SEX AS TRADE AND TRA­DI­TION

For Be­dia fam­i­lies, sex is a fam­ily busi­ness where young girls en­gage in prostitution with the con­sent of the com­mu­nity

India Today - - SOCIETY - Text by ASIT JOLLY in Bharat­pur Photographs by CHANDRADEEP KU­MAR

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 pot­holed­side-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 take­home 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 nonex­is­tent is the re­al­ity of most marginalised women,” says Jyoti Sanghera, 57, found­ing mem­ber of the Bangkok­based 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”.

A BE­DIA SEX WORKER EARNS BE­TWEEN RS 1,200 AND RS 2,000 A DAY. IT IS 10 TO 20 TIMES THE GOV­ERN­MENT AP­PROVED WAGE OF RS 149.

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 11year-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 ne­ver­be­fore 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 in­ter­ven-

COLOUR­FULLY AT­TIRED, WITH HEAV­ILY MADE-UP FACES, AC­CEN­TU­ATED BY BRIGHT CRIM­SON LIP­STICK, THEY BECKON PO­TEN­TIAL CUS­TOMERS.

tions 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.”

TWO SIS­TERS GET CU­RI­OUS ABOUT­THE CAMERAAS THE THIRD HIDES UN­DER ASHEET

BEDIAWIVES LOOKAFTER CHIL­DREN WHILE THEIR ‘WORK­ING’SIS­TERS-IN-LAW SO­LICIT CUS­TOMERS

BEDIAWOMEN RE­CEIVE CUS­TOMERS IN TINY MAKESHIFT ROOMS (RIGHT) FASH­IONED FROM CUR­SO­RILY HUNG BED­SHEETS

MANJU, 30, SAYS SHE BE­CAME A SEX­WORKER 20 YEARS AGO

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