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Ruchira Gupta and Rosena Sammi are turning saris into jewelry to try and help millions of women and girls in India


“Who’s sari now?” Taking on prostitution and sex trafficking in an enterprising new way

By Neesha Arter on July 14, 2015

“Social enterprise is useless without an education,” says Ruchira Gupta of the sex trafficking epidemic in India. Gupta, founder of the NGO Apne Aap, has partnered with jewelry designer Rosena Sammi on the new collection “Who’s Sari Now?” to empower women and children rescued from red light districts across India.

Apne Aap runs classes in small community centers for daughters of women working—by choice or otherwise—as prostitutes. The NGO, which works toward helping the girls gain admission to boarding schools outside of the red light districts, currently has 1,200 children in schools and 2,000 women engaged in income generating activities, producing “Who’s Sari Now?” items for sale. The line of accessories is made from upcycled saris, and Indian sex workers in Bihar and West Bengal are helping make the jewelry, which will be sold in Los Angeles, New York City, and online, beginning this month.

In India, the average age of a girl being pulled into prostitution is between nine and 13, and there are roughly three million prostituted women and girls in India, of which 1.4 million are children. Women In The World sat down with Ruchira Gupta and Rosena Sammi to discuss the epidemic and solutions.

Women In The World: Rosena, you were a lawyer before starting your jewelry line. How did you make your transition?

Rosena Sammi: In a typical lawyerly fashion: I did an enormous amount of research and preparation—I wrote a business plan, I took classes and workshops and I sought advice from as many people as I could. I saw leaving the law and becoming an entrepreneur as a welcome challenge and an opportunity to be more creative and hopefully an opportunity to create a better work/life equation. Looking back, I’m surprised I had the courage to do it, but in the end I threw caution into the wind, and the night I left my Park Avenue law firm, I flew to India to begin my journey.

WITW: What did law teach you about your business?

RS: A great deal. A law degree and, more importantly, practicing law, provides a wonderful foundation for becoming an entrepreneur. Working in the high-pressure environment of a corporate law firm and being a litigator equipped me with a whole skillset that translated perfectly into starting my own business. Quite apart from being able to negotiate and draft contracts, deal with employment and intellectual property issues, it also just equipped me with a professional edge that gave me some confidence as I navigated waters I had absolutely no experience in.

WITW: How did the collaboration between Rosena Sammi Jewelry and Apne Aap World Wide come to be?

RS: I have a side project that examines challenges female lawyers face in the legal profession (ALL|A Lawyer’s Life) where I interview women who have found success inside and outside of the law. Dorchen Leidholdt of Sanctuary For Families, a service provider and advocate for survivors of domestic violence (who I partnered with on a pro bono initiative), introduced me to Ruchira Gupta, Founder and President of Apne Aap. I had always had a vision for a collection that was ecofriendly and had a philanthropic angle, but I was waiting to find an organization that truly inspired me. When I met with Ruchira I was blown away and the rest is history, as they say.

WITW: Can you tell me a bit about Apne Aap’s recent work?

Ruchira Gupta: Apne Aap works in the red-light districts of Kolkata and Forbesganj, Bihar as well as caste-ghettoes of nomadic groups labeled as Criminal Tribes under British colonialism who are now suffering from inter-generational prostitution in Delhi and Bihar. Apne Aap runs non-formal classes in small community centers for daughters of prostituted women in these areas and then gets them admitted in boarding schools. They also run income-generating activities for prostituted and at risk women in community centers in these caste ghettoes and red light districts. They have supported more than 1,000 children to get into and finish school. Right now they have 1,200 children in school and 2,000 women and young women engaged in income generating activities. Apne Aap also teaches these women to campaign for and get government ID cards and subsidies, low cost food and housing vouchers.

Most recently it has started a small sanitary pad-making unit where young women in the red-light area are making, selling and using sanitary pads. With the help of Rosena Sammi the women engaged in sewing are now mending their futures by making jewelry for sale in New York.

WITW: How did you come upon the sex workers to help produce the jewelry for “Who’s Sari Now?”

RG: Apne Aap goes into a red-light area and enrolls women into its network, and then it opens a common center and invites them there. The first thing it does is hire a teacher and starts by getting the children of prostituted women in school. Then it starts income generating programs for the women. When Rosena approached us to say she wanted to help, we asked her not only to donate but also let the women make the jewelry.

RS: Apne Aap has done a fantastic job of providing vocational training to women rescued from the red light districts of India. I was very fortunate to find a skilled female workforce equipped and ready to start. They are led and taught by experienced teachers in sewing and traditional crafting and this has been a wonderful opportunity for both Apne Aap and Rosena Sammi Jewelry.

WITW: How did you come up with the name “Who’s Sari Now?”

RS: This is a play on our use of upcycled saris. We repurpose them to make our jewelry and hair accessories collection and I thought this was a fun way to highlight that a sari from India is now being used and worn in a new and different way on the other side of the world. I also saw it as a more subtle reference to the empowerment of women, for instance, “who’s sorry now?”

WITW: When it comes to sex trafficking in India, what do people need to know about it?

RG: People need to know that it is the weakest and most marginalized girls who are trafficked. They are the weakest of weak because not only are they female, they are poor and low caste. They don’t need a cell phone, or a computer, they need money sent to them for meals, so they are not hungry, for a second set of clothes, textbooks, shoes, school tuition, homework and coaching support. Even toilets come after food, clothes and safety.Programs have to reach where the girls are and serve their basic needs first and then get them to school.

RS: People need to know that it is as dire as they may imagine. That these are young girls who are the weakest and most marginalized of society because they are female, poor and from a low caste. That they are operating against all odds, that they suffer the abuse of the men who trafficked them, the men who frequent the red light districts and often people in power who are also involved in their exploitation. But we can make a difference; through donations that will provide the basics they need, such as meals and clothing, but also through raising awareness of the sex trafficking industry.

WITW: How does patriarchy affect the problem of sex trafficking in India?

RS: As it is well documented, India is a very hard place to be a woman. Recently issues of rape and female infanticide in India have received necessary widespread attention and derision. Patriarchy affects sex trafficking in two ways: it creates the demand for sex trafficking and it also creates the supply as girls become the first resource in poverty stricken areas with husbands and parents thinking they have the right to sell them.

WITW: As for oppression of women, poverty is also a critical factor of this issue. Has progress been made—or what would you like to see happen to change this issue?

RG: There is greater inequality being faced by women as poverty itself is getting feminized. Poor, disliked jobs are passed down to women, who are paid less. Worryingly, the government of India has decided to legalize child labor in the audio-visual industry and family enterprise. This will increase girls’ risk [of] prostitution, as well as increase domestic servitude and child prostitution.

WITW: A percentage of the proceeds of the line will be donated to girls in India to help get them education. What will girls be receiving with the proceeds?

RS: The funds will directly pay for 3 to 5 days a week of school, providing for tuition, supplies and food. Our goal is to eventually build a school.

WITW: Rosena, you’re the mother of two daughters. What do you hope changes in their generation?

RS: So much! I hope we see more women represented in positions of economic power, in places that will enable real change and true equality to take place. On a more basic level, I hope we find ways to empower younger women with more confidence and create a community that values them for who they are rather than what they look like in a “selfie”.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

The line can be purchased here.