Keeping the city’s dismal safety situation in mind, families in most parts of Delhi usually discourage women from stepping out of their homes at night. At Dharampura, an unauthorized colony in Najafgarh, on the outskirts of South-East Delhi, the rules are the exact opposite.
Here, while women work through the night, soliciting sex on the highways that border Delhi, the men can be seen spending their time, hunched across the locality’s narrow lanes playing cards or whiling away time. What’s more? No one frowns upon this work arrangement either.
Residents of Dharampura belong to the perna caste, and among the women of this extremely marginalized community, entering the sex trade is the natural step after marriage and childbirth. Boys and girls, in fact, are informed about their gender roles and ‘place in society’ from a very young age.
*Geeta has followed the same routine for the last decade. She leaves the perna basti with other women around midnight. Sharing a rickshaw, she travels in a group, touting for customers at random places like bus stops and auto stands, away from her neighbourhood and the prying eyes of the police.
“We stay away from the police. They take all the money and also demand free sex,” she says. Encounters usually happen in public places or inside vehicles, with a woman always staying within shouting distance in case things get out of hand. Servicing anywhere between 3-5 customers, and earning ₹100 to ₹300 per encounter, a good day is when she makes upwards of ₹1000 in a night.
Working through the night, She comes home at 7 in the morning, bathes and cooks before catching a quick nap. She gets up after a few hours, washes clothes, cooks dinner for the family and steals a few hours of sleep, before starting the rigamarole of the day all over again.
Asked if the responsibilities feel a little too much at times, she replies nonchalantly, “Aisa kuch nahin hai. Humare mein aise hi hota hai.Pati ki marzi se ye karte hain. Ye har ladki ke saath hota hai. Thode waqt mein aadat pad jaati hai.” (It’s not like that. It happens like this only, in our case. We do it as it is the wish of our husband. This happens with every girl. After a while, one gets used to it.)
Sunita*, another woman from the community is a single mother of four girls. She says she hasn’t seen ‘a single day of happiness’ in her life. Sunita was studying when her parents died and her relatives married her off to a stranger in a nearby locality. Dealing with an alcoholic husband and abusive in-laws was no easy task. Yet, her situation turned truly dire when the husband passed away, leaving her with no option but to return to Dharampura and work in the sex-trade.
I ask her about her life in Dharampura and why things are the way they are. “Boys are told at a young age, ‘aapko kuch karne ki zarrorat nai. Shaadi hogi toh (you don’t need to do anything. After marriage) you will get a wife, who will work to feed you.’ Barring one or two boys, there is not even a single boy here who has passed class 10. Soch hi nahi hai (The mindset is not there.),” she says.
“A perna woman is thrice oppressed,” says Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap, an anti-trafficking NGO that works with the community. “She is poor, female and born into a low-caste. They have to challenge these intertwining inequalities every day.”
“As soon as a woman gains puberty, she is married off, and after the first child, the husband pimps his wife. The woman, obviously, can’t resist – she is illiterate and only has this community for support. She thinks there is no way to escape. She does this her whole life and then puts her daughter into prostitution. The bride doesn’t give dowry in perna caste, she is actually sold off by parents,” says Shashi Kaushal, a social worker who works in the area.
The perna community belongs to what were earlier called the DNTs, or the Denotified Tribes. They were also referred to as India’s criminal tribes.
Listed under the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) – a successive series of legislation enforced in India under the British rule in 1871, the community was one among the many hundreds which were pronounced criminal by the British. This law was based on the assumption that certain tribes, with a huge percentage of nomadic communities, were systematic and habitual offenders who needed to be dealt with a separate law. While the law was repealed and the tribes de-notified in 1952, the identification of these communities as ethnic groups with criminal antecedents continues to this day, leading to everyday discrimination in terms of access to education and jobs, as well as brutal violence by neighbouring communities and police personnel.
“It is believed that most denotified tribes share a common lineage to the ruler Maharana Pratap. Mostly cattle herders or entertainers, they usually led a nomadic life. Britishers viewed mobility with a lot of skepticism. So, under the Criminal Tribes Act, the activities of these tribes were criminalized,” says Subir Rana, an anthropologist who has spent time among the Pernas of Najafgarh.
For most communities, including the Pernas (who were traditionally cattle herders), the labelling of criminality was so devastating that it made it extremely difficult for the community to earn a livelihood. “Prostitution was an easy option to make quick money to save the community from the high incidence of deaths. It is also a recent practice, one that is not more than a 100 years old,” Rana adds.
While the tribes were denotified after the British left, the stigma still continues. “The criminal perception has stuck. Nobody wants to give members of the community a job. They still do not have any access to jobs or education. They are also one of the most invisible communities. They fear society, they fear law, because neither have been of any help to them. It is not that they are happy with their situation. But they are trapped. And feel they cannot ask for help from anyone else. So they are compelled to keep doing the same thing,” Rana says.
However, not everything is bleak and dark. Having spent their entire lives doing sex work, some have begun questioning the status quo and are even figuring out ways to create a better future for their daughters.
Sunita, in fact, waged a battle with the panchayat herself when her elder daughter’s in-laws started forcing her into the trade. I said, “When I don’t want it, my daughter doesn’t want it, who are you to force her? No, the important issue is when she doesn’t want it, why should anyone force her?” she says. Her daughter wanted to study, Sunita tells me, but the panchayat forced her to get her daughter married. The panchayat, though, conceded to her demands this time around, and the in-laws had to back off.
Sunita now has a single point agenda in life – ensuring her daughters get a good education and escape the confines of Dharampura. “It is the only way. “Kissi ke maathe pe ye thoda likha hai ki wo ismein jaegi? Agar padenge likhenge, toh dunia mein bohat kuch hai karne ke liye,” (Is it written on anyone’s forehead that they will get into this profession? If they study, write there is a lot to do in this world.) she says.
Encouraged by her support, the daughters are also excelling in school. The medals and trophies her daughters have won at school, hold a place of pride in Sunita’s small four feet by four feet home, where they are displayed for all to see.
Sadly, most in the community don’t think like Sunita. This is where the need for urgent government intervention comes in.
“We have an idea about the backwardness of Dalits. But we don’t even have a count for communities like the Pernas. Their situation is even worse. What is needed is for the government to undertake a social audit for these communities and then plan a targeted intervention through social welfare programmes to bring about change. They are the lowest of the lows, and invisible,” Rana says.
What makes the situation more challenging, is the community’s weariness to reach out to the state, and the fact that they don’t even have a basic awareness of their rights. The government, therefore, also needs to figure out a way to mainstream them into society in a way that the community doesn’t perceive its actions as a threat.
By providing girls from the community with scholarships to study in residential schools, Apne Aap is trying to do this – taking children out of their familial contexts to introduce them to a new way of living.
“The government can also do this by allocating their free boarding schools called Kasturba Gandhi Ballika Vidyalayas under the Education for All policy, especially for girls from this community. That will really help,” says Gupta. A lot more, however, needs to be done.
Sunita’s younger daughter is one of the several girls going to Apne Aap’s residential school. She enjoys dancing and theatre. She tells me that she will become a journalist one day. I’ll get a good job and we will go away from here, she keeps telling her mother.
For this family, this is the first glimpse of an alternative life.