TRAPPED in the trade

In some villages of the Bedia, Nat and Kanjar communities in Rajasthan, there are no women under 25 years. Here families force their girls into prostitution in cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Usha Rai visits these areas and recounts the plight of the girls who have to fend for their families while the men idle away the hours

Khatouli, Bansi Paharpur, Khakranagla and Ludhawai villages, barely 20 to 30 km from the famous Bharatpur bird sanctuary of Rajasthan, are like umpteen other villages of India steeped in poverty and desperately trying to modernise. In the midst of ramshackle houses and narrow gullies with overflowing gutters, a couple of garish double storey buildings stand out like pimples on a scarred and pitted face.

They are the homes built on the earnings of young girls of the Bedia, Nat and Kanjar communities, traditionally pushed into prostitution to support an entire family—many of them strapping young men who may have school or college degrees but are not eager to sully their hands working in the adjoining stone quarries. There are no other easily accessible jobs in the vicinity and the few who struggle for employment after doing a course in electronics or motor mechanics are edged out because they belong to that society refuses to accept."

These are villages where young girl of 10 to 25 years are totally absent. You enter homes where cattle are tethered and desi liquor is being brewed surreptitiously in a thatched corner of the courtyard. Young men of all ages pour out to meet you though it is the middle of the day and they should be at work.

Demand for girls

There are no young girls. They have all been pushed to into the dhanda (prostitution) or sent to Mumbai or Delhi to live with aunts or older sisters and train for the business when barely nine and 10 years.

Ironically, these are villages where there is a demand for daughters. Sex selection, practised in so many semi-urban areas of India, is unheard of here. The more daughters there are, the greater the chances of better living for the entire family. Girls are well fed so that they mature early and become bread-winners. Their desire for good clothes, swanky sandals and lipsticks are met quickly because they have to be groomed early in life to look attractive.

Winds of change

There are breezes of change blowing even through these villages. It was in 1988-1989 that Prof K.K. Mukherji, former head of the Department of Social Work, Delhi University, his wife Dr Sutapa, after extensive studies on prostitution and child trafficking in particular, set up the Gram Niyojan Kendra (GNK) and began working in eight villages of Bharatpur to control prostitution through integrated development. The other prostitution-prone areas that GNK is working in are Naugaon, Uttaranchal and Nautanwa in UP. Harjeet Kaur, a social worker of GNK moved to Roopwas village in Bharatpur and began identifying problems and winning the confidence of the Bedias, Nats, Kanjars and the local community in general under the auspices of another NGO, Samriddhi.

The task that GNK and Samriddhi have taken on is stupendous. In 2003 when Dr Mukherji did his first major study on commercial sex workers, there were 3 million prostitutes in the country. Today their numbers have swelled to 5 million. Earlier those in the trade were from scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and backward classes. Poverty drove them or their parents to send girls into the flesh trade. Today while 60 per cent of the commercial sex workers are from the backward castes and classes, 40 per cent are from the upper classes operating as call girls, bar girls and high-class prostitutes. Dr Mukherji has identified 16 categories of prostitutes. Prostitutes have an earning life span of 15 to 20 years. Ninety per cent are in the 15 to 35 age group. While older men want young girls, younger men look for mature, older women who can initiate them into the world of sex. Dr Mukherji’s studies show that there is growing number of young men who spend time with commercial sex workers just before marriage to ensure they are not impotent. If young grooms are not able to perform within a week of the marriage, they are declared impotent and the marriage could be annulled.

Young virgins are in great demand because of myths that they will cure men of various ailments, including AIDS. It is also believed that having sex with a virgin adds to the man’s virility. For "nath uttarna" or the first sexual encounter with a virgin, in Delhi the going rate is Rs 1.50 lakh. In Mumbai it could go up to Rs 2 to Rs 2.50 lakh. As the woman grows older, the demand for her lessens as well as the fee she gets. However, with the increasing craze for group sex, a young woman endures several days of physical assault and takes home a big packet. There is no emotion involved in the sexual act. The young women are totally detached. "If worms crawl on my body, why should I worry," a young prostitute said of the hands clawing her during a sexual act.

Despite the glamourisation of sex and the lucrative return from sex trade, Dr Mukherji is confident that prostitution can be prevented through education, assured employment and eradication of poverty. In a small way, Samriddhi has started self-help groups in the villages it works in. Through tailoring classes it is providing skills to young girls and a primary and middle school with hostel facilities have been attracting some 80 children. The mothers of 35 children in these schools are in prostitution but they want to protect their daughters from the trade.

