The damage inflicted by the callow

Having graduated from Harvard just short of ten years ago, I still feel pretty close to the University and remember the tenacity of Harvard students and their desire for social justice.  Unfortunately, despite lofty goals and thoughts of greatness, perhaps stemming from our connections to a great university, advocacy efforts can be misguided. And sometimes people come forth as champions of causes, and create a ruckus, and get attention because they are from Harvard. Yet these same people do not realize the damage they do to themselves and the causes they champion.

Today I learned of a group of women of Harvard who have incited an attack on my cousin Ruchira Gupta.  She is a reputed journalist who created a highly respected organization called Apne Aap Women Worldwide, which attempts to protect women who have been sold into prostitution and to get them and their children involved in education and hopefully help them rise against the powers that are oppressing them. The women I speak of had raised money for Apne Aap, but were sorely disenchanted when they went to visit one facility in Delhi and were concerned that their monies had been misappropriated. Thus, they wrote an op-ed piece in the Harvard Crimson, defaming my cousin’s good work and the work of countless people who have been involved with her in her advocacy for women.

Clearly, based on the content of this op-ed, they went through a very disturbing experience. Yet their response seems inflammatory and damaging. I have learned that these women have shared their op-ed piece as a news article with many members of the media and with donors to Ruchira’s cause. I have also learned that they are calling for the retraction of statements in support of Apne Aap and they really seem to be attempting to bring down the organization as a whole. I am concerned that the Crimson has not taken more responsibility in the damage that this article is creating and how it has affected Apne Aap as an organization, which has been recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative and is supported by me, my family, and many well respected donors and celebrities.  I am all for making sure that NGOs are accountable for their activities, but when a small group of people singlehandedly decides to take one down, they must realize that their actions are damaging the cause that they purport to support. And Ruchira and her organization, as well as NoVo, a donor organization which gives money to Apne Aap, have sent the Crimson official statements in response. Yet the Crimson has not published these replies.

I doubt that these girls have any idea of what Ruchira has gone through in her lifetime. As one of her youngest cousins, I have distantly witnessed her work.  I have visited her center in Calcutta and seen the admiration from the girls and women who are there.  Ruchi is an amazing person. She has undergone tremendous personal risk to protect women against violence, and she always tries to preserve women’s rights.  And every day that I spend with her, she continues to be an advocate – her life is a busy one, juggling between donors, protecting women, supervising sites, and speaking to the UN to help construct global policies on sex trafficking.

Here is her response to the Crimson, which she sent me directly.

To the editors of the Harvard Crimson:

We are writing on behalf of the staff and members of Apne Aap Women Worldwide to express our deep concern about the baseless accusations presented in Tara Suri and Niharika Jain’s November 2 Harvard Crimson article. We are disappointed in the authors’ pre-conceptions about what a community centre in a brothel district in India should look like, and the ease with which they expect a woman to leave the sex trade. This led to their disillusionment. The disillusionment alone would have been destructive enough, but they then ask funders of social change to agree with them.
Our centres are always accessible, safe spaces within exploited communities. They range from a mud hut in Bihar, to two rooms in a municipal school in the brothel district in Mumbai, to a room over a brothel in Kolkata. Over a period of time, Apne Aap encourages the women and children to beautify the space themselves as part of our strategy of “self-help,” with our long-term goal being that the women take over and run the centre on their own. We believe that is true sustainability. The authors of the complaint have judged a very new centre by very unrealistic standards.

They also judge just one centre when we have already reached thousands of marginalized girls and women in four states of India. This strategy has enabled 2500 women to escape their pimps and brothel keepers, and form their own small groups each with their own bank account. It has enabled 814 girls and boys to enroll in mainstream government schools by going through a process of socialization in our community classrooms. This change is a very slow process, but it is long lasting and sustainable as a result.

In the new centre in Najafgarh, which is the only one they visited, our outreach is predominantly among the Perna community – a marginalized caste where 112 women are controlled by 98 pimps, and whose daughters are being groomed for prostitution. These women and children have been severely and systematically brutalized over generations, and are brought up to believe that prostitution is their destiny. The pimps in the community enjoy the protection of many local authorities who also believe that prostitution is inevitable for girls and women from this caste. In spite of that, 45 of these women have formed three self-help groups and of the 19 girls — who would otherwise not be in class at all — some do come daily and the rest come intermittently. The community is watching this slow transformation, and it is transforming what they believe to be possible.

Apne Aap’s strategy is to change entire communities by bringing about women’s empowerment. Had the two authors visited older Apne Aap sites in other states, they might have appreciated our approach. Having said that, they would have needed to build trust with the women and girls to have a conversation where they would be able to understand and empathize with the change taking place. The change is intangible immediately as the change is within.

In Bihar, it led a small group of women to demonstrate and get their entitled government subsidy for cooking oil from a corrupt dealer. In Kolkata, it helped a group of women to collectively go to the election office and get voting cards. In Bombay, it has helped women organize to form an organization which runs a soup kitchen for sisters thrown out of the brothel and living on sidewalks. If they visited any of our centres, they would never find ‘regular’ activities as in a school or shelter. The centres are managed according to the convenience of the women and girls. The centre may seem like a shell but lasting change is happening facilitated by Apne Aap. The approach is different. It is grassroots community organizing not around services but around advocacy.

Our goal is to make women independent, not dependent. This is based on Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s argument that the right to development has to include freedom to build capabilities. The social value of the work we are doing is in fact unique. The impact we achieve as a part of the community is deep and lasting.

It is a pity that as editors of a student newspaper you printed a piece without fact checking and with no quotes from the organization and people being maligned. The sole Apne Aap employee the authors cite had unfortunately been engaging in fiscal misconduct and asking every foreigner who came to visit for money. Though hired because he was both literate and one of few men in this community who had not prostituted his wife and children, he had been asked to leave long before the publishing of this article and was only given a second chance because he was a male member of the community we are trying to transform.

The authors are just flat-out inaccurate. No pressure had to be applied to meet with us or any other staff member of Apne Aap. We happily met and welcomed them to our office and to the project site, shared all documents and offered to return their unutilized money when they differed with our approach. We even asked them to name the amount that they deemed fair and wanted back in a formal letter. We are yet to receive that letter.

The authors lack the maturity or patience to understand our approach, but as editors you should have followed the tenets of good journalism. You damage not just the credibility of your newspaper but let down the possibility of developing different approaches to empowerment and development by slandering an important and brave attempt at social change among a group of people whose exploitation is considered inevitable and where most development interventions focus on reducing the harm caused to them rather than empowering them to end the structures of harm.

Ruchira Gupta, Vandana Bhatia, Sushil Jain, Rashmi Sinha, Arpana Singhal, Arti Bedi, Naina Khatun
Apne Aap Women Worldwide
New Delhi, India, 5 November 2010

The organization Novo has also written a response in support of Apne Aap.  After reading the articles and knowing what I know about Apne Aap, I seriously question the credibility of the claims of the women writing for the Crimson as well as their motives. I hope that they see the damage that they are propagating and decide to take a respectable position and print Apne Aap’s response, and hopefully to produce a more thoroughly researched article in the future.