On stage, Ruchira Gupta looks nothing like she does in the press materials. In a publicity photo, Gupta wears a tough but convivial smile and a red scarf wound around her neck. Her arms are crossed. At the International Women's Day Celebration held at the Egyptian Theatre the evening of March 19, she leaned against the podium and wore glasses with thick black rims, the red scarf draped over her shoulders. Instead of a rugged woman of action, she came off as a wizened woman driven to action by circumstance.
Those circumstances—the subject of her talk Wednesday evening at a packed Egyptian Theatre—are harrowing: In the 1990s, Gupta was a journalist pursuing a story in the border villages of Nepal, where, she said, she saw no young girls. The locals were reluctant to answer when she asked where they'd gone, but one villager finally gave her an answer.
"All the girls are in Bombay," he told her.
Bombay is more than 1,000 miles from India's border with Nepal: The girls had been sold into sexual slavery and transported across the border—across India—then forced into prostitution. In Gupta's native India, there are an estimated 3 million sex slaves. Worldwide there may be as many as 27 million. They're predominantly poor, members of ethnic minorities, low-caste and young. The youngest prostitute Gupta saw was 7 years old.
"[Seeing the sex trade in India] changed my life and I could not walk away from the issue," she said.
Gupta abandoned a career in journalism, and for 25 years she has worked to fight sex trafficking, filming an Emmy-winning documentary, The Selling of Innocents, and serving as president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, which organizes sex workers into semi-empowered groups and providing their children with access to education. It has removed some 15,000 women from prostitution since its foundation in 2002.
"Over the years we realized that what we were doing was first aid. What we were facing was a tsunami," she said.
Her remarks were presented by the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence and the Boise State University Department of Criminal Justice and Women's Center, and Gupta told the audience that many of the forces that drive prostitution in India are the same as those that drive it in the United States and around the world, and that the problems of forced prostitution and human trafficking are both local and global because they are fueled by fundamental principles of economics.
"Prostitution is based on supply and demand," she said. "What is driving the demand is a certain kind of masculinity."
In the United States the average age at which a girl enters prostitution is 13-15. As in India, prostitutes are largely people of color, poor and young. And it's a problem that strikes closer to home than many Idahoans probably think.
"Because you have tourism you must have sex tourism, because I have never seen a situation in which you do not have both," Gupta said.