Most of these girls live in the hostel and barely get to see their mothers. In addition there are counselling services for the family, eight balwadis for the children and seven non-formal education centres. Though the self -help groups are small, they pool in Rs 20 a month and this is their resource bank.

Izzat ke paise mein jeena seekho, is the new slogan in villages. When young girls of the village wear sindoor in the parting in their hair and a mangalsutra around their necks, they attain respectability and status. Thanks to the efforts of GNK, six girls of these villages have been married and 35 girls stopped from entering the trade. Anarkali (name changed) is 17. She was married last September to a scooter driver in a neighbouring city. Anarkali’s three sisters have not been as fortunate—they are in the dhandha.

Help at hand

It is Anarkali’s 13-year-old nephew Deepak, who studies in a school run by Samriddhi, who helped her escape from the traditional trade. Anarkali’s mother and brothers wanted to join her sisters in the dhandha in Mumbai. She was even sent to Mumbai for the grooming but came back unhappy. On a visit to the school she told representatives of the NGO of her desire to marry and not get into the profession. Deepak supported the idea. He would tell his mother "Get jijee married. She will not go anywhere." Deepak’s mother in turn spoke to her father and finally Anarkali was married. Her brother was, however, unhappy. "By marrying her off, you have denied an income for the family," he said. Now mother and brother are reconciled to the marriage and are basking in the respectability they have earned by their action.

Sunaina’s struggle to get out of prostitution is equally laudable. She studied till class 10 and, after seeing the conditions of her sisters in the profession, fought against being pushed into it. Sunaina also refused to marry in her own community because of the disrespect for girls. She was also scared of being pushed into the trade even after marriage. The father said if you marry in another community and they find out you are a Bedia you will be disowned. In her final year of school she met a Brahmin boy, who was interested in marrying her despite her being a Bedia. The two eloped and married. Three years later Sunita returned home with a child. Both Sunaina and her husband were working and raising their child. Sunaina’s defiance changed the family destiny.

That women are desperate to get out of prostitution is amply evident. Take the case of Kiron (name changed), mother of two daughters and a son. Kiron has four sisters and a brother. The older sister is married. Two sisters are in the trade. When Kiron was just 11, it was her mother who introduced her to the trade. After 14 years in the trade when all her earnings went to support her parents, she met a doctor eager to help her get out. Though married, he began to live with her. When her brother found out that she was leaving the trade, he hit her with a burning log and said "get back into prostitution or our devtas will get angry and our children will die. In our community, girls cannot marry anyone nor can they get support for an independent life." Despite all the pressures, Kiron took her three children and ran away. Her brother could not find her for four or five years. With the money she had kept, Kiron bought land so that she could grow crops and live comfortably. Her eldest daughter is married, her son is now working and the younger daughter will be completing her graduation this year. She wants to be a lawyer. Kiron continues to live with the man who pulled her out of prostitution and maintains that her children are Sardars and not Bedias.

Breaking free

There has been a reconciliation with the brother who burnt her with a log. He too is refusing to send his daughters into the trade and has moved away from the community. Kiron’s sister who is in the trade is also educating her daughter. Both are associated with Samriddhi for the last 10 years.

Not all women are as lucky as Anarkali, Sunaina and Kiron. Though Nandini has escaped the flesh trade and lives in a comfortable brick house in a village adjacent to the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, her husband has TB and is unable to do hard work. There is tremendous pressure on her to send her young daughters to join her nanads in Mumbai and get trained for the business. She refused to send them initially, and the two nanads stopped sending money to their brother. Faced with starvation, Nandini had no choice but to send her daughters to Mumbai. They immediately responded by sending Nandini a mangalsutra.

Wide-eyed and innocent, the little girls were visiting home and express their reluctance to go into the dhandha. One of them said "I want to be a doctor or an engineer."

Along with education and marriage, young girls and boys of this region need work. The Bedias and others, however, continue to be discriminated. Young Samma was eager to start a beauty parlour. Even the DC of Bharatpur recommended her for a loan but the bank just hid her application and never got back to her. So far Samriddhi is working in eight villages. It plans to cover 20 villages by the end of this month. The task undertaken by Mukherji and his team is laudable but unless jobs and education are assured, it will be difficult to pull them out of the trade. The young men will continue to exploit them on the pretext that they are not getting jobs.