RATLAM, India (WOMENSENEWS)–In the morning, 12-year-old Maya Lal plays with her dolls. She no longer goes to school. Instead, as soon as the sun sets, she retreats into a room with her father’s "friend."
Maya is not the only 12-year-old engaged in such work. In the Ratlam district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, when a first-born daughter of the Banchhara tribe turns 12, her father organizes a ceremony where she makes known her intentions to work as a prostitute. After this declaration, her father takes her to her first customer, who waits in a room in her family’s house reserved for this purpose.
"My father has told me that I have to do this work because it is part of our custom. So I don’t mind," Maya said.
Young Banchara girls such as Maya may entertain up to six clients each day. Fathers and brothers live off the earnings of their daughters and sisters, who make between $10 and $100 each day, according to the Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission, an affiliate of India’s National Human Rights Commission. The agency submitted recommendations last year to government officials about ending the practice. Since Indian law prohibits prostitution, the industry is unregulated by health or business officials, and more than 90 percent of these pre-teen prostitutes become pregnant. Many others are infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, the commission found.
"Conditioning these girls from an early age to accept prostitution as their destiny and their religious duty is the worst form of human rights violation," said Justice Gulab Gupta, the commission’s chairman. He was referring to the 500-year-old custom of initiating first-born daughters into prostitution that began when a beautiful, poor young woman was kidnapped by a king, raped and forced to bear his child. According to legend, she then forced their daughter into prostitution to exact revenge for her own humiliation.
"They feel that they have divine sanction to initiate their daughter into the flesh trade. Therefore they don’t feel guilty of having done anything wrong," said Gupta, a former judge of the state high court.
‘For Them, It Is God’s Will’
Once she becomes a prostitute, a girl cannot marry or go to school. She is worshipped by the community because she is supporting her family and carrying forward a religious tradition found only in Madhya Pradesh and nowhere else in the country.
Men in the community not only bring in the customers but also decide the girls’ wages. They say they follow the practice out of religious duty and economic necessity.
"It has been going on from times immemorial," said Maya’s father, Manohar Lal, who set up a back room in the family’s two-room hut in Jawra village, one of the least developed areas in the state, for his daughter and her clients.
"If our oldest daughter doesn’t become a prostitute, how will I marry off my other four daughters? What will we eat?" Lal asked rhetorically.
The Banchharas are a scheduled caste, one of the lowest-ranking communities of the Indian caste hierarchy. The scheduled caste traditionally has been an economically impoverished community and has been deprived of developmental opportunities. The Banchharas, as well as several other scheduled caste communities, have been identified by human rights observers as a group that uses prostitution as its primary source of revenue.
"They do not see it as ruining their daughter’s life," Gupta said. "For them, it is God’s will."
Bancharas women don’t complain about the practice. In fact, the mother, sisters and female relatives of first-born daughters actively participate. When Neetu Kumari turned 12 years old, her mother, Kalawati Kumari, dressed her up for the occasion.
Mothers Prepare Their Eldest Daughters to Become Prostitutes
"I wanted to make her look pretty. Why shouldn’t I do it?" Kumari said. "My mother did it for my elder sister when she turned 12 years old. Now it is my turn because Neetu is the oldest among my three daughters. It is my duty to get her prepared for her new life."
Neetu doesn’t object.
"I knew what was in store for me when I was 5 years old," she said. "My mother told me and also I have seen other girls going through the same ceremony. So I have accepted this life."
That life often is one of disease, health officials say.
When the state government’s representative in Ratlam conducted a health survey in 2000, almost 50 percent of the women were found to have sexually transmitted diseases. The survey also found that 14 percent of the Banchhara women had symptoms of AIDS.
In its house-to-house survey, the Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission corroborated these findings, and discovered that many of the girls, ranging in age from 12 to 16, were being sent to West Asian countries despite Indian laws prohibiting trafficking and prostitution of women.
Reformers Persevere Despite Local Resistance
Madhya Pradesh officials say that local politicians often stymie their efforts. When the state government launched a drive two years ago to crack down on the flourishing flesh trade, some local officials termed the effort "anti-human."
In a letter to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh in 1999, one of his Congress Party colleagues contended that eradication of prostitution would "create a threat to our women, as they would then become targets of sexual abuse."
After the state human rights commission issued its recommendations last year, however, Madhya Pradesh welfare officials began making greater efforts to end child prostitution. They are working in collaboration with women’s organizations to make door-to door visits to offer free schooling and vocational training to young girls, as well as explaining the dangers of unsafe sex and offering free health checkups.
But their work is hampered by red tape. While the commission suggested that free land distribution for agricultural cultivation would give the Bancharas economic incentive to end the custom, bureaucratic procedures and tardy decisions have undermined such efforts, said Sushila Dubey, a government development officer working in Ratlam.
But Dubey said she believed government could reduce the number of women and girls taking part in the practice because some Banchhara women have said they are willing to give up prostitution if they can find alternate sources of income.
"But the government must continue to demonstrate its political will and combine it with speedy implementation. This will help us achieve our goal to end the practice," Dubey said.
Swapna Majumdar is a senior Indian journalist based in New Delhi who writes on development issues with a gender perspective.
For more information:
National Human Rights Commission, India:
"A goddess by day, but a prostitute at night":
"Sex-stops on the highway":