During Women’s History Month, we celebrate the triumphs of leaders of the past. But for our latest Scholastic Reads podcast episode, I spoke with Ruchira Gupta about ensuring a brighter future for marginalized girls around the world. A journalist, author, and activist, Ruchira is the co-founder of Apne Aap, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that helps girls and women in India, Nepal, and elsewhere escape the brutal world of sex trafficking and prostitution.
Ruchira’s work with vulnerable girls and women inspired I Kick and I Fly, her new novel for young adults. The story introduces readers to 14-year-old Heera, who is growing up on the outskirts of a red-light district in India. Heera escapes being sold into the sex trade when a local activist teaches her kung fu and helps her understand the value of her body. As Gloria Steinem says, I Kick and I Fly is a book “that could save lives.”
Ruchira is also a visiting professor at New York University. Her documentary about sex trafficking in India and Nepal, The Selling of Innocents, won an Emmy Award in 1996 for outstanding investigative journalism. She holds a Doctor of Humane Letters from Smith College.
Here are highlights from our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your debut YA novel.
I Kick and I Fly is about a young girl named Heera who is only 14 years old. She’s born into a nomadic tribe in India and about to be sold into prostitution. A woman’s right advocate enrolls her in a kung fu program. Through the practice of kung fu, Heera discovers the power of her body and fights for it.
Can you describe the world that Heera is growing up in?
Heera means diamond in Hindi, and Heera is like a diamond in the dust. She’s growing up on a dirt street with mud huts on both sides. There’s no concrete infrastructure. There’s no running water or toilets. Most of the mud huts have no doors, windows, or electricity.
Many of the mud huts have a back room used for prostitution. They call the lane Girls Bazaar to themselves jokingly, because this is where girls are sold. The only shops on the street are a liquor store selling country liquor, a gambling joint, a little betel leaf store, which sells things like tobacco, and a pawn shop.
Behind the street is a big stretch of empty ground where the annual cattle fair comes. And on the other side of the street are the railway tracks.
The setting is inspired by a community in India, right?
Yes, it’s a small agricultural town on the border of India and Nepal. It’s very fertile, very green, with rice fields, wheat fields, and jute growing there, and birds and animals all around.
There are not many big markets nearby, so the farmers get together every year to exchange seeds, and sell and buy fertilizer and produce. That’s how the cattle fair began, where they would sell their cattle and produce.
Slowly, over the years, the cattle fair became a place where farmers with ready cash would come and buy girls. Many of the stalls inside the cattle fair became striptease bars. They were called orchestra parties, and girls were sold on stage with little number tags on them as they danced. Inside this tented city, which was the cattle fair, there would be little rooms with just a flap in front where girls were taken by customers who bought them.
Tell us about the NGO you helped found.
The NGO is called Apne Aap, which means self-action in Hindi. We work among nomadic tribes which are marginalized, so marginalized that prostitution is passed on from mother to daughter, and pimping from father to son.
How did it get started?
I was a journalist walking through the hills of Nepal, when I came across rows of villages with missing girls. I decided that I wanted to find out more, so I began to ask the men drinking tea and playing cards where all the girls were. And the answer changed my life. They told me that they were in Bombay. Now, Bombay was nearly 1,400 kilometers away, and these villages were in remote Himalayan hamlets. I followed the story, like a good journalist, and ended up in the brothels of Bombay. I saw little girls as young as 13 and 14 locked up in tiny rooms for years.
I went on to win an Emmy Award for my documentary, The Selling of Innocents, for outstanding investigative journalism. And when I was on stage at the Broadway Marquis Hotel, and everyone was clapping, all I could see were the eyes of the women in the brothels of Bombay who had spoken out in my documentary, because they said that they wanted to save their daughters.
And this led to I Kick and I Fly?
Yes. I loved reading books as a child. And librarians were some of the most important people in my life. My mother enrolled me as a 10-year-old in a library. The librarians would tell me, ‘Take this book, take that book,’ so I lived in the world of stories. I became a free thinker because of the stories I read and because of the family I grew up in, which encouraged ideas, but also because of the books that I read.
I wanted to be a writer, because I used to think the world is unfair, and I'd write about it. But I became a journalist instead. From journalism, I ended up making a documentary. The documentary took me to the NGO, and now this NGO has brought me to my first dream, to write a book.
Tell us about Heera’s mother in I Kick and I Fly. She’s a victim, too, and yet she fights so hard for her daughter to have a better life.
She's based on the women I met in Forbesganj [India]. I saw the mothers who were scared to come to our meetings slowly challenge the men who would say, ‘We’ll bury you alive,’ ‘We'll cut your head off,’ et cetera. And they would still walk from that mud hut to our mud hut, which is just 500 feet away, but it was really an emotional journey. They would come in spite of the heckling, the shouting. I could go back home to the safety of my garden and my walls, but the women could not. And yet they took this on. Because of our work, we went from a total of 72 brothels down to two.
When looking at the global picture of sex trafficking, and trafficking in the U.S., what do you see?
The three top organized crimes in the world are drug smuggling, arms smuggling, and human trafficking. A girl can be traded, or a boy can be traded again and again, whereas drugs can be consumed only once.
Most of the kids trafficked in the U.S. are from inside the country. They are normally poor, they are normally female, and they are normally from a marginalized race, Black, or from Native American communities, and they’re teenagers. How do we say there’s bodily autonomy compared to bodily shaming? How do we say that instead of bullying, there’s friendship and equality? How do we say that, instead of alienation, there’s community? All of these things are in my book.
You can listen to our conversation here.
Self-portrait by Ruchira Gupta