By Niharika S. Jain & Tara Suri
In a New Delhi village where a staggering 85 percent of women are victims of sex trafficking, the Najafgarh Community Centre is imprinted with the sign of Venus, the symbol for the female gender and for the anti-trafficking organization “Apne Aap Women Worldwide.” On its website, Apne Aap says it runs the Najafgarh Community Centre for the empowerment of women and children, a claim that it makes to donors worldwide. Unfortunately, the striking symbol and the large letters etched below it spelling out “Apne Aap” seem to be the organization’s only mark on the village.
We learned all this when we arrived in Najafgarh this summer with a bold idea to help the villagers transform their situation. After reading about Apne Aap and corresponding with its founder, Ruchira Gupta, we raised $20,000 to fund a vocational training program that would teach the women to sew and provide a sustainable job option as an alternative to prostitution. After an initial $12,000 donation, we received monthly reports from Apne Aap listing names of women and children involved in programs at the Community Centre. Yet we also received desperate e-mails from the community coordinator complaining that Apne Aap was not allocating money appropriately. But in light of the international accolades the organization had been receiving for its efforts to help female sex workers, we were loath to think our $12,000 contribution had been misused, much less that the reports Apne Aap was sending us were blatant misrepresentations. Instead, we hoped this project would allay our exasperation with the sexism and inefficiency we had witnessed on previous visits to the country of our heritage.
Our quixotism was shattered when we finally visited Najafgarh. The “Community Centre” that Apne Aap claims to run is a dank two-room building accompanied by a weathered eight-feet-wide by 10-feet-wide rug placed on the dirt where the children sit. More than half of the children do not attend school, and the informal education “class” for the children has no teacher or curriculum; instead, the kids sprawl themselves on the rug, drawing on slate boards and occasionally chucking pieces of chalk. The vocational training program is a daily sewing lesson taught by a 15-year-old village girl to five of her peers, instead of to the 19 girls and women Apne Aap claimed were attending. The women are completely disillusioned and continue to work in the sex trade. Indeed, after spending several weeks working in Najafgarh, we found that Apne Aap had nearly no presence there, apart from a few foreign interns it sporadically stationed there to “teach English.” Devastated by this farce of an initiative, we contacted the organization to ascertain the fate of our donation. After applying significant pressure upon the organization, we were granted a meeting with the founder, who offered to return $4,000, an offer that remains unfulfilled.