Women in distress

Thousands of women in Nepal enter prostitution because they belong to the Badi sub-caste. The Badis used to entertain at the Royal Court. Over the years, they turned towards prostitution, and their descendants are now trapped in this occupation, writes Sudeshna Sarkar

Badi women are forced into this profession by poverty and the pressure of society, says Uma Devi Badi (left) of the Community Support Group;and (right) illiterate, landless and without other skills, Badis, for generations, have been depending on their daughters, who become sex workers, to provide for the family

Like the vicissitudes in the fortunes of the epic heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that formed the theme of their musical performances, a wandering minstrel tribe of eastern India is been reduced to prostitution for generations.

Once known as badyabadaks — or musicians — the Badis were a community of gypsy-like performers, who originated in Vaishali, the kingdom of the Lichchhavi kings, in what is now Bihar.

Around the 14th century, the tribe came to Nepal across the border, making their first homes in the remote districts of Rolpa, Rukum, Jajarkot and Salyan.

They were given land and money by the chieftain kings, who ruled over small kingdoms in western Nepal. They reciprocated by entertaining the rulers. The women had sexual relations with royal family members and courtiers.

After a pro-democracy movement in 1950, when the Rana rule by hereditary prime ministers ended and the small kings lost their power and freedom, the Badis, too, lost their patrons and were reduced to prostitution.

Today, they stand at the bottom of the community, being also regarded as untouchables.

Illiterate, landless and without other skills, Badi families, for generations, have been depending on their daughters, who become sex workers, to provide for the family.

There are cases of families going to India in search of work, remaining there till their daughters are over 12 years and then returning to Nepal to make them enter the “family” trade.

Three years ago, supported by a prominent NGO, Pro-Public, Badi women rallied for their rights in Kathmandu, holding demonstrations before the prime minister’s office and the Pashupatinath temple.

They were demanding that the government implement the Supreme Court order of 2005, asking the state to take measures to ensure livelihood opportunities for the community.

Their other demands included citizenship rights for their children, the identity of whose fathers is often unknown, and erasing the social stigma they have to live with.

Though the government signed an agreement in 2007, three years later, it is yet to be implemented.

Now the aggrieved community has resumed its protests. “We wanted to lead a life of dignity but the government is forcing us back to prostitution,” says Shanti Nepali, who is part of a group of several Badi women protesting against this barbaric tradition.

The community in Bardiya recently held sit-ins to protest against the state apathy. Three years ago, they had promised to strip naked in Kathmandu in protest but were stopped by the police.

There are many NGOs in Nepal, which are working for the rehabilitation of the Badis. The Community Support Group (CSG) in Tikapur, in Eastern Nepal, is Dalit advocacy organisation that is trying to help Badi women escape from prostitution.

The NGO tries to help the Badi understand their rights through a series of 23 “pressure groups” that it has established in the villages. The CSG also runs three “child awareness” centers, currently holding 75 children, which serve as part day-care and part primary school for the children of Badi women. The CSG also runs 10 “savings” groups, which help Badi to save and invest.

This is a rounded and imaginative program, and it appears to be having an impact. In 2000, the CSG conducted a survey of 185 Badi women who were into the profession. When they checked again this year, only 80 were still in it.

It shows that many Badi women would gladly escape from the profession if they were given an alternative.

“We try to eke out a living by opening tea stalls,” says Gita Nepali. “But we have no customers since society treats us as untouchables.”

Though Nepal banned untouchability in 1955, and three successive governments reinforced the pledge since 2006, it still remains strongly rooted in Nepal’s conservative society.

“The government last year announced a budget of Rs 300,000 (Nepali) to rehabilitate the Badis in three western districts,” says Jayapuri Badi, a commercial sex worker. “But nothing has been done and I am still a sex worker.” — IANS