Sex as trade and tradition
A lower caste community in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where young girls, often in their teens, engage in prostitution with the consent of the community.
Baithega kya?" Two kilometres along the four-lane Jaipur Highway outside Bharatpur, these two innocuous words denote an unambiguous, almost lilting, come-on to have sex. Batting eyelashes, imperceptibly meaningful nods help things along for the uninitiated.
"Sex hamara khandaani dhanda hai (Sex is our family business)," says Manju Thakur, 30, who's zealously protective of what to her is a lucrative livelihood. Diminutive but feisty, the sex worker is a Bedia, a lower caste community in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where young girls, often in their teens, engage in prostitution with the consent of the community.
Plying the only trade she knows from the profusely littered roadside near Bharatpur's Malaha village, Manju is a veteran. "I was just about 10 or 11 years old when my father, who is dead now, sent me to a well-off businessman in Dhaulpur," she says, appearing almost nostalgic recalling the Rs 10,000 her family received in exchange for her loss of virginity. "Twenty years ago, it was the maximum any girl was paid for here," she says also proudly informing you how "rich customers from Jaipur" still come by asking for her.
Present day Malaha (also known locally as Pachhi ka Nagla or 'bird village'), has more than a hundred Bedia women engaged in sex work. Often revealingly attired, with heavily made-up faces, accentuated by bright crimson or purple lipstick, they stand about beckoning potential clients. The imposing concrete flyover that bifurcated the Bedia basti in 2005 hasn't affected the trade. This is perhaps the only place in Rajasthan where more motorists forsake the convenience of the flyover, taking the potholed side-roads instead to stop by or simply get a closer look at the daily spectacle.
"Dhanda chokha hai (Business is good)," Manju smiles reapplying her lipstick in anticipation of another temporary suitor. Manju and her sisters Nisha, 25, and Reshma, 24, as well as their 20-year-old bua (aunt) Chandani support a family of 40 including five brothers, their wives, their children and a brood of offspring from the trade. "I tried hard to get them to marry," says Saroj, Manju's 50-year-old mother. But none of the girls would even consider what each one of them saw as a lifetime of domestic drudgery.
The men vehemently protest allegations that their bound-by-tradition women are forced to accept sex work as their only vocation. "Zabardasti ka nahi, raazi ka sauda hai ye (There is no force, this is by consent)," insists Vijender, 37, who thrives on the earnings of six sisters and two aunts. The pot-bellied brother claims that in keeping with the community's tradition, each of his sisters were asked to choose: "Har ek se poochha gaya tha, dhanda karogi ya shaadi (Each one was asked if she wanted marriage or to enter the sex trade)," he says.
Manju and Nisha's 39-year-old brother Lakhan concurs. It's been more than a good living for him: A shining new motorcycle and a Scorpio SUV that he plies as a cab, but only when he chooses to. "Let the government give me a decent job, I'll forbid my sisters from sex work," Lakhan promises. In the background both sisters smirk at the notion.
"Shaadi toh barbadi hai (Marriage leads to ruin)," Nisha quotes a distinctly patriarchal proverb. Bedia wives are usually not part of the dhanda (sex work) and spend their lives cooking, cleaning, washing and serving the needs of the men, the children and their 'working' sisters-in-laws. "Being a housewife is like being a mule," says Nisha who grew up aware of both the independence and seemingly infinite spending power her 'working' aunts enjoyed and the toilsome routine her own mother was condemned to.
Nisha admits, hesitantly, that she started out as a full-time sex worker when she was just 14. Ten years on, she earns between Rs 1,200 and Rs 2,000 from a single day's work-10 to 20 times the government approved wage of Rs 149. This entails sex with six to 10 men. On good days, such as during the festival season or closer to workers' monthly paydays, the take-home could easily double, she adds.
The 'tricks of the trade' are hardly a secret for teenage girls who have watched sisters and aunts engage in furtive, 10-minute sexual encounters behind cursorily strung bedsheets on the roadside. "Squawking loudly to call my brothers when a customer became unruly was my only real sex education. The rest of the stuff came naturally," Manju says.
But not every Bedia sex worker has the going so good. Fifty feet from Manju and Nisha's house washed in terracotta hues, Kaali (name changed) struggles to make ends meet. Diagnosed with hiv two years ago, she continues to solicit customers. "I know no other work and my brothers are too young to support me," explains the 30-year-old, hastily adding that now she "never has sex without a condom."
"The notion of choice in relation to the work of women who are poor is problematic. The distinction between 'forced' and 'voluntarily' sex work where the gamut of choices is non-existent is the reality of most marginalised women," says Jyoti Sanghera, 57, founding member of the Bangkok-based Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW).
Into his second tenure in the district, better known as the location of one of the world's best-kept bird sanctuaries, Bharatpur's 34-year-old Collector Niraj Kumar Pawan has become something of a Robin Hood among the Bedia villagers. The hands-on civil servant is the first government representative to have gained the community's confidence in recognising that "brute police force cannot turn people away from centuries old tradition".
Eight years ago, just months after his predecessors in the district administration tried literally to drive the Bedi's into the ground by setting their basti at Malaha on fire, Pawan got the government to sanction the first and only school for Bedia children. Still only a difficult-to-decipher foundation amidst the dense undergrowth fringing the Bharatpur bird sanctuary, the promise of the school has evidently inspired residents.
"My girl's future will be different," says Riya, a 35-year-old sex worker whose diligent daily duty is to get 11-year-old Archana, her only daughter, to school. The doting mom however has no qualms about her own life: "I must always do the dhanda but my girl will have a real choice," she says.
Pawan believes education will equip Bedia girls with the never-before alternative of "being able to make an informed choice". Amidst objections against pucca constructions within 500 m of the bird sanctuary, the open-air Bedia school is set to enter a Rs 4.5-lakh prefabricated premises that stops short of contravening environmental safeguards. "They will soon have proper schoolrooms," he promises.
The collector's repeated interventions in Malaha and neighbouring Bagdari village, where some Bedias moved following the expansion of the Jaipur Highway in 2005, have persuaded key changes within the community. "Girls below 18 no longer engage in sex work," Pawan claims, amid rumours about fresh bidding for the initiation of two teenagers. Compared to the Rs 10,000 that Manju's family got 20 years ago, the current going price for 'teenage virgins', insiders say, could range between Rs 1.5 lakh and Rs 2 lakh, which is half the bride price a Bedia girl commands if she chooses to marry instead.
In their 15-bigha settlement outside Bagdari, Bedias face their worst fate: Forced to survive without electricity or water, their children remain segregated in the village school and the upper caste sarpanch refuses to endorse applications for voters' identity or Adhaar cards. "We have been rendered outcasts in our own country," says Ravi Kumar, 29, who struggles on the meagre earnings from a corrugated steel sheet shop at the entrance of the settlement.
Both Kumar and his 60-year-old mother Leelawati acknowledge that the community wouldn't be able to survive but for the lucrative incomes their young women make from sex work. "The (upper caste) villagers wilfully discriminate against our children and yet line up to sleep with our girls and even demand discounts," says the shopkeeper.
One concrete wall of the 20 ft underpass below the Malaha flyover bears a telling advert: "Pyar ka ek anmol taufa'-Freedom 5. Paanch saal tak pregnancy se tension free." The Bedia women are amused. "Children are good," they say. "Girls will earn more money and boys will be their protectors."