Nat Purwa, a small village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is about a two-hour drive from the provincial capital, Lucknow. In the mornings dozens of young children wearing tattered clothes trot along its dusty streets. It is hard not to notice their big, round, undernourished bellies. The children disappear into the fields, chasing away stray cattle.
Like most other villages around here, Nat Purwa suffers from abject poverty. But one element makes the village stand out from others in the area: Here, prostitution is a hereditary occupation, passed on from one generation of women to the next.
When Chandralekha turned 15, she joined the trade like the rest of the village girls. “My grandma said: ‘The whole village is involved in prostitution. What difference does it make if you become one?’ My grandmother is the one who got me involved,” she told Al Jazeera.
Wrinkles criss-cross the 50-year-old’s face as she recounts her past. “I always felt bad. With the first man, then the second, fourth, fifth, sixth. Thousands of men come to one woman. I’d say a woman starts feeling bad since the beginning, but there’s a weakness. There’s a hungry stomach to feed and there is resignation.”
Chandralekha gave up prostitution owing to intolerable abuse. “I realised there’s no respect,” she said. “A whore is a whore.”
Chandralekha and thousands of other women from Nat Purwa belong to the Nat community. The Nats have led a marginalised existence for decades. Before prostitution became the norm, Nats were historically performers, and some still carry on this tradition.
In 1871, the Criminal Tribes Act was passed under British rule, which classified certain tribes as engaging in “criminal activities”. The Nats were one of the tribes targeted by this law.
Madhu Kishwar, the editor of Manushi , a journal and forum for women’s rights, explained. “They [Nats and other ‘criminal tribes’] used to be dancers, acrobats, jugglers and magicians,” she said.
“During the colonial period, the British outlawed their activities. They got beaten up, arrested, locked up and brutalisation continued. This dried up their traditional source of livelihood, and women had no choice. They ended up in prostitution – what [else] will they do?”
Kishwar said that, more than six decades after independence, the legal framework in India still views the marginalised community through a colonial prism.
“I am taking their case to the Supreme Court,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s a long process but I am not giving up.” She added that there needed to be a major shift in “the colonial mindset” among all people in India in order to bring about real change on the ground.
A pan-India phenomenon?
Nat Purwa is not unique: academic Dr Anuja Agrawal , who has conducted research on the subject, said it’s difficult to estimate the exact number of such “prostitute villages” in India.
“They are spread across [the Indian states of] Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan,” she said. “And like Nats, for other communities such as Bedias, Faasi and Banjar. Prostitution has emerged as a strategy of survival among several such communities.”
Agrawal says all these communities are inter-linked: “They share a distinct past. They were all nomadic tribes who settled with their communities in small villages.”
“At least 30 percent of the women in the village are still sex workers. If you want to see progress, you should be able to offer them an alternative way of earning their livelihood.”
– Ramu Babu, ASHA Trust
In her book Migrant Women and Work, Agrawal wrote about the women of the Bedia community and their “proclivity” towards prostitution. There is a “family dimension” to the trade, she said. The men are also involved, making sex work an important aspect of the family economy.
This phenomenon isn’t restricted to the northern and central plains of India. In south of the country, the Devadasi tradition has ensured that sex work remains the primary occupation among women from certain communities.
In the pre-colonial era, Devadasis were often temple dancers who were “married” to temple deities. Under British rule, temple dancing came to be classified as a criminal act, and the women were forced instead to sell their bodies for an income. Sex work then became a “tradition” among these communities, and today it has attained a certain level of social and cultural sanction.
Over the years, women from these communities have migrated to urban centres within India such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and even, reportedly, internationally to cities such as Dubai. “Even if you go to the brothels and red-light areas in these big cities, you’ll find women from these communities,” said Agrawal.
One study has estimated that as many as one percent of the entire adult female population in India may be involved in the sex trade. The Indian government has taken various measures to rehabilitate these women and protect their children. Last October, the Delhi government laid out a proposal to converge several such measures under an umbrella scheme for sex workers.
“We have in fact just begun work with sex workers from marginalised communities,” said Ratna Prabha, of the Ministry of Women and Child Development.
“In states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, we have begun doing a base-line survey. We are trying to find out what their needs are in terms of health, education, housing, and other economic factors. We are also trying to find out what their children need or what they will need in their old age. In all these states, we are working with the state government and reputed NGOs.”
Back in Nat Purwa, the children have returned from playing in the fields. When asked what their names are, they only give their first names; many don’t have surnames. Nat Purwa is known elsewhere as “a village of bastards”.
For instance, Ram Babu, field researcher with a local NGO called ASHA Trust, said he faced stigma when he left to pursue higher studies. “They would ask us: ‘Whose son are you? A prostitute’s son? You must be a bastard then. Nobody knows who your father is. Nobody knows whose son you are.’ These are the questions all of us face. I am sure everybody feels hurt by it.”
Ram Babu, who, incidentally, was born “out of wedlock”, said the only way to make villagers’ past bearable is to work towards a better future. “At least 30 percent of the women in the village are still sex workers,” he told Al Jazeera. “If you want to see progress, you should be able to offer them an alternative way of earning their livelihood. If they are given a concrete option, then they will give it a serious thought.”.
The NGO worker pointed out that lack of education is slowing the pace of progress. “It’s a big problem here. When there’s no education, it’s easy to be misled,” he said.
Nat Purwa’s school doesn’t look particularly impressive. In desolate surroundings, the building has one hall with a few benches and a blackboard. Rukmini [name changed], a 12-year-old student, said shyly: “I don’t know what I’ll become. I’ll become whatever I have to become. I could work in an office or something.”
She did not seem fiercely ambitious. But given Nat Purwa’s bleak surroundings, dreaming was never going to be easy.