NEW DELHI — On a recent sunny day before the monsoons began, a thin woman settled to the floor in the cool shade of a nondescript apartment building in Dharampura, where a Perna community lives on the outskirts of Delhi. Rani is not normally awake in the afternoon; the Perna practice a form of inter-generational sex work, which is a strangely polite way of saying that women here expect to be prostituted by their husbands.
Rani’s daily routine rarely changes: she “goes for prostitution” around 2:00 a.m., taking an auto-rickshaw with other Perna women to public places. “Anywhere that’s crowded is good,” she says. “Bus stations, taxis.” In nearby Delhi, women with the means to do so make their plans for the evening early and don’t leave the house without a male escort after dark. Rani, who goes out every night on her own, says she dreads the moment when the group of women inevitably separates: “You have to do the work alone.” She tries to avoid the police. Rather than providing her protection, they ask for free sex and take her money. On good nights she might service as many as five customers, bad nights are the ones when she can’t find a john. She comes home around 7:00 a.m., makes her six children and her husband breakfast, washes clothes, takes a nap, cooks dinner, sometimes steals another few hours of sleep, and then gets up to start the day all over again. She met her husband on the day of her wedding, becoming his second wife at the age of 17, and two years later, his prostitute. “I knew it would happen, it’s very normal,” she said. “I do it to earn for my family.”
Dr. Aparajita Gogoi, founder of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood/India, explained that women in India have historically not had the same status as men. “There’s a saying here that you’re lucky if your wife dies and not your cow,” Gogoi said. In a culture where sons provide for their parents and daughters provide for their in-laws, Indian families traditionally invested in their male progeny the way Western families invest in a 401K. It’s just simple economics. In marginalized communities like the Perna, a formerly nomadic tribe stigmatized in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, women’s lives tend to be worth even less; there’s a very human need, even or perhaps especially within minorities, to be the oppressor rather than the oppressed.
“It happens to every girl,” says Horbai, another Perna woman. “You get used to it.” Horbai was studying to be a tailor until her parents died, and her aunt and uncle married her to a stranger. She returned to Dharampura as a young widow, and with no other form of income, joined the other women as a prostitute. But Horbai has a surprisingly positive take. “My life before [my marriage] was very difficult,” she said. “My life after was very difficult. But coming on my own now, I’m happy, because I’m able to give my daughters an education.” This is the state of gender affairs in Dharampura today: Horbai is happy that her pimp outlasted her husband. “Maybe if my husband was alive, my daughters would be restricted,” Horbai said. On her own, she’s able to support her family and send her children to school. “So I’m happy for them, but not myself.”
Horbai’s 12-year-old daughter wants to be a journalist, and she watches shyly from the corner as our interview takes place. Her 10-year-old sister is not at all shy; she wants to be an actress, and vamps happily in front of my Nikon. “I would never let my daughters go into sex work,” Horbai said. “That’s why I want them to be educated.” Horbai’s daughters are lucky. They are taking classes with a non-profit advocacy organization, Apne Aap, that works with the Perna and other communities where sex work is common, trying to provide the children of prostitutes alternative skills.
Many of the women here are emphatic that they would never let their daughters go into sex work. In fact, this is often the giveaway of their true feelings about their profession. Scared of stirring up trouble with their husbands, the women have learned to say that the sex is “with their consent.” But everyone I talked to during my stay was adamant that they don’t want their daughters to follow in their stead. Unfortunately, the women have little control over what will happen after their daughters are married, traditionally at very young ages. Unless the girls have another way to earn money for their new families, they will likely follow a now well-worn path.
It was the drastic lack of options in the lives of prostitutes that led Rukshira Gupta to found Apne Aap. “Women in India are in danger from the time they are conceived until the time they die,” Gupta said. “They could be victims of sex-selective abortion, if they are born they may be left out to die, if they survive they’ll get less food than their brothers, be pulled out of school to help with chores at home, be married early, risk death during pregnancy, be sold into prostitution, or die begging as widows.”
Gupta has short spiky hair and, once she gets on a roll, can hold forth at great length on gender issues in India. She has all the passion of an accidental advocate, falling into the role during the course of researching a story in Nepal as a journalist. “I came into rows of villages that didn’t have any, I mean any, girls, from 15 to 45,” she said. “I asked some of the men sitting around and they were sheepish, and then finally someone told me, ‘Don’t you know? They’re all in Bombay.’” This was in a village two hours from a road, Gupta said, but there was a whole supply chain in place. Families would be paid for their daughters, sometimes as little as $50, and the girls taken by a series of transporters across the border to agents in Calcutta and Bombay, where they were handed over to pimps and priced based on their beauty and age. The pimps gave them to brothel managers for “seasoning”—repeated rape—and the girls, many between nine and 13 years old, were then kept in bonded labor, expected to service 10 or more customers a night for an average of $3 each.
दिल्ली में है ऐसी जगह, जहां शादी के बाद ससुराल वाले खुद बेचते हैं अपनी बहू
दिल्ली से सटे कुछ इलाकों में एक ऐसी कम्युनिटी रहती है जिसमें घर वाले ही महिलाओं को सेक्स वर्क करने पर मजबूर करते हैं। रिपोर्ट्स के मुताबिक, धरमपुरा सहित कई इलाकों में रहने वाली परना कम्युनिटी में यह अजीबोगरीब ‘परंपरा’ कई जनरेशन से चली आ रही है। पति बन जाते हैं दलाल…
परना कम्युनिटी पहले खानाबदोश की तरह जिंदगी जीती थी। रिसर्च साइट पैसिफिक स्टैंडर्ड (www.psmag.com) ने एक बार इस कम्युनिटी पर रिपोर्ट पब्लिश की थी। इसके मुताबिक, पति अपनी पत्नियों से सेक्स वर्क करवाते हैं और पैसे अपने पास रखते हैं। इस रिपोर्ट में सेक्स ट्रैफिकिंग के खिलाफ काम करने वाली गैर सरकारी संस्था ‘अपने आप वुमन वर्ल्ड वाइड’ की डायरेक्टर अभिलाषा कुमारी कहती हैं- “अगर दिल्ली में रेप होता है, हर कोई ‘एक्साइटेड’ हो जाता है, लेकिन इन महिलाओं के साथ हर रोज रेप होता है और इनकी सुध लेने वाला कोई नहीं।”
इस कम्युनिटी में कुछ ऐसी भी महिलाएं हैं जिन्होंने और कोई काम नहीं मिलने की स्थिति में खुद ही सेक्स वर्कर बनने का फैसला किया। ऐसी ही एक महिला कहती है कि यह काम करने के बाद उनकी जिंदगी बदली है और उसने अपने बच्चों को पढ़ाना भी शुरू कर दिया है। कुछ संस्थाएं भी इन महिलाओं के हक के लिए आवाज उठा रही हैं और कुछ महिलाओं को मदद भी पहुंचा रही हैं।
पैसिफिक स्टैंडर्ड की रिपोर्ट में एक महिला रानी की कहानी शामिल की गई है। परना कम्युनिटी की रानी हर दिन 2 बजे घर से प्रॉस्टिट्यूशन के लिए रेलवे स्टेशन और बस स्टैंड के पास निकलती है। सुबह 7 बजे वापस आती है और फिर घर का सारा काम उसे ही करना पड़ता है। 17 साल की उम्र में उसकी शादी हुई थी। पति की वह दूसरी पत्नी थी। शादी के दो साल बाद उसे प्रॉस्टिट्यूट बनना पड़ा। रानी कहती है- “मैं जानती थी ये होगा। यह बहुत सामान्य बात है। मैं फैमिली चलाने के लिए यह करती हूं।