The women’s rights activists Ruchira Gupta and Gloria Steinem are keeping a diary of their travels throughout India as they meet the country’s young feminists, writers and thought leaders (previous posts are here and here). In this installation for India Ink, Ms. Gupta and Ms. Steinem visit Patna, Bihar state’s capital, and Forbesgunge, a small town on the border of India and Nepal, in Bihar.
Jan. 22, Wednesday: Not many tourists go to Bihar. It’s one of the poorest states in India, with good land for agriculture but too few other jobs and too little electricity to create them. Buddha was born here, but after national boundaries were drawn, his birthplace ended up in Nepal. This was also the home ground of Jayprakash Narayan, the great Gandhian socialist leader, but a leftist tradition is held against Bihar by a central government now into big business. Life is politics. Politics is life.
This is my fourth visit to Bihar, Ruchira’s family home. They used their income from small rice, oil and biscuit factories to help socialists, reformers, poets. You might say they were the Kennedys of Bihar.
Later as a journalist in Kolkata, Ruchira uncovered the sale of poor girls and women – or their deception by offers of false jobs — into urban brothels. There, they are kept by force or the promise of freedom if they pay off the expenses of their own kidnapping. She started Apne Aap, a grass-roots support for women and girls seeking a way out for themselves or their children born in brothels, which is now in four Indian cities.
Bihar’s poverty always made it a starting place for visionaries. Now one of its daughters is a visionary for women.
As we wait in a neglected part of the airport for a flight to Patna, the capital of Bihar, I think that Mr. Narayan would be proud – perhaps also Buddha’s wife, since she was an enlightened leader herself – to see that Ruchira is that rare activist who is at home in the poorest village and also in the halls of power.
We are told our flight won’t board for 20 minutes – then that we’re about to miss it. An officious young airline executive refuses to believe we’ve been sitting there. A young female passenger tells him she saw us and argues him to a standstill. We are allowed to board. These forces coexist in India: people too hungry for authority, and people who defy it.
For instance, I was in Bangalore when a Supreme Court decision on water rights came down. Farmers who disagreed with it brought their flocks of sheep into the city, a global call center, and stopped traffic with banners that proclaimed, “Our Politicians Are Sheep! ”I thought: No wonder I love this country.
Central Patna looks like the poorest part of other cities. We drop our bags at the best hotel – which has reached the level of a modest motel – and are picked up by young people from Apne Aap.
They drive Ruchira and me to a borrowed room in a community center where a dozen or so people from local caste communities formerly labeled by the British Colonial powers as criminal tribes are meeting. They are mostly young men, because even fewer young women from these communities are literate. They are being led through projections of India’s laws and United Nations’ resolutions against sex trafficking, child prostitution, child marriage and other realities of their daily lives.
This is important because these members of the so-called criminal tribes of Bihar are meeting together for the first time in Patna to talk about the hereditary prostitution that affects them all. Not only was their once migratory life outlawed by the British, but they were labeled as criminal for resisting both daily wage work and to settling down as cheap labor in British-owned factories and farms. They were forced into petty crime and prostitution as ways to survive.
Kalam, a young man I met on an earlier visit, is addressing the group. Because his sister helped him get an education that she could not, he helped the first few girls of his tribe out of hereditary prostitution and into an Apne Aap school. He had been arrested by local police on the false and ironic charge that he himself was a sex trafficker. They held him in a crowded jail where he was sexually assaulted.
I remember that Ruchira was staying with me in New York then, and I listened to her many phone calls to government higher-ups that eventually got him out. It isn’t easy to stop prostitution, especially when police and many others assume the invasion of vagina, mouth and anus by strangers is inevitable – even desirable. One police officer said to Ruchira, “Otherwise, daughters of respectable families would be in danger.”
Fatima, a slender, intense young woman, also tells her experience. She believed her prostitution was her obligation to her family. Now she has become literate, a charismatic speaker and a leader, and has led her younger sister into the Apne Aap school, too.
