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Inside India's Perna Caste, Where Women Are Routinely Prostituted by Their In-Laws

Attention in India is finally being directed at gender relations following what's now widely known as the Delhi Incident, but the outrage is still class-based, and women like Seema, a 30-year-old whose husband is also her pimp, see little hope for change.

NEW DELHI — On a recent sunny day before the monsoons began, a thin woman settled to the floor in the cool shade of a nondescript apartment building in Dharampura, where a Perna community lives on the outskirts of Delhi. Seema is not normally awake in the afternoon; the Perna practice a form of inter-generational sex work, which is a strangely polite way of saying that women here expect to be prostituted by their husbands.*

Seema's daily routine rarely changes: she “goes for prostitution” around 2:00 a.m., taking an auto-rickshaw with other Perna women to public places. “Anywhere that’s crowded is good,” she says. “Bus stations, taxis.” In nearby Delhi, women with the means to do so make their plans for the evening early and don’t leave the house without a male escort after dark. Seema, who goes out every night on her own, says she dreads the moment when the group of women inevitably separates: “You have to do the work alone.” She tries to avoid the police. Rather than providing her protection, they ask for free sex and take her money. On good nights she might service as many as five customers, bad nights are the ones when she can’t find a john. She comes home around 7:00 a.m., makes her six children and her husband breakfast, washes clothes, takes a nap, cooks dinner, sometimes steals another few hours of sleep, and then gets up to start the day all over again. She met her husband on the day of her wedding, becoming his second wife at the age of 17, and two years later, his prostitute. “I knew it would happen, it’s very normal,” she said. “I do it to earn for my family.”

“If rape happens in Delhi, everyone gets excited,” said Abhilasha Kumari, director of Apne Aap Worldwide. “But these women are raped every day,” she says of the country’s prostitutes.

Dr. Aparajita Gogoi, founder of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood/India, explained that women in India have historically not had the same status as men. “There’s a saying here that you’re lucky if your wife dies and not your cow,” Gogoi said. In a culture where sons provide for their parents and daughters provide for their in-laws, Indian families traditionally invested in their male progeny the way Western families invest in a 401K. It’s just simple economics. In marginalized communities like the Perna, a formerly nomadic tribe stigmatized in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, women's lives tend to be worth even less; there’s a very human need, even or perhaps especially within minorities, to be the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

“It happens to every girl,” says Horbai, another Perna woman. “You get used to it.” Horbai was studying to be a tailor until her parents died, and her aunt and uncle married her to a stranger. She returned to Dharampura as a young widow, and with no other form of income, joined the other women as a prostitute. But Horbai has a surprisingly positive take. “My life before [my marriage] was very difficult," she said. "My life after was very difficult. But coming on my own now, I’m happy, because I’m able to give my daughters an education.” This is the state of gender affairs in Dharampura today: Horbai is happy that her pimp outlasted her husband. “Maybe if my husband was alive, my daughters would be restricted,” Horbai said. On her own, she’s able to support her family and send her children to school. “So I’m happy for them, but not myself.”

Horbai’s 12-year-old daughter wants to be a journalist, and she watches shyly from the corner as our interview takes place. Her 10-year-old sister is not at all shy; she wants to be an actress, and vamps happily in front of my Nikon. “I would never let my daughters go into sex work,” Horbai said. “That’s why I want them to be educated.” Horbai’s daughters are lucky. They are taking classes with a non-profit advocacy organization, Apne Aap, that works with the Perna and other communities where sex work is common, trying to provide the children of prostitutes alternative skills.

Many of the women here are emphatic that they would never let their daughters go into sex work. In fact, this is often the giveaway of their true feelings about their profession. Scared of stirring up trouble with their husbands, the women have learned to say that the sex is “with their consent.” But everyone I talked to during my stay was adamant that they don’t want their daughters to follow in their stead. Unfortunately, the women have little control over what will happen after their daughters are married, traditionally at very young ages. Unless the girls have another way to earn money for their new families, they will likely follow a now well-worn path.

It was the drastic lack of options in the lives of prostitutes that led Rukshira Gupta to found Apne Aap. “Women in India are in danger from the time they are conceived until the time they die,” Gupta said. “They could be victims of sex-selective abortion, if they are born they may be left out to die, if they survive they’ll get less food than their brothers, be pulled out of school to help with chores at home, be married early, risk death during pregnancy, be sold into prostitution, or die begging as widows.”

