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August 2001

No Choice About Prostitution For Young Women In Madhya Pradesh

By Shuriah Niazi

The central state of India- Madhya Pradesh is thriving hard to get rid of the caste of prostitution which is prevalent in two communities of the state. The males of two communities- Banchhara and Bedia in this central state continue to force their women into prostitution in what they see as a social compulsion rather than an economic necessity.

It is an acceptable way of life in both the communities. Parents and brothers initiate their daughters and sisters into the flesh trade, procure customers for them and thrive on their earnings. Prostitution in the Banchhara and Bedia communities is not an economic necessity but a social compulsion, forced by males of the caste groups, said the recent report prepared by the Madhya Pradesh State Human Rights Commission. The Banchhara community mainly exist in the Ratlam, Neemuch and Mandsaur districts of Madhya Pradesh, bordering Rajasthan from where they are believed to have migrated some 500 years ago.

According to the report their total population is 5,775, including 3,113 females. There are 1,212 unmarried girls in the community of whom 45 percent are engaged in prostitution. The Banchhara females are divided into two groups. Those who marry are known as Bhattawadi and those reserved for prostitution are called Khelawadi. A Bhattawadi cannot engage in prostitution and a Khelawadi cannot marry.

The mother has the right to decide which of her daughters will marry and which will become a sex worker. It is obligatory for the mother to dedicate at least one of her daughters to the flesh trade. She has to make the choice in the girl's early childhood and declare it before the community's deity, Nari Mata.

The Khelawadis conduct their business in small huts situated near highways as most of the customers are truckers. The fathers and brothers act as pimps. Banchhara women abandon prostitution after the age of 35, when they are considered old and do not get customers. By then many contract sexually transmitted diseases.

A recent health check conducted amongst Banchhara sex workers in Mandsaur and Neemuch districts of the state showed that 50 percent of them were HIV positive. The report of the MPHRC on both the communities says that Banchharas could be considered affluent. "It is therefore possible to infer that prostitution amongst Banchharas is not an economic necessity. It is more a social custom or convention," it says.

The Bedias do not operate from their homes and instead prefer to sell the girls in far-off places. Though Bedias can be found in as many as 16 districts of the state, those involved in prostitution are mainly in the Chambal region.

Originally a caste of gypsies from Rajasthan, they were permitted to settle in the Chambal region after offering their daughters to the local landowners. They subsequently adopted the practice as an economic activity. The Bedias are estimated to number about 16,800, including 8,348 females. Of the females, 2,993 were never married and provided the base for prostitution, primarily in the three districts of the Chambal region.

The women known as Bednis are professional sex workers and generally do not marry. Though marriage is uncommon, it is not prohibited. A married woman, whenever, cannot practice prostitution. Over the years, Bedia men have found it more profitable to send their minor daughters to Mumbai and the Middle East. According to the MPHRC, the sex trade amongst the Bedias of Morena, Gwalior and Sheopuri districts has become organized and is controlled by the underworld. As prostitution amongst the Bedias is not guided by religious beliefs, things have been gradually changing.

Earlier all the girls were debarred from marriage and it was obligatory for them to support their families through prostitution. But that is not the case any longer. With the objective of abolishing caste-based prostitution, the state government introduced the "Jabali Yojna" in 1982, a scheme aimed at rehabilitating and educating the sex workers. The scheme failed as the sex workers continued indulging in the flesh trade even while extracting benefits under the rehabilitation package.

A scheme called "Nirmal Yojna" was later launched in Mandsaur district. That too fizzled out. The MPHRC, while criticizing the government for doing little to check prostitution among the two communities, has suggested strict enforcement of the law. Shuriah Niazi is a journalist in Central India. [email protected]

 

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