DARKER SHADES OF GREY
The Banchchada community is infamous in Madhya Pradesh for pushing their girl children into prostitution. “Customers” can rape young girls in these districts for as less as Rs 100
It is 9:30 am on a cloudy August morning. Kajal and Nilesh wait for us at the Mandsaur Courthouse with Nilesh's brother and sister. The streets are empty except for a Maruti Omni parked under some bushes, in which Kajal and Nilesh had arrived. As we reach, the first thing Akash Chouhan asks for is their Aadhaar Cards. "This is very important," he says.
Chouhan, 27 is a final year law student and runs a local NGO called Nayi Abha Samajik Chetna Samiti, that runs rescue and advocacy programmes for women forced into prostitution. As we leave them to gather documents, Chouhan says, "Cover her face up. Don't disclose this to anyone. We'll be back in a couple of hours."
August 31, 2018, was one of the most important days for Kajal and Nilesh. Kajal had run away from her home in Ratlam district of Madhya Pradesh to get married to her boyfriend, Nilesh, in Mandsaur. They are both Banchchada, a community infamous in the state for forcing their girl children into prostitution. Essentially, a community that looks at women/girls as cash cows, but fails to keep them as safe as the animal itself.
The "tradition" is rumoured to have started when colonisers arrived in the northern parts of the state. Court dancers of monarchs were forced to perform sexual favours for them, which in turn kept them and their families safe. Following this, families continued to enforce this on their adult daughters as a way to put bread on the table.
Kajal and Nilesh wanted to get married as soon as possible because Kajal's parents were threatening to sell her off into prostitution unless Nilesh could come up with Rs 15 lakh. The money was to compensate for the money she would have made from being forced into prostitution. That is why she ran away.
Chouhan had, through his NGO, single-handedly, in a day, arranged for Kajal and Nilesh to be married at the courthouse, made sure the police gave them protection and their blessings, and sent them off to an unknown place for their honeymoon, so they could hide from Kajal's family members for a few weeks.
"Once men in the community saw the potential for making money by doing nothing but forcing their daughters into prostitution, they jumped on it," Chouhan says. Now at least four to five generations of men in the Banchchada community have grown up knowing that they can earn money just by having daughters and pushing them into this trade, he adds.
In Neemuch, Mandsaur, and Ratlam districts, there are 72 Banchchada villages. In these villages, women outnumber men and there are more than 2,000 minor girls being forced into prostitution, mostly by their parents, according to Chouhan. While the number of women who are in the trade is at least four times that, there is no way of confirming how many of them choose prostitution and how many are forced.
Girls are given hormonal supplements as soon as they are 'inducted', to make them look older, with the supplements often being used indiscriminately, with no regulated dosage system in place. Chouhan says that increasingly men are asking for younger girls "who look mature".
According to locals, the practice of forcing minors into prostitution started only about 10-12 years ago, owing to these demands from 'clients'. Unsurprisingly, the advent of internet and pornography on mobile phones has led to such fantasies in the men who visit these girls, Chouhan says.
Nita (name changed), 17, was forced into prostitution by her alcoholic parents when she was 13.
"I had just gotten my 6th Standard results and I had passed. I was waiting to start the 7th Standard after the summer holidays. One day, my mother brought a man home and asked me to go into a room with him," she said, describing how girls/women are "initiated into the trade".
"Three to four women held me down on the bed as the man forced himself on me. The women gave me oils to make sure I didn't resist," she continued. "I screamed and shouted for it to end. This happened every time until the girls finally broke."
As far as she can recall, Nita said she was visited by at least 100 men a month in the span of four years. Her charges, decided by her parents, ranged from Rs 100 to Rs 300. Considering the lower end of the range, Nita made her parents at least Rs 4.5 lakh over the course of four years.
After four years of being raped every day, Nita was rescued in a raid led by Chouhan and the Madhya Pradesh Police. She now lives in the same house as her parents, who had soon got out on bail. However, she lives in a separate room with minimal interaction with them while they continue to urge her to go back into prostitution.
"My mother is now upset because I've found someone I love and want to get married to him. They don't want that for me because they won't be able to use me to earn money once I get married," Nita said. The man she is referring to is a truck driver from Uttar Pradesh – one of her 'clients' - who had raped her on several occasions while she was 'in the trade'. She plans to get married as soon as she turns 18 and move to UP.
The situation in these three districts is nothing short of dire. As in Nita's case, there are countless instances of rescued girls/women developing Stockholm Syndrome, where they end up having affectionate relationships with their abuser as a way to get out of an abusive situation.
In fact, apart from the extremely limited way that the physical trauma of being raped is treated in rescued women and girls, there is no way for the victims to even recognise or understand the different kinds of mental trauma they might be going through. With no access to mental health practitioners, there is no way to gauge the amount of mental trauma that victims go through.
For women who are in the trade by choice, there are not nearly enough health clinics for them to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases on a regular basis. Usually, women have to travel more than 50 km to get to a health clinic in Mandsaur to get tested.
Moreover, there is a social stigma with regards to how victims should be rehabilitated. There is a prevailing ideology among most men in the area, according to which, the only way for women and girls to get out of this abusive circle is for them to get married.
While there are institutions in the area that provide basic education for rescued girls and women, there is no infrastructure in place to provide vocational and skill training for them, so they can become financially independent.
From time to time, the police conducts raids in these districts and rescues about 10-12 girls at a time, sometimes more. However, months after these rescue operations, the parents get out on bail, wait for things to cool down, and continue with their business. Customers are easy to come by because of where they are located.
Girls and women station themselves at small huts along the highway connecting Ratlam, Mandsaur, and Neemuch. Truck drivers using the highway often just stop at these huts that look like paan shops at first glance and either go into a nearby house or invite the girls/women into their vehicles.
Despite having come under police scanners multiple times, the "trade" is extremely organised in the way girls and women are trained to keep an eye out for suspicious behaviour. Young girls are taught to spot government vehicles, police vehicles, or media persons; they are trained to run away the moment they see a camera.
The usual practice is that if one of them notices a suspicious vehicle or person, a photo of the vehicle is circulated in a closed chat group and the entire community goes underground.