.

I had brought Kumkum to parliament that day as a leader of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti-sex-trafficking organization I started with 22 women in prostitution in 2002.

I remember how Kumkum nervously twisted her sari and was too scared to look anybody in the eye as she told the committee about how the traffickers, brothel keepers and even the police had stolen her childhood. "At least four or five men used to rape me every night and used to consume my body as they wished -- they would hit me, burn cigarette butts on me, pinch me and slap me."

Then Kumkum asked for justice, calling the committee to impose the most stringent penalties possible on traffickers, pimps and johns instead of the prostituted women themselves. "I want justice. I want every brothel-owner, agent and 'customer' punished severely -- so that they pay at least something for taking away our childhood and our very lives. They can never replace what we have lost but unless they are punished severely, other girls and women will continue to be exploited. "

I started Apne Aap originally because of the courage of women like Kumkum, and of Surekha, who I met a few years earlier. In 1996, 22 women who had been sold into prostitution, came to my rescue while I was filming a documentary about trafficking in the brothels of Mumbai. The women surrounded me when a pimp held a knife to my throat. One of them, who I would later learn was called Surekha, said you have to kill us first. He slunk away and the women went on to set up Apne Aap to "get a room of our own, school for our daughters, a job in an office, punishment for those who buy and sell us, and protection from upper-caste gangs and the police."

On April 2013, India's Parliament took a step towards honoring requests from those women by making trafficking a penal offense for the first time in India's independent history with severe punishment for recruiters, transporters, agents, pimps, brothel managers and owners, landlords, financiers and clients.

It never would have happened without the courage of victims and survivors like Kumkum and Surekha, who overcame their fear and shame to speak about the exploitation in their lives and demand justice, in small meetings, large conferences, to the media, in courts and police stations, and to Members of Parliament.

Surekha took a delegation to the chief minister of Maharashtra in 2004, and eventually persuaded the authorities to train 3,000 police officers on how to investigate cases against traffickers, pimps and Johns and be more sensitive to the needs of victims when dealing with them in courts and police stations.

And it didn't stop there. I shared the story of Surekha's success with women in my own village in Forbesgunge, Bihar. The women belonged to a low caste community. For centuries Nat women had been used as prostitutes while Nat men worked as pimps. But led by Jamila Bua, a survivor of prostitution whose daughter had also been prostituted, they too decided to organize under the Apne Aap banner.

Their first demand to the local authorities was to educate their daughters. 23 girls from the community were admitted into the Kasturba Gandhi girls hostel. The fathers -- and pimps -- resisted, with violence, but the women fought back. Seven of those girls have now graduated high school.

The struggle carried on again, this time to Kolkata which has India's biggest red light area, Sonagachchi. And to Delhi, Rajasthan, Mumbai and Bihar. Survivors of trafficking and members of Apne Aap held a tribunal for the National Commission for Women and petitioned the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic, and Semi-Nomadic Tribes.

I went to the United National General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council to speak on their behalf and share their knowledge to make policies for survivors all over the world. The message was the same: "the demand of victims and survivors of trafficking is accountability. They want those responsible for trafficking to be punished and stopped. They want interventions to focus on the irresponsibility of those who buy trafficked people such as buyers of prostituted sex and those "entrepreneurs" (traffickers, procurers, pimps, brothel owners, and managers, owners of plantations and factories and money lenders) who make a profit off trading in women and girls, boys and men."

More than 70 brothels have been shut down with our efforts. And as we succeeded, the backlash became more vicious. Last year, one of Apne Aap's organizers was arrested on fabricated charges. The 14-year-old daughter of another leader was jailed overnight. But the women did not let up.

They joined hands with other student groups, anti-trafficking organizations and women's associations to collect signatures for a petition with more than 15,000 signatures to the president of India asking for trafficking to be made a criminal offence in India's law. A trafficking victim testified to the Verma commission set up after the December 16 Delhi rape, to make recommendations to end male impunity for sexual violence. Two hundred Apne Aap survivors joined a women's rally outside Parliament when the recommendations were being debated.

In addition, Apne Aap survivors from Kolkata, Delhi and Bihar sent taped testimonies to Delhi. I, and other Apne Aap members, played these to Members of Parliament, as they were debating the law. On 3 April, the President criminalized the entire process of trafficking from recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbor and receipt, with severe punishment for all involved as part of the new Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013.

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