|Ashton Kutcher with Apne Aap officials and children at Najafgarh on Friday
Ashton Kutcher, in India to play Steve Jobs in a film being shot on the Apple founder, spent five hours on Friday morning in the bylanes on the outskirts of Delhi, standing by victims of sex trafficking. Ruchira Gupta, founder president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, who accompanied him, describes the less-seen side of the Hollywood star. Ruchira is a Calcutta girl and a former journalist with The Telegraph
I had met Ashton for the first time in 2009 with Demi (Moore) when they wanted to set up the DNA Foundation (Demi & Ashton Foundation in Los Angeles) against trafficking. They had reached out to me and I met them in New York, where Apne Aap has a wing, to brainstorm on how to set up the foundation.
We talked about what is trafficking and what would be the best response to it. I told him that trafficking is made up of both supply and demand. Girls who do not have choices make up the supply. The demand is from pimps and brothel owners.
I told Ashton about Apne Aap’s Cool Men Don’t Buy Sex campaign. He changed that and started the Real Men Don’t Buy Girls campaign and tried to bring in Hollywood stars to advocate the cause. He felt the campaign would attract more attention if he used the word ‘girls’. The DNA Foundation still exists and Demi and he still run it together. They are concentrating on the digital platform. They have created a digital task force and are trying to do a few things with people on Google, Facebook and Twitter.
The first aim is to spread awareness and education among men so that they do not buy girls. They are also trying to get the message across to people who are surfing porn websites and also buying girls on the Internet. There are sites that pop up for just 10 minutes. People who know about them, access them within the limited timespan and buy girls before the site disappears. Ashton is tracking this through his own understanding and his digital task force. They have created software systems to maintain vigil and share their findings with law enforcement agencies in America. In the long run, we will also work together to use that same idea here.
During Ashton’s visit this time, we spoke about the demand issue and what could be done to arrest the high-profile customers who buy girls in the open. He is very keen on going after them and he is willing to collaborate, share this digital technology and see how we can take it forward and involve police.
He had phoned me four weeks before we met to find out if I was going to be in town. He said: “I would like to visit the Apne Aap facilities with you, if possible.”
Before boarding the flight to Delhi, he called me and said: “I’m on my way and I’ll phone you as soon as I reach Delhi. I will be there for three or four days and one of my main agendas is to visit Apne Aap.”
He wanted to stand by the marginalised girls very publicly. He even said that he had decided that the first tweet he would send out from India would be from Apne Aap although he was here on some other work. And that is what he did. [Ashton (@aplusk) tweeted at 12.32pm on Friday: “Met some powerful girls today in Delhi at Apne Aap: A grassroots movement to end sex trafficking!”]
I got a call from him on Thursday night. He said “Can we go to the facility tomorrow and can we leave at 6am?” I realised that he did not want to be mobbed. Unfortunately I could not get hold of a car so early and eventually picked him up from his hotel at 7.30am. He was there with his father (Larry M. Kutcher), who also accompanied us.
I took him to Najafgarh, whereApne Aap has three centres. I took him to one of them, next to Dharampura, a settlement for a caste community called Veran, which is trapped in inter-generational prostitution because they were marginalised by a British law labeling them a criminal tribe.
|Ashton Kutcher with Apne Aap officials and girls at Najafgarh
Apne Aap has a community outreach centre there, where Ashton went for a walk. He went into the homes of some of the women and girls to chat with them. At the centre, he spent a lot of time with the girls’ groups, sharing his own work with them. The girls told him about theirs.
He was dressed very simply, in a light cotton shirt and trousers. Tied around his wrist with dried flowers was one of the things one wears after visiting a temple or a mosque. He was exactly like the boy next door, only an extremely good-looking one!
One of the girls groups has formed a Bhangra troupe that performs at weddings and earns some money. The troupe performed a bit of Bhangra for him. He also danced a little for them when they asked him to.
When they told him how they feel a little scared every time they have to perform in public, he said even he feels very nervous whenever he goes on stage but overcoming that fear is what he loves most about life.
Then Ashton sat with all of them in a circle and discussed what the qualities of a good leader are. The girls said “courage”, “good manners” and “respect” while he said that for him, it was “the courage to tackle big problems and to realise that the world around us is created by people no smarter than us”. Then he asked: “So we can change it, right?”
He met girls who were working on a computer and learning how to write their resume. He was curious to know how much of Facebook and Twitter they know and use. He shared with them his email ID and told them that he was willing to chat with them online if they wanted to chat.
Ashton said that the Internet had made him a member of a global community and the girls too could be a part of the community and be friends with him.
We had told the girls that he was a Hollywood actor, so when they met him, they asked him which movies he had acted in so that they could Google and check.
Some of the girls want to be actresses, so they wanted to know more about acting from him.
The girls are learning English and were trying to communicate with him in a mixture of English and Hindi. I was playing translator.
Because he is an actor, they figured that he would be able to sing and asked him to sing them a song. He sang some lines from Don McLean’s American Pie. I translated the lyrics for the girls and I could see the empathy and connection between them.
I saw in Ashton a person of depth,intelligence and sensitivity. The things he said to the girls and the song he chose to sing were very appropriate and very inspiring. He wasvery low key, not flashy.
The other thing I noticed was when he was interacting with someone in authority, he was very polite but very firm and focussed about addressing a need. He could communicate very intelligently, which is often not seen.
Ashton met 22 girls and five women apart from 10 community outreach employees. I dropped him back to the hotel by12.30pm.
On our way back, he told us in the car how people kept emailing him and saying “support this, support that, show up for this and fund us for that” but rather than doing we only end up raising funds. “Sometimes I feel so tired, that I’d rather write a $500 cheque than go for these shows,” he said.
Ashton said he did not get to live too many such real moments and he felt very happy learning about the work that we were doing, interacting with the girls and sharing his passion.
“These are some of the bravest girls I’ve met in my life.” Those were his exact words. He said that it was a privilege for him to know them and he was very grateful to me that I helped him to.
He dwelt on how we could mobilise public opinion so that different sections of society, including law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, helped us arrest andconvict those who buy girls. He is also willing to publicise the arrest andconviction of traffickers and be a voice of advocacy for us. We are going to work on that and see how we can make that happen.
Ashton is in Udaipur right now, where he will spend a couple of days before flying back to New York. I told Ashton that I really need him to come to Calcutta next time because it has Asia’s largest red-light area, Sonagachhi. We are keeping our fingers crossed.