BHARATPUR, Rajasthan (WOMENSENEWS)–Kamla was just 12 years old when she was initiated into the sex trade in the brothels of Delhi.
After working as a prostitute for 14 years she found a man who was willing to marry her. But Kamla (her name has been changed to protect her) knew that leaving the trade would not be easy.
This is because her family, like many in a large community known as the Bedia in the Indian state of Rajasthan, reared her to be a prostitute and to send her earnings home to them.
In Ghatoli, Kamla’s village, 58 of the 70 Bedia families there practice prostitution, according to a 2004 study conducted by the Gram Niyojan Kendra, a nongovernmental organization working to provide rehabilitation to women in prostitution for the national Ministry of Women and Child Development. The study found that the traditional practice of prostitution by communities such as the Bedia is, in fact, increasing.
Growth in the ranks of India’s sex workers in general has been five times that of the annual population growth rate of around 5 percent, according to the study.
‘Difficult to Stop Now’
“Our ancestors began this practice more than 100 years ago. It has been going on for so long that it is difficult to stop it now,” says Bhagu Das, a Bedia community leader. “Even if we stop, the sex trade will not end. I may stop the practice but I cannot prevent others in my community from doing it. After all who will feed them? We need employment opportunities.”
Traditionally, Bedias, one of the lowest in the Indian caste hierarchy, were dancers in Rajasthan. Female members often entertained feudal lords and many wound up as concubines of rich farmers. When the feudal agricultural landlord system fell apart many Bedia families lost their livelihoods and turned to prostitution as a more or less family business, with daughters as young as 10 initiated into the work and brothers assuming the role of their agents. Today, girls are often sold by their families to brothels in Delhi or dance bars in Mumbai, says Dr. K.K. Mukherjee, founder of Gram Niyojan Kendra.
Knowing her family would disapprove of her marriage, Kamla about 20 years ago quietly eloped. For some years, she lived in peace. She gave birth to three children. But her brother, who was furious at the disruption of money that Kamla used to send from Delhi to the family’s village of Ghatoli, finally managed to find her.
He told her to get back into prostitution or their gods would get angry and her children would die. He even beat her with a burning log to scare her into submission. But Kamla ran away with her three children.
She Turns to Farming
She bought some land with the money she had saved, began to farm and has managed to live a life of dignity. Today, her oldest daughter is married, her son is now working as a trading assistant in a grocery shop and the younger daughter has completed her graduation from the district college and wants to study law.
She sought the help of Harjeet Kaur, an activist who has been working in the Bharatpur villages for the past six years, who retells her story.
Kaur, who works for Gram Niyojan Kendra, has managed to win the trust of Bedia families, especially the women. She says many women such as Kamla are anxious to prevent their daughters from entering their trade.
Many prostitutes, she says, are seeking out advocacy groups to help their daughters steer clear of a trade that–in the age of HIV and AIDS–places a growing premium on virgins, who are widely believed to cure ailments such as AIDS and impotency.
Mukherjee says his group’s 2004 study of sex workers found that clients of brothels in Delhi pay as much as $3,000 for the young woman’s first sexual encounter. In Mumbai, the price can go as high as $5,000.
Schools Offer Shelter
Although Kamla helped guard her daughters against prostitution by staying outside Rajathan, many of the women who are still in the sex trade have protected their children by enrolling them in Samridhi Bal Vidhya Mandir, a primary and middle school with hostel facilities that Mukherjee’s group established in 1998.
Thirty-five of the 83 children in these schools have mothers who are working prostitutes, but they are not told this and are encouraged to learn life skills with the rest of the students.
In addition to conventional classes, the school provides counseling services to help families give up the tradition of sending their daughters into prostitution. It also offers vocational training such as tailoring to girls to help them find employment.
So far six young graduates between 18 and 20 at risk of being sold into prostitution have found husbands through arranged marriages.
But efforts such as these–along with several federal laws and government committees dedicated to helping women and child prostitutes–manage to reach only a tiny population of Bedia girls and young women.
“Every time there are political or religious rallies in Delhi, the queues outside the brothels get longer,” says Mukherjee. “The number of Bedia prostitutes in brothels in Delhi has increased by more than three times during the last 10 years. Parents earn a regular income by trafficking their daughters. The low levels of education, continued backwardness and decline in existing livelihood opportunities have exacerbated the situation. This is why about 60 percent of the 5 million women in prostitution today belong to the backward classes and castes.”
Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi writing on politics, gender and development issues.
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