Out of a generational curse – leading low caste traditional courtesans to light

India-Rights/Gender/Society

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By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi 

Seema and Meena, two young women in their early twenties from Araria district in Bihar, refuse to follow in their mother’s footsteps in prostitution. The women, who belong to the nomadic Nat tribe spread the Gangetic lowlands, go to college everyday for a bachelors’ degree in science and humanities respectively. They want to teach in primary schools in the district. Nat — an ancient nomadic tribe of entertainers labelled as “criminals” by the British — still supply a large number of women to brothels in Mumbai and the rest of northern and eastern India because of a strange ethnic more. A majority of their women from the impoverished ranks in the remote villages,  are prostitutes by tradition — practicing inter-generational sex trade to eke out a living.

It is difficult for the women to move out of their traditional livelihood owing to peer resistance and societal resentment— though the ethnic norms are gradually easing with inroads of education and interventions by advocacy groups.     

A large number ethnic communities living on the margins of the Indian society resort to desperate measures to eke out livelihoods in the face of social oppression, development imbalance and dragon legislations that discriminates between ethnic groups— prompting persecution in access to economic benefits .   

Flesh trade, one of the most ancient professions in the civilized history of the country, is a generational practice among several denotified ethnic groups in India, who were branded “thuggee” or criminal tribes pre-independent India for their lives on the underside.  Like the Roma Gypsies community in Europe who were hounded and abused by the white men, in India, the erstwhile British colonial rulers had cracked down on several communities of itinerant nomads for their wayward lifestyles. In 1871, the former British imperial government in India enforced the Criminal Tribes Act in northern India and later to Bengal and Madras presidencies that imposed curbs on the movements and penal measures on the movement and activity of the several itinerant tribes who were described as “addicted to the systematic commission to non-bailable offences” (such as thefts) and “were systematically registered by the government”. The movements of the members of the tribals, known as “habitual offenders” were reported to the local police station every week.  Historical records cite that one of the largest criminal tribes, the thugs (who worshipped Kali) looted and killed more than one million people between 1750-1840 — paving the need for the legislation. The law was abolished in 1949 and nearly 127 communities de-notified in 1952.

Some of these groups include Baghir, Baloch, Banjara, Nat, Kanjars, Bedia, Bachara, Lambada, Lodha, Pardhi, Shabar, Sansi, Kurava and several others spread across the country.          

Statistics available estimates that the country is home to 313 nomadic tribes and 198 de-notified tribes currently – (nearly 60 million people), who are still haunted by the stigmas attached to their low status in the social heap and the livelihoods they were pushed to because of administrative action, suspicion and surveillance by the police and endemic penury.

The sustained crackdown by the police led to loss of traditional trades like ironsmithy, acrobatics, herbal healing and craftsmanship. Relegated to the social and economic fringe, de-notified and nomadic groups like Bedia, Bachara, Nat, Sansi and Khanjar  were forced to ply their daughters to flesh trade.

“Not many people know about their plight because the tradition of inter-generational prostitution among several denotified tribes and low caste communities in modern day India in invisible – but a thriving reality under cover. It thrives of the absence of rehabilitation, awareness and effective advocacy,” says Ruchira Gupta, founder president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a non-profit women’s organization which is working among 16 denotified tribes to “offer alternative livelihoods” to the women who are sex-slaves by tradition down the generations, passed down from the mother to the daughter. The project, “Preventing Inter-Generational Prostitution among Low Caste Communities” in India” is trying to end traditional sex trade among the women of the communities by connecting them to education, vocational training, savings, self-help cooperatives and employment with periodic health checks to integrate them to the mainstream.

Apne Aap is engaging with the denotified ethnic groups in 10 states of the country — like Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and New Delhi — together with the Indian Council of Social Scientific Research. The pilot phase of research and rehabilitation for the project has begun in seven “sites” in three states of Bihar, West Bengal and Delhi, Gupta said.

The phase entails “documentation of the groups, their lives, economic plights, problems and recommended rehabilitation measures together with preliminary relief on the ground”.   Gupta’s team has “already touched the lives of 800 women in three states”.

