Zoë Young wants to talk about sex. More specifically, she wants to raise awareness about the sexual exploitation of three million women and girls in India who are forced into prostitution. The Canadian native runs the New York office of Apne Aap, the non-profit organization founded on the principle that women can empower themselves and break the vicious cycle of sex-trafficking. While human sex-trafficking happens across the world, India is a particularly complex country given its karmic beliefs and caste system, as well as the ineffective legislation that generally places the blame on the prostitute and not the brothel owner or the person paying for the transaction. Young believes that a dialogue needs to be created and with that, change can slowly come.
Tell me a little bit about the background of Apne Aap.
Apne Aap is an Indian organization that fights sex-trafficking and helps women who have been trafficked into sexual slavery in India escape, both through education and empowerment. Apne Aap actually means “self help” in Hindi, and so it’s really focused on a rights-based model rather than rescue. We’re giving women the skills and the education they need to start a new life once they get out.
How did you initially get involved?
I’ve been focused on issues of human rights and social justice as my own career path. My past work experience has been in start-ups, and I love that really manic phase where you have to do a little bit of everything and all the responsibility is on you. Apne Aap was looking for someone to start a New York office, and it just turned out to be a good fit. When I was thinking of things I could do with my life, I couldn’t come up with a more rewarding cause than ending sexual slavery.
What you do at such a young age is incredible. What are your day-to-day roles?
Every day is totally different and super crazy. Right now we’re arranging a panel discussion at the United Nations around the Commission on the Status of Women, but at the same time I’m doing the bookkeeping and I’m booking flights for people. If that weren’t enough, I’m developing a social media strategy and a way to engage North American volunteers properly. It’s all over the place. [laughs]
What makes you passionate about your work?
A paycheck isn’t enough motivation. I really need something to get me out of bed in the morning, and working for this cause is definitely something that prevents me from sleeping in.
How exactly does Apne Aap function in India?
Our model is based around the self-help group. Apne Aap helps bring people from the bottom of the pyramid together, self-organize into a group of ten to fifteen people, register with the government, and gain access to government services including literacy classes, employment schemes, and savings and micro-loan programs. We then take it a step further by providing all of the women in our programs with our 3-L model: learning, livelihood, and legal protection. We offer schooling for women in prostitution as well as for their children, and provide job and skills training. Finally, we educate women on how to demand their rights and are ready to take legal action on their behalf if need be.
What legislation is in place there?
There is not a lot in place and what exists is contradictory and poorly regulated. Prostitution is legal in India, but in reality that winds up empowering johns and traffickers and promoting trafficking. The exchange of money for sex is legal, but soliciting sex is not. If a brothel is raided, it’s the woman, the victim, who is arrested rather than the people who buy and sell her. Brothel owners rarely get prosecuted, and trafficking is such a complex issue that it’s hard to define… let alone legislate against! One of the ways we do fight sex slavery through the legal system is that you have to be 18 and over to work in prostitution – however, the average age of entry in India is between nine and twelve years old – so we are able to get the police to act against the brothels if we can prove the age of the children inside.
India still has a strong caste system. If you had a mother involved in sex-trafficking, does that mean that her children are more likely to do it?
Intergenerational prostitution is one of the big issues that we work with. There is a group in one district we work in called the Nat community, and they are in essence the prostitution caste – the families are expected to generate income by prostituting the wives and daughters. We run a hostel and school in the district, which provides a safe living environment for the girls so that they don’t need to live in home-based brothels. We monitor whether their mothers and sisters are working because it determines how at-risk they are. We’ve been having a big problem with girls being pulled out and dropping out of the school and their parents were actually the ones taking them away and putting them to work. The parents need to be educated on the value of keeping their daughters in school and how much more the girls could earn with an education.
It’s almost a fate for them, but what about somebody who doesn’t have that intergenerational connection, what makes them more vulnerable?
What makes them more vulnerable is that the women who are trafficked typically don’t come from the urban areas. They’re brought in either from Nepal or Bangladesh, as well as from rural India. They are pulled into the cities on the promise of jobs and the possibility of sending money back to their families. Until you’re 30, you usually don’t see any of the income you are making because it goes all to “paying off your purchase price.” The average life expectancy of the women that we work with is under 40 years old. By the time you’re thirty-five, you are no longer as valuable and you are likely to be thrown into the streets and die of tuberculosis, AIDS, or hunger.
How is Apne Aap different from other non-profits with the same mission?
We’re really based around self-organizing and empowering the women to escape slavery rather than just pulling them out with no ability to work for themselves or to protect themselves once they’re out. We want to give them each the skills to create a whole new life for themselves. Our goal right now is to transition our self-help groups into small business collectives.
Being a non-profit, how has the economy affected Apne Aap?
Fortunately for us, we’ve been fine through the recession. Most of it is that we’ve had a lot of international and media attention in the last year. We were featured in Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky, and the head of the organization, Ruchira Gupta won the Clinton Global Initiative Global Citizens Award. We’ve had appearances on Oprah and CNN, and one particular foundation has been incredibly supportive and generous with us is the NoVo Foundation.
You talk about the impending change that you hope for, what ultimately do you really want to accomplish with your work and with your organization?
It’s a long-term problem that is going to need a long-term solution. Our goal is to reduce the demand for commercial sexual exploitation. What we can hope is that people are so aware of the reality that we end demand. We don’t want to make all men villains. We just want everyone to know the circumstances that women who have been trafficked have been put through and to change the system. We’re really seeking to empower women and we hope to stem the supply by helping educate these women so that they won’t allow themselves to be exploited the way they are.
Lastly, how can readers contribute to your success?
Our biggest need, clearly, is donations. That said, we’re always looking for someone to help us with advocacy, with outreach, and to just start talking about it. I know it’s not dinner-table conversation. It’s certainly not pleasant, but our biggest problem in fighting it is that most people don’t know it’s happening at all. Just by talking to a friend, making a Facebook post, writing a letter to the editor, or anything just to let people know what’s happening.