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Changing the landscape of their lives

MADHU GURUNG

The story of how Bedia and Bacchara women in Madhya Pradesh have joined together to fight caste-based commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking in their communities.

PHOTO: PARTH SANYAL

LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL: Empowering women to stand on their own feet.

"JAI Bhim," says Ganga Bai, her hand rolled into a fist. Around her in Bhopal's Academy of Administration, over 200 women, dressed in colourful saris, with red vermilion on their foreheads and lining the parting of their hair, raise their voices to echo her. The women, from over 23 districts of Madhya Pradesh, are setting up a common platform to support a whole range of grassroots women's issues. Ganga Bai is a Dalit and her greeting is a salutation to the man whom the Dalit community sees as their liberator, Bhim Rao Ambedkar.

Ordinary women like Ganga Bai are stirring, feeling the need to change the landscape of their lives. Many have never been to school. Yet they are finding a voice to protest against oppression and demand rights, be it the right to dignity, or the tribals' rights to the forests on which their lives depend, the right to live free of violence and even the right to a voice in governance through the panchayats. Organisations that raise such issues are finding a ready response from these marginalised women.

Right to dignity

Prem (not her real name), 35, sits with a group discussing the right to dignity. She belongs to the Bacchara community from Banikherdi village in Mandsaur district. Prem is different from the colourfully dressed women. Her hair is severely pulled back and her forehead is bereft of a bindi. But it is her eyes that draw attention, opaque, still and shuttered like a still lake whose depth you will never know.

Quiet-looking Prem hardly seems like a crusader. But she is an active participant of Bhor (new dawn), an initiative funded by Action Aid, which addresses the issue of caste-based Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking in the Bedia and the Bacchara communities.

Prem was 16 when her family, in an age-old tradition called the "nath utarai", sold her to the highest bidder. Her Bacchara community has long survived by putting their young women into prostitution.

Prem was installed in a separate room in the family home and forced to service the clients that the family solicited for her. Prem says that each day she felt defaced and broken.

Many other girls of her age worked as prostitutes on the National Highway 15 that connects their village to Delhi. The girls negotiated with drivers and were driven off in trucks. Dropped off at some point on the highway they "bargained" their way back on yet another truck.

Some worked from the roadside dhabas that line the highway, with their brothers and fathers acting as their pimps. "Only pretty girls are pushed into the dhanda. Those who are not good looking are married off. My aunt insisted that I had to follow the path of our forefathers so the family could eat."

Prem's clients came from the village and nearby city. Her eyes are downcast as she recalls, "I was in this dhanda for over seven years and there wasn't a single day when I did not pray to God to let some man love me and make me his own." She got pregnant twice, as her clients refused to use contraception. She had two children, a son and a daughter, who were raised by her parents. "I knew who their father was but he refused to acknowledge me or his children."

Prem was a hardened 23-year-old when she met Raj, a farmer from the same village. Raj returned to her every day and the two fell in love. "My family got angry with me. They would often tell him to leave. I knew I would never be allowed to marry him, so I ran away."

They fled to Bombay. "I know it sounds like a film story," says Prem, "but I was too much in love and I wanted to live my life with him, not as a convenience for men." They married and had three children. To make ends meet, Raj began plying a rickshaw. He earned Rs. 100-200 a day, refusing to let Prem work and she happily raised their children.

But fate had other plans. Raj developed tuberculosis. Years of pulling the rickshaw and a poor diet caused his lungs to collapse. Desperate to save him, Prem returned with Raj and the children to her in-laws in Mandsor. Raj was beyond medical help and died soon after.

The in-laws ran a general merchant store in the village and had a tiny farm but they treated Prem and the children as a burden. Prem persuaded them to give her some money to buy a plot of land. Prem toils hard to raise maize and soyabean. She holds out her calloused hands and smiles, "I do everything myself. It is wonderful to see the maize and soyabean grow. I sell them in the market. I also get Rs. 900 rupees every month for my work with Bhor."

Prem was determined that although she did not have an education she would not push her daughters into prostitution. Instead she enrolled all her three children in school. Today her eldest daughter is in Std. XI, the two younger ones in Std. VII and VI respectively.

"I never had a choice, there was no one to take a stand for me, but my children have me. I love them very much. I will never let anything happen to them. Each time my children do well in school it's a reward for me."

As for the two children born during her days in prostitution, Prem ensured that the girl was married and the boy is working. "Life isn't easy but I have found that if you take a road, God gives you the strength to walk it."

Challenging work

Her work with Bhor is challenging. "It is difficult to go and talk to families about getting their daughters to do some work other than prostitution. They are aggressive and angry and ask who will feed them. The girls too feel there is no alternative. They also feel that they are more empowered and enjoy more freedom than those who are married and have always to stay in ghunghat. But the truth is that they are exploited in every way. Pregnancies and abortions are frequent and severe STD and related health problems are common."