“The British colonialists declared them criminals because they refused to give up their nomadic ways and settle down. They continued with their plunder and intimidation of common people — and in ironic way defied the British. The police routinely picked them up and locked them in jails,” Gupta said. They were forced to take up “forbidden” professions to live. The women became the breadwinners while the fathers, sons, brothers and husbands became pimps.

In Delhi, Gupta and her crew has brought 400 women in the Dharampura and Premnagar localities in Najafgarh, a suburb in west Delhi inhabited by sporadic groups of low caste sex workers along the highway, catering to the needs of truckers and transporters.  Married women here are encouraged to become sex workers few years after the first child is born.

“The rite of passage in the low caste inter-generational sex workers in northern India serves two purposes. It helps the community preserve their bloodlines and give the women protection against harassment by police and goons because of their married status,” Gupta said. Married women are usually left alone in the semi-urban settlements in India, still now, she hinted.

The low caste sex workers in Delhi’s Najargarh neighbourhood  belong to the “sapera and the peran” communities of snake charmers and acrobats . In Bengal and Bihar, where Gupta’s group is working in five specific sites,  the practice differs among the tribes. The eldest daughter of a Bachara tribal home is initiated into prostitution to carry on the tradition while the rest are married off. A section of women among the Bedia and the Nat groups are sent to trade flesh and the rest are allowed to grow up normally. Rehabilitation is a challenge because of social resistance and the stigmas attached to the communities – and their generational trade. “Many of these communities cannot take their women out of the family trade because neighbours and the police say that prostitution is the destiny of the women of the denotified tribes,” Gupta said.

 Citing an instance of social resistance against the “rehabilitation” of low caste traditional sex workers, Gupta said “nine years ago, a group of mothers in the Kabarjan village in Bihar’s Araria district decided to end the rite of prostitution”.  “Their lodged their daughters instead in a women’s hostel by Apne Aap to study and become self-employed. “The mother’s association pooled savings and opened a tea store where the girls could earn a living,” she said.

The organization “got the mothers to convene tribunals and convince the district administration to allot them land for a hostel under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan at the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, Gupta recalled.

But the local residents opposed the project. A group of upper caste men heard about it and broke into the hostel one night. They kidnapped one of the girls and help her hostage for 23 days, during which she was gang-raped repeatedly, Gupta said. The men and the upper caste residents of the village contended  that “these girls should be available to entertain men of the upper castes according to their traditions”. Intimidated by the incident, the mothers said “they would not completely give up the trade”.  “Some of their women would always be available to tend to the men of the upper castes”.

One of the problems in preventing inter-generational sex trade among low caste traditional courtesans’ communities is the nexus of pimps, who are not confined to the home alone. Pimps, touts and traffickers from across the country flock to these groups to “pick up women” because of slack policing and absence of legal backlash. The pimps control organized networks.

However, the measure of success, though marginal, has been heartening for the organization. “Twenty-three girls from communities of traditional prostitutes in Bihar go to school and four are in junior college in Patna, the capital of the state,” Gupta said.

The work has wide scope and complicated intervention processes. “Tackling mindsets and breaking social barriers are two of the primary challenges. We are now trying to link them to savings, education and housing so that they can become sustainable,” Gupta said.  

 A stringent legislation against prostitution, pimping and trafficking of women— with strong emphasis on girls from the low caste communities — can end generational prostitution. The organization has lobbied with the Verma Commission — a  committee led by former chief justice of Supreme Court J.S. Verma (which submitted its report in January 2013) to suggest measures for speedy justice for offenders and victims of gender crimes and assault on women — to uphold the clause that “commercial rape is the same as non-commercial rape and the perpetrators (in both cases) have to be punished.”

The commission upheld the verdict April 3 this year. “Now, the challenge ahead is to get some clients arrested under the new law — otherwise neither the police, nor the client or the sex workers will know if it. The verdict will act as a deterrent once some people are arrested,” Gupta said.    

   

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