Laws on paper help, but flesh-and-blood examples help more. Fatima introduces me to a new woman activist, Manju, from another tribal settlement near Patna, whom she has inspired to stand up to traffickers by sending their daughters to residential schools and thus preventing their prostitution.This is Manju’s first organizing meeting with other members of such tribal groups.
We all take photos together. I hug Fatima and shake hands with the young men and women as we leave.
Later, Ruchira tells me that Fatima explained this was important. Unknown to me, it was the first time a foreign or upper-caste person had touched them with respect.
Jan. 23,Thursday: In a big room at Patna Women’s College, 50 or so young women sit in neat rows. A speakers’ table is set with tea, biscuits and flowers for me, Ruchira, the president of the college and Parveen Amanullah, who was at that time Bihar’s minister of women and children. The president explains that these are political science majors who take women’s history as an optional course, since there’s not yet a major.
The minister’s speech makes clear that she’s doing everything she can, from working against child marriage and sex trafficking to domestic violence, yet the unspoken limits are funding, police corruption, apathetic bureaucrats and slow courts. For instance, sex-trafficking rings sell girls instead of cattle in the traveling farmers fairs, known as melas, and yet she has been unable to stop her own government from issuing licenses to the dance theaters in the fairs. On returning to New York, I read that Ms. Amanullah has resigned, frustrated by a corrupt police and apathetic bureaucracy.
I recognize three students from three years before when I visited Forbesgunge, Ruchira’s home and the place of the Apne Aap residential school. These children used to live in home-based brothels and are from the so-called ‘criminal’ tribes that Apne Aap is organizing to end their intergenerational prostitution.
One asked me what I would do if my father said I must be prostituted to support him. I didn’t know what to say, but answered that no one can own another human being – not family, not government; no one. And here she is, full of vivacity and ambition.
But I also learn that the 15-year-old I had spent the day with on a girl-led journey last year is back in prostitution. Her mother was dead. She had two younger siblings, and her father told her she was responsible for them all. Nothing is simple.
She looked exactly like me at that age; tall and round-faced. There is no way I can forget her.
Jan. 24, Friday: Ruchira and I have lunch with a group of idealist economists at the Asian Development Research Institute, who are mentored by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. With his usual concern for lives at the bottom, he has also adopted Bihar to start a university in Nalanda, near where Buddha gained enlightenment under a bodhi tree.
Together with Urvashi Butalia, the courageous feminist publisher, and the feminist film actor Nandita Das,we did a television paneltogether in Delhi last week, where Dr. Sen unequivocally threw his global influence against sex trafficking and the inequality that creates the sale of sex.
Jan. 26, Sunday: We are joined in Forbesgunge by activist American friends who have chosen to support Apne Aap though Donor Direct Action, a way of giving over the Internet – invented by Jessica Neuwirth, also founder of Equality Now – to almost totally cut the usual overhead of foundations.
Owners of Westglow Spa in North Carolina, Bonnie Schaefer and her partner, Jamie Schaefer, as well as Bonnie’s sister Marla Schaefer, Donna Deitch, a filmmaker, Judy Adler and Irene Kubota Neveshave all joined us to see for themselves.
The first event is hard for me to believe. We drive into an open area in town where a big, colorful tent and stage have been set up. About 1,500 people have gathered to greet us and see a stage presentation about child marriage.
Three years ago, two tribal women addressed a community group here – the first time that respectable townspeople had been addressed by tribal, low-caste former prostitutes. That seemed revolutionary enough. Now, the first seven members of Apne Aap have grown to 800, and they, plus 500 district people, are here to sing and watch and greet us outsiders. It’s definitely a festival full of picture-taking and laughing and singing.
That night, we all stay in Ruchira’s family home. It has been turned into a headquarters for Apne Aap and the products its members manufacture for sale. The whole group goes to see the Apne Aap school, now four times larger than when I saw it, to hear songs and dances and to see a self-defense demonstration by girls.
Even trying to sleep that night in a rare combination of cold weather and mosquitoes couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Tomorrow, we go to Kolkata, where Apne Aap works in Sonagachi, the biggest brothel in South Asia, plus a second brothel area by the docks. I have a feeling we’ve just begun.
Next stop: Kolkata, capital of the state of West Bengal.