About thirty kilometers from the heart of the national capital is a small village, Dharampura, where women belonging to a nomadic tribal community from Rajasthan are “traditional” sex workers, as their in-laws push them into the flesh trade right after marriage.
37-year-old Hema (name changed), along with many other women from her community, hires a cab or an autorickshaw every night around 2 am in search of clients and returns only after dawn.
On a regular day she earns about Rs 200-300, but the money can go up to Rs 600 when business is good. “It is a common practice amongst our community. We don’t feel shy about it. We have seen possibly every woman from our community engage in this trade,” she said.
Hema was married off at 15, and now she has four daughters, two of whom were married off at 16 to men within their community — a strict practice among these villagers. However, she does not want her daughters to continue with this “tradition”.
“We were pushed into this. I would possibly try to marry my other two daughters outside our caste, so that they don’t have to meet the same fate. Two of my daughters are studying. I want them to make a good living out of it.”
Men of the community mostly do not work and depend on the incomes of their wives.
Ruchira Gupta, founder of the NGO Apne Aap, has been working extensively with these women. “These groups were labelled ‘Criminal Tribes’ under the British and forced to give up their nomadic ways. Police atrocities were heaped on the women along with sexual exploitation. Slowly, these groups were pushed into prostitution. This practice continues even today although the Criminal Tribe Act has been de-notified. Men continue to prey on their girls. The government needs to invest in safe and independent housing, education, food and legal protection to help these communities out of this vicious cycle.”
Often, the women are harassed and exploited by their clients. Sheena (name changed) said, “Our clients are often drunk and beat us. Some even refuse to pay for our services. At times our life is in danger. They abuse us, refuse to use condoms and gag us. It is difficult to escape. Yet we bear all this as we have no place to complain.”
The local police, too, do not intervene.
The women never bring their clients to the village. “We keep this place free of such activities, as our children stay here,” Sheena said.
Sashi Bala, a volunteer at the NGO Apne Aap, said, “We have been distributing sewing machines, teaching them to stitch bags, mobile purses, etc., to train them in an alternate profession,” Sashi Bala said.
“We are also linking the children from these caste ghettos to schools and the women to governemnt IDs and educating them about government schemes so that they can reduce their expenses, get legal protection. Most of the women do not even have any documents to prove they are citizens of India. ” Ruchira added.