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Ruthie Rosenberg On How The Katonah Book Club Is Empowering Girls In India

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By Stacey Gualandi/Dec. 21, 2010

When Ruthie Rosenberg joined her local book club four years ago in the small town of Katonah, NY, she never envisioned that reading a book would catapult her into a worldwide cause to save female victims of human trafficking .

But a committed club of six have joined forces with Apne Aap Women Worldwide to empower and educate young girls in Bihar, India, and put an end to sex slavery.

Half the SkyIt all began when this married mother of two made a bold book choice, the moving and emotional Half the Sky by the Pulitzer Prize- winning authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

“These are stories of courageous people with incredible determination to flourish under horrendous conditions. They are both disturbing and inspiring.” Ruthie Rosenberg

Stacey Gualandi was so impressed with the Katonah Book Club’s call to action that she contacted Ruthie to find out why they reached out to a hostel half a world away and how we, too, could help her hold up half the sky…

EYE: Why is it important to be a part of a book club?

Ruthie Rosenberg and Members of Katonah Book Club

Elizabeth, Cynthia, and Ruthie–Members of Katonah Book Club/Photo: Jessie Jafet

RUTHIE: There are passionate readers everywhere. I think people join book clubs for social, intellectual and therapeutic reasons. The primary benefit is that it motivates you to read and to possibly read something you would have otherwise never considered.

Frequently, after we talk about the book the discussion morphs into an open forum about parenting, school, work, politics, religion…you name it. And even though the attendance varies at our monthly meetings, the good wine and munchies always show up.

EYE: You selected Half the Sky, named after a Chinese proverb that says women hold up half the sky. Why did you chose this book?

RUTHIE: I am often drawn to books about adventurous travelers who, motivated by experience, create change in their personal lives and take action to better the lives of others. If you can’t be them, read about them.

Ruchira Gupta

Ruchira Gupta–Photo: Chip East

I chose “Half the Sky–Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” because the title had a positive spin on a difficult topic.

While skimming the book I quickly, and coincidentally, turned to a page highlighting Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, whose mission is to end sex-trafficking.

In March of 2008, I was involved with an organization called Adventure Divas founded by Holly Morris – a writer, director, producer and friend. We escorted a group of women to India where, amongst other pursuits, we visited inspiring women making a difference in their communities.

Holly Morris with Ruchira Gupta in India

Holly Morris with Ruchira Gupta outside Delhi, India

We were fortunate to meet Ruchira Gupta and witness the opening of one of her schools near Delhi. Two years later, her work was recognized in Kristof and WuDunn’s book. Needless to say, it was a quick sale.

“It exposes the injustices which still exist in the modern world through heartbreaking accounts of oppression.”

EYE: Tell us what “Half the Sky” is about.

RUTHIE: Through individual stories, we learn of the atrocities women and children encounter in remote parts of the world: sexual slavery, maternal mortality, honor killings, rape during war and the nonexistent access to education and health services. There is a global disaster of gender discrimination going on where women are disregarded as human beings.

Nicholas Kristof/Sheryl Wudunn

Nicholas Kristof/Sheryl WuDunn–Photo: Natasha Yefimov

As Kristof and WuDunn point out, we need to recognize that women are not part of the problem, but part of the solution.

By empowering women and educating girls worldwide, we can make a positive change that will transform lives and create societies where women truly do hold up half the sky.

These are stories of courageous people with incredible determination to flourish under horrendous conditions. They are both disturbing and inspiring.

EYE: Initially, why weren’t the book club members enthusiastic about your selection?

RUTHIE: With limited time to read in our busy lives, we want to be selective. “Half the Sky” doesn’t exactly scream out “warm and fuzzy easy read”. The seriousness of the content was intimidating and the anticipated emotional drain it could create was unsettling. But, in the end, the group agreed to read it.

“It’s difficult to do nothing after you read ‘Half the Sky.’ ”

EYE: What propelled you to take that big step to become personally involved with the young women and organizations mentioned in the book?

RUTHIE: It’s difficult to do nothing after you read “Half the Sky” and after one member suggested we act on our reactions, we did. This is the first time our book group has collectively taken on a cause.

EYE: The book highlights several organizations offering support. With so many choices, why did you decide on Apne Aap Women Worldwide? This video of Ruchira Gupta with Paul Merton in India shows the conditions children are up against.

RUTHIE: We wanted to do more than write a check to our chosen cause. At our first meeting we outlined specific goals: (1) keeping girls in school in a developing country; (2) establishing an on-going relationship and a personal connection with a community; and (3) being able to track and receive special feedback on our efforts. We then agreed to independently explore possible recipient organizations through contacts and internet services. Apne Aap was extremely responsive to our inquiries.

Ruthie Rosenberg and Katonah Book Club

Children at Opening of Apne Aap Childcare Facility

Zoe Young, an associate from their NYC office, trekked north to introduce our Katonah group to their mission, achievements and programs.

Apne Aap Women Worldwide (Apne Aap means “self-help” in Hindu) is a grassroot’s Indian organization working to end human trafficking by empowering girls and women to resist sex slavery.

They have been very successful in piloting innovative ideas through strong community education, healthcare, legal protection and economic empowerment to women and girls through self-help groups.