Although Prem continues to cite her own example of breaking free, she admits that unless a girl is lucky enough to find a "regular client" who is willing to look after her it is difficult to get out of prostitution.

In 2002, when Action Aid began working in Madhya Pradesh, they chalked out the three sub-regions where the Bedia and Bacchara community is concentrated.

Says Shibani Sharma who works with Bhor; "There are three regions in Madhya Pradesh where the Bedia and Bacchara community are concentrated. Sagar-Raisen-Damoh is the area where the Raee dance of the Bedia community is still prevalent.

Morena-Guna-Shivpuri also has a Bedia community and it is from here that girls are trafficked to Mumbai. Mandsor-Ratlam-Neemuch has a Bacchara community. The proximity to National Highway 15 has resulted in `street walking'. It is also the area where opium cultivation and smuggling exist."

Bright-eyed and confident, Aarti is the antithesis of Prem. She is among the first graduates from the Bedia community in her native place Sagar. Her grandmother was a willowy beauty who could do the Raee dance all night long, as was the tradition. However she was determined that none of her daughters would become a dancer.

Braving family wrath, she stopped dancing, began working as a labourer and sent her children to school. "I am very proud of her. I am lucky," says Aarti. "My grandmother's stand ensured that we have a future. I want to become a teacher and use my education to better my community. I want more girls to study and get out of a profession where there is no hope."

Guddi is yet another example. Her eyes never meet yours when she talks about how she was pushed into prostitution. After she came in contact with Bhor, she stood up to family pressure and became a militant crusader. She stopped her two younger sisters from being pushed into the trade. "I now know what a life of dignity means. No one can look at you or touch you without your permission and it is powerful."

As far back as 1990, a Gwalior High Court Bench directed the Madhya Pradesh Government to take specific steps to eliminate traditional prostitution. The Government formulated the six-phase Jubali Yojana but even the first phase of the scheme has not been implemented.

The government campaign Nirmal Abhiyan was carried out on a large scale in Mandsor. Many young girls were forcibly married off on the premise that marriage was the only way to end prostitution.

The results were disastrous. Many of the "husbands" were traffickers who sold the women and absconded with the money.

Building bridges

Sarika Sinha, Programme Officer of Action Aid, says, "On a scale of one to 10, we are at level three. It took us three years to build bridges to get to the community. Our strategy is multi-pronged. We work with women who come out of prostitution and are rehabilitated like Prem, to strengthen and enable them assert their rights. These women are part of the vigilance group who inform us when underage girls are in danger of being trafficked. Many times we are tipped off by friends of young girls and negotiate with the families or file an FIR. In the Mandsaur-Ratlam-Neemuch belt, 80 per cent of those in prostitution are below 18. Our emphasis is on education as the way of getting out of the mindset that they need to continue with the traditional practice. The community treats it as a way of earning a livelihood. The 1991 Census showed the Bedia and Bacchara community as roughly 19,000 but we believe that they must be around 25,000 odd in Madhya Pradesh."

Much of the immediate problem is an alternative source of income. The lack of any government scheme for income generation leaves families with little choice.

Says Aarti, "If we take away prostitution we are like any other backward community in India, disempowered, without education, poor, with no jobs or future. Education may be the key to our future but before that we need our dignity. We need acceptance. We don't want to be labelled `Bedia' and `Bacchara' which is an abuse for prostitute."

The legends behind the tradition

PHOTO: MADHU GURUNG

Power to change: Women at the Bhopal meet.

FOLKLORE surrounds the traditional prostitution of the Bedia and Bacchara communities who live in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and the border districts of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Some say the practice of prostituting daughters dates back to Mughal times when these communities earned a living as Nats or acrobats, performing from hamlet to hamlet.

Legend has it that in one such village a Mughal chieftain was enamoured by a beautiful daughter-in-law and demanded that she become his concubine. It scandalised the community who hid the daughter-in-law behind a veil and sent a daughter to the chieftain instead.

Since then the tradition has continued. Women married within the community remain veiled while daughters end up as the family breadwinners.

Another tale that is told is about a rich king who abducted a kanjar girl. The girl, it is said, extracted her revenge by putting the king's daughter into prostitution.

Yet others believe that the tradition dates back to the time when marauding invaders like Mahmood Ghazni and Mohammad Ghori attacked India. A group of Hindus escaped to the forests and made a living as thieves.

For centuries these people, by then divided into 12 sub-castes, continued to live by theft. The British outlawed them as criminal tribes and often imprisoned them. The women of the tribe would go to the police, who would extract sexual favours for the release of their men. That trend has continued.

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