Teresa Cantero (left) with Ruchira Gupta
A girl in Sonagachhi asked me if I ate rice. “Of course!” I looked skinny to her while she squeezed my cheek and asked how I had a soft skin. “The key is being happy, sleeping eight hours a day and using face lotion”, I answered, adding that going to college made my happiness flourish. She asked if I would sponsor her education. I have three sponsors already, I admitted. I wanted her to wish for something else. A car passed by at that moment, really close to us. We were pushed to the side of the road and she held my hand for a second. The person she called mom was behind us, smiling while cooking. I waved while leaving — she shook her head — and thought that she was not 18 years old, as she told me. She looked no older than my youngest cousin, who is 14.
After 10 days of learning from professor (Ruchira) Gupta about the “last person” — somebody who is the poorest of the poor — from a low-caste, from a marginalised community, poor and a girl, I could see in her eyes that destiny has chosen her, but she had not taken any decisions to end up in that brothel door.
Segovia is a small city in the centre of Spain, 1,100m above the sea level. The population is below 60,000. As I look through my old bedroom at my parents’ in Segovia, all I see is snow and mountains. In Calcutta, the temperature is usually 20 degrees higher and the word snow is unthinkable. Calcutta is an anonymous crazy bustling city with a high level of pollution. Five million people populate its streets. Comparing both is enlightening because their differences are as different as two cities can be.
Last October, the Masters students met in New York City for a few sessions with professor Gupta. Most of them had taken a class about human trafficking and people smuggling; all were willing to learn in the field. Once in India, the tour led to a series of sessions around the movement in sex-trafficking. Combined with the classes, visits and meetings with victims and experts made the class a great and touching experience for life. From Delhi to Calcutta, the graduates saw what they had read and studied for months.
From January 5 to 15, a group of 14 students from New York University (NYU) crossed half the world to learn about ending sex-trafficking in India. The class, Movement Building to End Sex Trafficking in India: Theory and Practice, is organised by the Masters of Science in Global Affairs of New York University and designed and taught by Ruchira Gupta, Apne Aap founder and leader. Professor Gupta taught us about definitions, theories, trends in sex trafficking, and her girls in Apne Aap in Calcutta taught us to dance, to hug even when our hearts were breaking.
India has amazed me in the Taj Mahal and its love story. India has amused me at the shelter All Bengal Women’s Union in Calcutta with all its fantastic children running and taking pictures with my camera and the great grandmothers asking me to come back. India has taught me with the words of Ravi Khant, the president of Shakti Vahini and a consultant for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. India has blessed me in Mother Teresa’s tomb and the chat with an elderly nun who called me from a balcony to give me a rosary. India has held my hand again in the Eden Gardens when we met with survivors of sex-trafficking that are part of Apne Aap empowering programmes. India has talked to us through the words of passionate experts like Anchita Ghatak from Parichiti and Dr Ratnabali Chatterjee, who engaged in vivid conversation about prostitution and forced prostitution, the terminology and pros and cons of legalising it.
India has been dirty, and poor… poorer than I expected. India is polluted and developing, but needs to take its great potential of being the biggest democracy in the world. India is everywhere, and Bollywood or chicken masala are not the only things that define India. India is the girl who died two months ago after a heinous gang rape and cannot be forgotten. India has shaken its head not a hundred, but a thousand times. She does not need our pity. She needs the law to be changed and the punishment for clients and traffickers to be stricter. She needs institutions like the International Justice Mission (IJM) and Biju Mathew, who gave us a lecture about his ‘impossible mission’ rescues that kept our faith awake.
India needs to keep moving forward to stop being the worst place in the world to be born a girl.
Being in India for three weeks has been engaging, inspiring and devastating. The books have opened their pages and professor Gupta’s words have become a reality. We have smelt India, touched India, felt India, seen India. Delhi made us cough of pollution and brought with it the first cultural shock that we encountered: the stare of people. As adopted New Yorkers, we are used to being unnoticed, untouched, untalked. In India, we have been called ‘auntie’ every day, we have been talked to on the streets at all times, we have been touched by people and reality. Now, I have got used to eating with my hands, taking off my shoes but I’m still practising how to shake my head like a proper Indian.
Teresa Cantero is a final-year master’s student on a Fulbright scholarship at New York University studying Global Affairs Masters of Science with a concentration in Human Rights and International Law