They Prostitute Their Girls: The Bedia
by Rita Banerji
While India’s loathing of daughters leads to more than a million female feticides each year, and the killing of thousands of new born girls, the Bedia is one community that wants girls.
When a woman is pregnant, the family hopes it will be a girl. Not a boy.
What makes the Bedia’s stance on girls different from that of the rest of India?
It is their centuries old tradition of inducting their daughters into sex-work.
For long, women have served as the life-line of the Bedia community. There is a ceremonial initiation of girls soon after puberty in a ritual called ‘Nath Utrai.’ Because of the normalcy of this practice, it is not viewed as “prostitution,” but as a time-honored tradition.
The Bedia women who get married may discontinue the work. However that would mean a loss of revenue for the family and community. Probably to discourage that, the norm has been for Bedia men to pay a large bride-price for a Bedia bride. Hence, Bedia men usually marry women from outside communities.
Prior to India’s independence the Bedia women would serve wealthy land-owners and feudal lords, and be handsomely rewarded with cash and jewelry. Anuja Agarwal, author of Chaste Wives, and Prostitute Sisters: Patriarchy and Prostitution among the Bedias, who has spent much time getting to know the Bedia, says that many migrate to cities and urban red-light districts in search of work, and can have very high earnings, up to Rs.30,000/- a month (60 times India’s poverty level income).
Government and social workers have found it difficult to wean the community away from this practice, to introduce them to education, and to engage them in more main-stream work. The community remains insular and resistant. This is largely because, even at the lower income end, as Agarwal points out, the Bedia women can still earn between 4-10 times the amount that unskilled workers in India earn. However, the concern is also regarding the spread of HIV and other STDs among the Bedia.
Another very important reason for the resistance to change according to Agarwal is that the Bedia men have got used to a “comfortable” living which entails little or “no responsibility,” since the men traditionally have always been unemployed. And they are not “willing to easily give [this] up.”
Besides the Bedia, there are other tribal communities such as the Kanjars, Nuts and Sanshis, where sex-work traditionally has been the primary means of community revenue. This is perhaps in some ways is similar to the Devdasi (temple prostitution) system prevalent in other parts of India.
However, unlike the Devdasis, the Bedia women who work, have a certain degree of financial autonomy, are respected within their community and have a higher social status than those who don’t work and the women from outside communities who marry in. This could be another reason why the Bedia women don’t want to voluntarily discontinue their tradition. Still, there seems to be a bizarre attempt at redefining the Bedia’s sense of “morality.” In the photo here, Bedia girls inducted into schools, are being taught the following message by rote: “A bad man is better than a bad name!”
What is perhaps is more important though is the question of what it means to be born a girl in the Bedia community. To be forced into prostitution while still a child, at the age of 12 or 13, and to not have the freedom or will to choose their lives differently. It is a pointer towards a critical issue the government of India has persistently dithered on – that of protecting children’s rights.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rita Banerji is an author and gender activist, and the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign to end India’s female genocide. Her book ‘Sex and Power: Defining History Shaping Societies,‘ is a historical and social look at how the relationship between gender and power in India has led to the ongoing female gendercide. Her website is www.ritabanerji.com She blogs at Rebellions in my Space and tweets at @Rita_Banerji
ABOUT THEABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Renu Parkhi is a supporting member of The 50 Million Missing Campaign’s Photographers Group on Flickr which is supported by more than 2400 photographers from around the world. To see more of each of her works, please click here.