Ritualistic Sex Slavery – does this term act as a very synonym for “a breach on morality” or to be justified as a culturally accepted informed choice by the concerned people? A visit to a remote village called Patharia at Madhya Pradesh questioned my views on the same.

The first emotions acting within a woman on hearing about it would be outrage, helplessness, sympathy, and an unendurable mortification. An indefinable impulse to end the factors that sabotage the female gender would be the consequence. Led by such an urge, I reached the place myself with my friends to investigate, during November 2009.

Ritualistic Sex Slavery of the Bedinis

According to various sources, the Bedia community in some districts of Madhya Pradesh practice ritualistic sex slavery. In every family, the parents sacrifice at least one of their daughters as a Bedini as a religious obligation. The Bedini when turning four, is sent to professional dancers to learn the traditional Raai dance, an art form depicting Ramyana and Mahabharata. As soon as she attains puberty, she is auctioned in the village (a ceremony called as Nathutharai and Siridakai) and sold out. She is termed as a Raai dancer & qualified to give performances for the villagers in and around, who auction for her.

The Bedinis give performances whenever there are functions or ceremonies and commercial sex work is also a part of it. Males are the only audience present at variable numbers , the female numbers are almost negligible. Sometimes, the dancers are made to change into their costumes in front of the audience and the dances turn exotic.

Whoever throws money at the dancers during the performance gets to sleep with the woman. The system works in a way in which the person with the highest power gets to sleep with the woman followed by the men holding the least power. Sexual, verbal abuse, and sometimes rape are inevitable. The Bedinis resisting the brutalities or filing complaints about this to the police is a doubtful affair considering their business has to continue and there is a need for customers for their survival.

The Bedinis previously were not allowed to have relationships or get married, though the trend is currently changing. Sometimes the women get pregnant and they have to raise their own children as a single parent .In most cases , the child may not know the father. The men in the family hardly work. The brothers of Bedinis become pimps. The Bedinis are the only or the main earning members of the family .They support joint or extended families and nuclear families are very rare. So typically, a Bedini might support an average of eight to ten members in the house. The Bedia community has culturally accepted this form of lifestyle for almost two hundred years.

Our stay at Satya Seva Ashram, Patharia, Madhya Pradesh:

We stayed in an ashram called Satya Seva ashram in a village called Patharia (Kisanpur) near to the city of Sagar, Madhya Pradesh. It’s two and four hours travel from Patharia to Sagar and Bhopal respectively. The ashram houses close to hundred students who undergo free education. The ashram is in the middle of the fields .The ashram runs the school by a Government-sponsored scheme.The ashram is run by an elderly lady called Ms. Champa Ben who is a social activist.

A talk with the school staff and inhabitants of the village.

The staff working at the school stated that the males in the family hardly work or don’t work at all. The kids don’t go to school because of accessibility issues. PHCs are incompetent and in case of pregnancy and delivery issues, the Bedinis have to travel for 2 hours to a government hospital or private hospitals at Sagar or it’s a 4 hours travel to Bhopal.
The Bedinis are aware of RTI, governmental schemes like NRGEA and have health awareness about sexually transmitted diseases. But precautions are not taken for these diseases.

The schools are too distant for the children to study. Some of the villages have no fields due to very less rainfall in the area. Some of the villages are plagued by draught. The Bedinis are the only source of income to these places. Dalits and Adi vasis also inhabit the area.

Meeting with the famous Champa Behan – a lone crusader against ritualistic sex slavery :

Champa Behan has done a lot rallies and andolans, strikes for women empowerment and anti – prostitution and especially for the Bedinis in Sagar district.
On 20th of January, there is an annual mahotsav where, the Bedinis who choose to cease sex work for an occupation are got married to grooms of their choice by Ms. Champa Ben. It is a mass marriage ceremony conducted at Patharia village.
This ‘flesh business’ is carried out in the Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan belt. The communities involved are Bedia, Bhanchada, Nutt and Sansi. She calls it “organized crime” by the families of the Bedia community for making easy money. Girls aged ten, eleven and twelve are made prostitutes. The pimps and the customers know the law. The Bedinis themselves entertain the police in the police stations to get their siblings bailed out.
She wants the existing Panchayats in these villages to dissolve. She wants the power to be transferred to the Central Government. She says the Bedinis in the area have grown dependent on her .So they aren’t showing any kind of resistance to prevailing injustice. She also wants to conducted awareness programs / seminars for Bedinis in different districts. The aim is to lead them through self awareness, for them to get determined to start a revolution to abolish this ‘flesh business’.

A meeting with a Bedini…

We went to a village called Chowki .We met a Bedini who is a mistress to a man who is major source of her social support and is a dependant of her income. She supports her son, daughter – in –law and her grandchildren. She got into the business when she was eleven years of age. She is resolved to educate her grand children to prevent them from entering this profession. She has a daughter who is in the business too and was in the hospital for her delivery while we had been to the house.
In her profession, she says, verbal and sexual abuses are sometimes inevitable in some villages. They are just usual like any other occupational hazard that a person usually has, associated with his/ her profession. She claims that she files complaints on the abusers. Sometimes the Bedinis have options to never go back to a village or cease business where she must have had a prior bad experience.If it hampers their health or if they need first aid, they usually have to travel till Sagar or Bhopal to get them in a Government or private hospital. There are no unions, self help groups for these women. They hardly discuss with each other about their occupation and its hazards. If a Bedini is facing injustice in her profession, she has to handle it alone.She also stated that the Bedinis haven’t felt the necessity to organize themselves as unions as the threats in their profession are not really found as unconquerable.

A Bedini can give up this occupation up at any point in her life but should also make sure that she can be productive with alternative sources of income. But usually the Bedini is left with no other option for employment since rainfall is scarce in the region and agriculture is not practiced much in the village. There are quarries where people from other states come to work, usually men work at the quarries.

She also stated that other vocational options do not pay better that what she earns currently. The other vocational options cannot even provide a hand to mouth existence taking into account that the Bedinis have to feed many members of her family and she is the only source of income.

The other Bedinis whom we met also did not accept their situations to be grave and unjustifiable. They consider this ritual as a usual affair and have come to terms with it along the years and a lot of Bedinis have voluntarily entered into the profession at ages as 11 or 12 after learning their family situations and evaluating their choices. Though the Bedini claimed that these girls do get informed choices from their parents and societies.

Since this ritual has been culturally imbibed in the above mentioned communities, the women practicing the profession has accepted them as an informed choice and claim to have taken conscious decisions about their profession. Some of the Bedinis , given a choice to quit have still continued to practice the profession willingly. These Bedinis do not feel the need for a social change , they do not see this profession as a social evil and see it as a predominant profession ascribed to their community.

So should this be addressed as Ritualistic Sex Slavery or acceptance by the rest of our nation as a Cultural Heritage which is not to be disturbed ?