In 2010 Elizabeth McGoldrick, Cynthia Braun and I attended an intimate gathering in NYC where activist Gloria Steinem and Ruchira Gupta discussed crucial issues in the global fight against sex trafficking. This event only inspired us to take action.

Ruthie Rosenberg story on Richira Gupta and Apne Aap

Ruchira Gupta and Gloria Steinem in Bihar, India

We were touched by the cause and impressed by their work. After much deliberation, our Katonah group will be supporting and corresponding with girls from Forbesgunj, Bihar where Apne Aap sponsors the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya Hostel and school which houses, protects and educates 50 girls ages 10 – 16.

“Since it’s founding, Apne Aap has made significant strides in exposing human trafficking worldwide.”

EYE: This is an organization that has attracted very high profile people including President Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Demi Moore, etc. Why do you think it has had such an impact?

RUTHIE: People realize that empowering girls and women is the most important action that can be taken in the world right now. Since it’s founding, Apne Aap has made significant strides in exposing human trafficking worldwide.

Ruchira Gupta and Demi Moore at 2009 Clinton Global Citizen's Awards

Ruchira Gupta and Demi Moore at 2009 Clinton Global Initiative

In their effort to end sexual violence and trafficking in women and children, they have made a sizable impact in communities where it never seemed possible.

Ruchira Gupta’s received a Clinton Global Initiative Award and was invited to speak before the UN Human Rights’ Commission in Geneva.

She is a trail blazer. Her tireless efforts are changing lives and, perhaps down the line, will be changing laws.

EYE: How much of your time are you willing to devote to AAWW?

RUTHIE: It’s a balancing act. This project is the first of it’s kind for Apne Aap so, in some respects, we are learning as we go along. It is a collaborative effort involving the administrators on the ground in Bihar, the girls from the hostel, the Apne Aap NYC representative and our Katonah group.

I do know our Katonah group is committed to putting in the time necessary to see this project fly and succeed. As our group grows, and the project grows, we will have a clearer understanding of what is required to manage and maintain it.

“We believe that by keeping these girls engaged and in school, we keep them out of the brothels and give them hope for a better life in the future.”

EYE: How do you hope to make an impact?

RUTHIE: Through financial support and individual correspondence via e-mail, snail mail and possibly video, we hope to provide an incentive for the girls in Bihar to: stay in school, commit to English studies, gain a global perspective and, most importantly, to feel valued and respected.

Eventually we hope to host an Indian girl here in Katonah as well as send a local high school student on an exchange program with the Bihar village. We believe that by keeping these girls engaged and in school, we keep them out of the brothels and give them hope for a better life in the future.

Children in Forbesganj, India

Children in Forbesganj, India/Apne Aap

In addition, we hope our own children will benefit from the exchange by learning and appreciating the culture, people, language, and natural environment of their Indian pen-pals. Exposing kids to a different culture may help them become more socially and globally well-rounded. And, it can be fun!

“The encouragement, insight and optimism of this group is the reason I am sharing our story with you today.”

EYE: What has this experience taught you about yourself and your book club members?

RUTHIE: If you are truly passionate about a cause, motivation to act comes easy. Time that never seemed available appears. And after you take the first step, the adrenaline kicks in and your ambition to help is accelerated.

Whether coming together to discuss a book or a cause, you walk away with new perspective and feel more connected. The encouragement, insight and optimism of this group is the reason I am sharing our story with you today.

Going through this process with the club members has reaffirmed what a smart, resourceful and thoughtful group of women they are. Lucky for us, I think it’s a reflection of the community in which we live.

“They are the unsung heroes. Their will to overcome these brutal abuses and thrive…”

EYE: What have you learned from the young women who are being saved by AAWW and your group?

RUTHIE: They are the unsung heroes. Their will to overcome these brutal abuses and thrive under such difficult circumstances is a display of astounding bravery and resilience.

Girls in Delhli, India

Girls in Delhi, India/Photo: Ruthie Rosenberg

EYE: What would you like to say to the authors of your book club choice “Half the Sky”?

RUTHIE: Thank you for composing a wake-up call to the world on behalf of exploited women and girls worldwide. And thank you for doing it in a way that doesn’t depress and leave you hopeless, but inspires and motivates you to join this humanitarian campaign for social change.

EYE: Aapne Aap sent us this email about your participation in their cause:

“We’re proud that our sisters in Katonah were inspired to stand with us in our fight. This project marks the first time Aapne Aap has tried to set up a personal relationship between the women and girls in our programs with supporters from around the world. It’s our hope that this program will give the girls at the hostel and school in Bihar a view of a world beyond their own and the incentive to keep working to improve their own lives.”

How can we help you and AAWW?

RUTHIE: To learn more about the Katonah/Bihar project contact ruthie@vail.net. For more about Apne Aap’s work check out www.apneaap.com or contact zoe@apneaap.com

EYE: Thank you Ruthie!!! We all hope to lead by your example. Here is a list of some of their other book club choices:

Freedom, Never Let Me Go, Song of Solomon, Cloud Atlas, Man in the High Castle, Small Island: A Novel, Embers, Brooklyn, White Tiger, Olive Kitteridge, Nada, The Great Gatsby, Member of the Wedding, Silar Marner, Let the Great World Spin, My Cousin Rachel, The World to Come: A Novel, The Stone Diaries, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Gathering, Brideshead Revisited, Away, The House of Seven Gables and Sanctuary, just to name a few.

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