Gupta has short spiky hair and, once she gets on a roll, can hold forth at great length on gender issues in India. She has all the passion of an accidental advocate, falling into the role during the course of researching a story in Nepal as a journalist. “I came into rows of villages that didn’t have any, I mean any, girls, from 15 to 45,” she said. “I asked some of the men sitting around and they were sheepish, and then finally someone told me, ‘Don’t you know? They’re all in Bombay.’” This was in a village two hours from a road, Gupta said, but there was a whole supply chain in place. Families would be paid for their daughters, sometimes as little as $50, and the girls taken by a series of transporters across the border to agents in Calcutta and Bombay, where they were handed over to pimps and priced based on their beauty and age. The pimps gave them to brothel managers for “seasoning”—repeated rape—and the girls, many between nine and 13 years old, were then kept in bonded labor, expected to service 10 or more customers a night for an average of $3 each.


“You’re told you’re devalued because you’ve been used sexually, so you can’t go home,” Gupta said. The brothel owners, who are one part of a broad network of organized crime, “condition the girls' minds as well as use physical restraint.” The documentary she made of life in these red light districts won an Emmy, but she quit journalism the night she received the award. “As a journalist, I’d covered war, but I’d never seen this kind of exploitation of one human by another,” Gupta said.

Since 1997, Gupta’s organization, Apne Aap—which means “self-empowerment” in Hindi—has worked with prostitutes across India, including denotified tribes like the Perna, helping the women to set up micro-finance groups, trying to get their children enrolled in schools, and lobbying for government policies that protect their rights. Abhilasha Kumari, director of Apne Aap Worldwide, explained that after what has become known as the "Delhi Incident"—last December, a 23-year-old coming home from a movie with a male companion was beaten and brutally gang-raped on a bus, later dying from her injuries—there’s been a rare burst of attention to women’s rights. “If rape happens in Delhi, everyone gets excited,” Kumari said. “But these women are raped every day,” she says of the country’s prostitutes.

Kumari was among the organizers at Apne Aap who took 200 prostitutes to one of the many protests following the Delhi Incident. “They were shouting slogans, clapping,” Kumari said. “For the first time, they felt like they mattered, like they could make a difference.” Someone was finally paying attention.

Manita, one of the inter-generational prostitutes from Dharampura, attended the rally, her first act of protest. “Rape was always happening,” she said. “Now it’s just the media is paying attention. But what’s the point of being aware of what’s happening unless there’s strict laws?” She attended the demonstration to demand that India’s laws regarding rape and sexual exploitation be changed. “Someone must have heard my voice as well,” she said.

Even though gender-based violence is finally in the spotlight, Kumari explains that as feminism gains a new cache in India, it’s important to keep the cultural context in mind. “People from socially liberal places need to understand that prostitution is not a moral issue,” Kumari said. “The gay movement is equating its own sexual freedom with women’s freedom to be prostitutes, and what they don’t understand is that these women aren’t articulating their sexuality, they’re being bought and sold.” The common argument made in countries like Norway, where the novel policy question is not whether to punish traffickers of underage children but whether to make adult prostitution legal, is that women should have a right to make a living however they please. “But if you are forced into sex work when you’re 10 years old and then told you can’t leave, exactly what choice are you exercising?” Kumari asked.


Caveats aside, Kumari’s cautiously optimistic that women’s rights might be slowly changing in India. “Momentarily, there’s excitement,” she said. But she cautioned that hope was too strong a word. “Hope is too reality driven, and it takes time to make change.”

After the gang-rape in December, India passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, which more clearly defines rape; increases the possible sentencing for sexual violence to include the death penalty; and makes stalking, sexual harassment, and “eve-teasing” illegal. But in Delhi, a rape is reported every 18 hours, suggesting the actual number of rapes is even higher. At the end of April, the city saw another popular outcry as demonstrations renewed to protest the recent kidnapping, rape, and torture of a five-year-old girl. When the girl’s parents reported the crime, the police offered the family 2,000 rupees—about $37—if they would drop the case. A few days later, a mustachioed police officer hit a female demonstrator across the face, sparking India’s version of the uproar over Anthony Bologna.

Rashida Manjoo, special rapporteur for the United Nations on violence against women, recently came out with a statement lamenting the Criminal Law, saying it does “not go far enough,” failing to “establish a substantive and specific equality and non-discrimination rights legislative framework for women.” After meeting with government figures and civil society around Delhi, Manjoo believes this “stems from a government’s inability and/or unwillingness to acknowledge and address the core structural causes of violence against women.” In non-U.N. speak, it’s not enough just have a new law on the books—both law enforcement and the judicial system need to enforce it.

Back in Dharampura, Seema squinted as the sun dropped into the window, suddenly flooding the dark room. “No one wants to do this work,” she said quietly. “It’s always without choice. But who would I go to complain to?” All she wants for the future, she says, is for her daughter to be someone society recognizes.

On my flight leaving India, a small column in the complimentary in-flight newspaper gave an inch of space to a four-year-old rape victim from Madhya Pradesh. She died after a week in a coma on life support. No one was protesting for her.

*Update—March 12th, 2018: Seema is a pseudonym.