Women in India's trafficking belt
Reporting on the plight of woman victims caught in the vise of the Indian trafficking belt, Meena Menon draws attention to socio-economic factors which drive women to the flesh trade. The solution? 'This has to be looked at in terms of politics and the issue has to be fought politically,' argues an activist.
IN the heart of Pandharpur is a small dirty basti (hamlet) along the main road. K, who comes from Satara, had a bad marriage and after he relationship broke up, she had nowhere to go. She met a friend who gave her a contact and she landed up in Pandharpur. Her only daughter lives in Satara. In a small dark room partitioned by a bedsheet, she conducts her business.
A young girl shows the red and white beads that signify dedication to the goddess Yellama. She is in her early teens and says, 'Can you give me some work. I can do anything but I cannot read or write.' Business here picks up during the pilgrimages or 'waris' held annually and during that time women come here from surrounding areas as well.
India's federal government's Central Social Welfare Board lists Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh as the high-supply zones of women in prostitution.
Belgaum, Bijapur, and Kolhapur are some of the common districts from which women migrate to the big cities either as part of an organised trafficking network, or due to socioeconomic compulsions. Poverty, and desertion by husbands are two major factors contributing to women entering prostitution, according to a study.
In a visit to what is called the devdasi belt or the districts bordering Maharashtra and Karnataka, one finds that the trafficking structure operates at various levels. This may or may not be part of a mafia, which exists in big cities with contacts all over the country.
What one often tends to disregard is the ubiquitous system of contacts which the women seem to have. Everywhere it seems there are people posted to 'help' women in distress and give them the right contacts or addresses so that they can earn a living in this profession.
When the women are asked who these people are, there is always a vague reply. They are either reluctant or find it difficult to pinpoint exactly who helped them enter the profession.
Several women in prostitution in this region are either deserted by their husbands or have had broken marriages. Some were dedicated to the goddess Yellamma or had to fend for themselves after their husbands died. Only a few women were trafficked out of the region from among them or even brought to the present brothels through coercion or deception.
In one of the cities in this region, the red-light area is marked by a row of clean whitewashed tenements with old wooden doors. P is from a village near Latur. She was married and lived in Mumbai with her husband. An appendicitis operation forced her to go home and during that period, her husband remarried. Another reason was that she did not have any children after marriage. 'I wish I had children, then my husband would not have left me.'
Despite her pleading with him, he refused to leave his second wife and she decided to return home. While waiting for the bus home from Solapur, she was gang-raped by five men. This ended her resolve to go home and she found work in a mill where it was difficult because of daily taunts made by men. 'I had to enter this line as at least now I have some security,' she said.
The women here have formed their own collective and have taken a strict stand against child prostitution.
In another city in the same region, in a prosperous well-built house, sits G, a gharwali (brothel-keeper) and a devadasi1. One of the major traffickers of the area, she has contacts all over Karnataka. Women come to her through personal or local contacts. 'I don't buy or sell women but parents come to me for help, they bring their daughters and I pay them whatever they want.' Most women arrive here after a few months of attaining puberty.
There seems to be no obvious pimping or trading here in the literal sense of the word, but there exists a well-entrenched system of contacts and a strong network. G accepts only devdasis, widows or those women whose marriages have broken up. Some of her relatives are employed in her brothel.
'When I go back home, I go in full regalia, lots of jewellery, heavy saris and people are very impressed. I leave word with families. If the families are in dire straits, the girls will come to me. I have no business dealing. I am helping these people.'
She admits that girls are tricked into going to big cities where they are sold, but that does not happen here.
Meena Seshu, activist with SANGRAM, based in Sangli, Maharashtra, which has been instrumental in forming collectives of women in prostitution in various places in the region, says: 'Our contribution for the last five years is that we have demarcated trafficking from prostitution.
'We must have a separate law talking about routes, criminal nexus and how these issues can be tackled. Trafficking is a criminal offence and it has been unnecessarily confused in the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act. It has become a moral or immoral issue. If you penalise the victims of trafficking, then are you addressing the problem?' she asks.
'We have to talk of who is facilitating the situation, who is falling prey to the demand and supply situation,' Seshu adds.
'Traffickers, and this can include family members, are all part of an organised criminal network. They are waiting like hawks for the girls to come of age. Today the state is actually responsible. Abject poverty is one of the main reasons. Why are things coming to such a pass? This has to be looked at in terms of politics and the issue has to be fought politically.' (Third World Resurgence No. 90/91, Feb/Mar 1998)
1. Devadasi, a term which literally means maid or servant of god, refers to the practice among certain communities in India of dedicating their daughter to the service of the temple deity (in South India, usually to the Goddess Yellamma). The girl is 'married ' to the goddess and in the case of those married to the Goddess Yellamma, the symbol of this is a little necklace of white and red beads tied around her neck. A ceremony is held to mark the dedication and the girl has to then earn her living by dancing and singing in praise of the goddess.
During the years, the system underwent a change and the women (from the era of the Vijayanagar empire) started serving kings and emperors and gradually over the years, powerful men from various strata of society.
Although the custom is now illegal, in Karnataka and other states where the practice still lingers on, women who are dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma when very young, are often sold into prostitution. Activists say only 15% of the total women dedicated enter prostitution but there are sizeable number of devadasis in the brothels in India.
Meena Menon wrote the above article as part of a media research fellowship from the National Foundation for India.
[c] It was earlier published in The Hindu and is reproduced here with the permission of the editor.