STANFORD, Calif. — Girls as young as five are being sold into the multi-billion dollar sex trafficking industry, said Ruchira Gupta, founder and president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, at a talk here May 24.

“The numbers of trafficked girls are going up, while their ages are coming down. This is the most urgent human rights crisis of our time,” stated Gupta, noting the youngest girl she had met in the course of her work in Mumbai brothels was seven years old, and had not yet begun to menstruate.

“Sex trafficking is a demand-driven industry,” said Gupta.

The U.S. State Department noted in its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report for 2016 that millions of women and children are victims of sex trafficking in India. Traffickers increasingly use websites, mobile applications, and online money transfers to facilitate prostitution, and children continue to be subjected to sex trafficking in religious pilgrimage centers and tourist destinations, noted the State Department.

Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code prohibits trafficking of any sort, penalizing the persecutor with a sentence ranging from seven years to life in prison. However, noted the State Department, Section 370 does not define the prostitution of children under the age of 18 as human trafficking. Several other statutes, however, do criminalize the prostitution of children. In an earlier report, the State Department recommended shifting penalties from the prostitutes to their pimps and brothel owners, a recommendation Gupta supports.

The community activist spoke at Stanford University’s Cecil Green Library, in the Bender Room, which will soon house the papers and other archival material of Apne Aap. The archive will soon be accessible digitally, David Cohen, director of the Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice, told India-West.

The Handa Center is spearheading the archive project. “We want people all over the world to access and learn from this material,” said Cohen, noting that the archive can be accessed via a smart-phone, tablet or computer.

Girls as young as three and five are being sold over the Internet, said Gupta, a former journalist who won an Emmy award in 1996 for her documentary, “The Selling of Innocents.” Gupta received the Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2009. In January, the women’s rights activist was awarded France’s highest civilian distinction, Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite.

“Customers want girls on who they can inflict violence along with the rape,” said Gupta, detailing the atrocities inflicted on young girls in brothels, who are bought by their ‘johns’ for as little as 40 cents per encounter.

Responding to a question from India-West, Gupta said she has spoken to men about their preferences for young girls. The men have told her that they like girls who look childlike, innocent and fresh. Men also like to sleep with virgins to avoid sexually-transmitted diseases; many believe they can cure themselves of an STD by sleeping with a virgin, she said.

Others said they come to brothels to practice having sex before their marriage, noted Gupta.

The availability of pornography has played a huge role in promoting children as objects of pleasure for men, said Gupta, noting that the typical narrative of such films involves pain and violence for the woman. Pornography also promotes a “no means yes,” mindset, she said, noting that a teenaged boy’s first experience with sex might likely be watching pornography.

Gupta came upon her life’s work accidentally while walking through the hills of Nepal in the early 1990s. She discovered entire villages without girls or young women, and began asking questions. She was told the girls had been sent to Mumbai.

She learned that local village procurers tell poor farmers that they could get jobs for their daughters, who would send money back home. The farmers hand over their daughters for as little as $50. “Some know they were selling their daughters into brothels, but think it might be a better life for them,” said Gupta.

Once sold, the girls are taken across the border – border guards are often complicit in the scheme – and handed over to lodge-keepers who beat and starve them until their will is completely subjugated, said Gupta. They are then taken to auctions throughout India and sold to pimps. Girls are valued for their fairness, plumpness, docility, and exotic looks.

In the brothels, the girls are repeatedly raped by eight to 10 men a day, and are often subjected to multiple abortions, said Gupta. The first daughter borne by the young sex worker is often kept as hostage by the brothel madam as a means to keep the girl working.

Girls cannot negotiate for protected sex, and many suffer from STDs, tuberculosis, jaundice, and other illnesses.

Gupta founded Apne Aap with 23 former sex workers who protected her – when she was trying to film in a Mumbai brothel – from a man who held a knife to her and threatened to slit her throat. The women crowded around Gupta and told the man that if he wanted to kill Gupta, he would have to kill them all as well.

The organization – which now has more than 20,000 members and has managed to put 66 traffickers in prison – aims to fulfill four goals identified by the former sex workers who founded the organization, including formal education, a dignified livelihood, safe and independent housing, and legal protection.

The organization has taken children out of red light districts and put them into formal schools or community learning centers. Apne Aap also helps girls and women train for employment, and supports entrepreneurship, a monetary savings scheme, and vocational training.

Apne Aap also helps women avail of “below poverty line” housing provided by the Indian government. The organization has also established legal aid centers to help women understand their rights, and has spoken out against sex trafficking throughout the world.

Gupta said she is aiming to bring the Apne Aap model to the U.S., where sex trafficking is widely prevalent. “The culture of sexual exploitation is becoming normal. The victim is increasingly the girl next door,” she said.

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