Bill Clinton May Help This Woman Change the World

11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ruchira Gupta found it impossible to walk away from the women.

She had spent 18 months hanging around the Bombay brothels where they lived, posting up at a dingy café nearby as she tried to catch on tape the horrors she had discovered in this dirty corner of the world's economy. Ominous men had pulled knives on her. Some of her informants had disappeared. She had begun to call the café "Hotel California."

That tune might actually be the best metaphor for the world Gupta was inexorably entering. The song famously concludes with the words "You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave." And this, it turned out, was true for both for the subjects of the documentary she was making and for Gupta herself.

Many of the women she was watching day after day -- sex slaves who had been sold into Bombay's booming system of prostitution in their teens or younger -- were now so traumatized, diseased, unskilled and drug-addicted that they would die on the sidewalks after clients stopped coming and their pimps threw them out. And Gupta herself, so shocked and outraged by the inhumanity of the exploitation and the intensity of the suffering she had uncovered, would never be the same again.

"I had never seen such deliberate exploitation of one human being by another at an individual level," she told me when I asked what made her turn from a reporter for the BBC into a full-fledged anti-sex-trafficking activist. "I couldn't walk away ... I made eye contact with these women."

And now, more than 20 years after finishing the documentary Selling of Innocents, which went on to win an Emmy Award, she is finally getting the world to take notice of the harrowing system it chronicles and what can be done to stop it.

This week Ruchira Gupta will be awarded the 2009 Clinton Global Citizen Award, an honor that recognizes work of "visionary leadership in solving pressing global challenges." She will receive the award on Sept. 24 at a special event as part of the Clinton Global Initiative, the annual conference of political, business, philanthropic and academic leaders who gather to discuss and commit to solutions to the world's worst ills.

This recognition comes as a profound relief and an important vote of confidence for Gupta, who has spent long and lonely decades toiling with little support to help these women start new lives and to shed light on the injustice of their situation.

It all started when the women who had helped her make the film asked her to help them escape from prostitution. Gupta knew that enabling the strength she saw in them would be the key to their success. She told them, "I can help you if you want to change your lives yourselves."

They did, and Gupta's life also changed forever. She founded a nonprofit organization, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, which means "self-help" in Hindi. With a messianic dedication and courageous spirit, she has grown the effort from that small beginning to a program of self-empowerment, group support and skills training involving 10,072 women and girls. Apne Aap has expanded its reach to four states -- Delhi, West Bengal, Bihar and Maharashtra -- where 67 self-help groups give these women a second chance.

While Gupta has made great progress without much support, the award finally gives her the backing she has missed all this time. Winning it, she said,

[M]eans I'm not alone. It means I finally see that I have a lot of support in my struggle. It means there are real leaders in the world and not just leaders who do things for political expediency. There are people who want to reach out to the poor and who want to stand side by side with an activist.

Jennifer Buffett, whose NoVo Foundation nominated Gupta for the prize, said that meeting the tough standards of the Clinton Global Initiative "is a real stamp of approval." She believes that recognizing Gupta's efforts is the right choice.

"This is someone we really trust," Buffett said. "She's very smart, she's very organized, she's very passionate. She knows her stuff so well. ... With the Clinton award I think she'll really be empowered. I can't wait to see what happens."

What will happen, Gupta thinks, is that her perspective will gain new legitimacy, which will make a tremendous difference in her ability to pursue her ambitious goals. And they are indeed ambitious: She aims to fully dismantle the prostitution system in India.

"This is what I want to tell all the global leaders that will be sitting at the award dinner that night," she said. "If you invest in a girl or a woman, you can change a whole system. The best approach to solving this problem is to dismantle the system and invest in the girls."

Making that case is a lot easier with powerful people backing you up. "People say [the system of prostitution] is inevitable," she said. "Now with this award, people will have to realize that there are very influential leaders who think something can be done about it and are willing to support me."

The system she is trying to disassemble is designed to chew up and spit out women. Traffickers lure girls between 9 and 12 years old from rural villages in India and Nepal with promises of legitimate work in the big city. For the first five years, the girls are kept in slavery, let out of their rooms only for servicing clients, or, as Gupta chose to put it, "repeated rape every night."

Within those first years, said Gupta, a girl is "traumatized so much that she loses any link with her home, mentally and physically. She's taught to become dependent on the brothel manager. She often has a child in the first two years. She has to repay the debt of her purchase price by working." After that it is a fast and inexorable decline until, at 30 or 35, she is so "used up" that she no longer gets any customers and the pimp won't keep her anymore. She is left to beg and die on the street. "That," said Gupta, "is when she comes to organizations like ours."

I asked this remarkable woman how she keeps going year after year in the face of such atrocity. She responded that the stories of the girls and women who make it out inspire her profoundly:

A week ago, I was phoned by a woman who was married to a trafficker when she was 10 years old," she told me. "She ran away three times to her own family, who always took her back. She joined Apne Aap in Bihar. She formed a group with other women and became the treasurer. They started meeting and holding open mics and becoming leaders in their community.

"She phoned and said 'You know what? I went to the town chief and he said he would not give me cooking oil at the subsidized rate the government gives to poor people. He said it was because I was a prostitute. But I made him give me the cooking oil at the lower rate. You know, I was able to fight for myself, and I actually won!'

Gupta paused, savoring again this small but -- at least in one woman's life -- monumental victory. "That," she said, "was magic."

Stay tuned to Tonic all week for special, live coverage of the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative.

(Photos courtesy of Apne Aap and NoVo Foundation.)