|Child Exploitation in India|
IN RURAL INDIA, TRADITIONS OF CHILD SEXUAL EXPLOITATION ENDURE Scripps Howard News Service By JOHN STACKHOUSE Toronto Globe and Mail SANGLI, India - The prettiest girl in this leafy, tropical town in western India's sugar belt doesn't have much time to talk. Dressed in a stunning mauve silk sari, with gold jewelry dripping from her ear lobes and nose, 18-year-old Chandra must get to work. "My entire family depends on me," she said with a laugh as her alcoholic mother stood at the doorway ordering her back to the family's brothel. A prostitute since she was 12, Chandra expects to net the equivalent of $50 for her day's work, because in her state of Maharashtra it's the annual snake festival and a time for local men to celebrate another good monsoon. In an average month, Chandra figures she can bring home $500 - an amount many of her customers don't earn in one year. "My family, my brothers, they sit around all day and do nothing," continued Chandra, who has a five-year-old son from her initiation as a commercial sex worker. "Everything they have is from me." Far from the chaotic brothels of Bombay and Calcutta, where many children are kept in forced custody, Chandra represents what many experts say are the majority of India's 100,000 or more child prostitutes: girls put to work by their families for no other reason than the enormous, if brief, profits they can earn. They can be found at truck stops, dingy small-town hotels and roadside tea stalls. They often do double duty as kitchen help and sex workers. And they have little choice - not when their parents, siblings and other relatives depend so much on their earning power. With her movie star looks, Chandra was virtually destined to become a sex worker at the age of 12. It was her mother's occupation, too. But as with many Indian children, she wasn't sold directly into prostitution. Instead, Chandra's mother confirmed her as a "devadasi," a Hindu temple servant who before reaching puberty is dedicated for life to the goddess Yallamma. Traditionally, the divine and elaborate marriage would transport a low-caste girl such as Chandra into a devotional career of temple singing and dancing. In modern times, the outlawed ritual, which is believed to absorb as many as 10,000 girls a year, often means sexual enslavement to a temple priest or prostitution. The devadasi system is only one of countless traditions of child sexual exploitation in rural India that seem sure to endure, driven by the economics of poverty, tyranny of caste and compulsions of culture and religion. "Some of these forms of child prostitution in India emerge from deeply rooted, traditional practices and beliefs which still prevail," said Richard Young, chief of community development for the United Nations Children's Fund in India. "They may be legally outlawed, but they do continue." And they present a serious challenge to the world. As the international community tries to crack down on the sexual exploitation of children with stronger laws, better police enforcement and community-development projects, it remains to be seen whether the culture of child prostitution - from the parents who sell their children to the people who buy them - will change anytime soon. "Attitudes and mind sets, corruption and apathy are major obstacles which will not be overcome by any scheme," Young said. In the Indian desert state of Rajasthan, where Rajnat tribals once served maharajahs, the communities now set up camp along highways to serve truck drivers. At puberty, each girl's virginity is auctioned to a man, and she is then put to work in a mass market. In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, the "basavi," or "female bull," ceremony consigns low-caste girls to a life of ritual devotion that is so unremunerative that they usually resort to prostitution as well. In the Bedia tribe, one girl is selected from each family to serve as a community prostitute; if she becomes pregnant, she is ritually married to a one-rupee coin. But it is the illegal devadasi system that accounts for up to one-fifth of India's child prostitutes, UNICEF says. The devadasi dedications, often held in private homes to avoid police raids, prey on parents' fear and greed. Many of the girls, and in some cases boys, are chosen because of ailments - such as skin diseases, mental retardation, leprosy, the matted hair of malnutrition - that render them undesirable for human marriage. It also saves the family an onerous dowry, as the girl is married to the god for life. In return for their divine devotion, the devadasis are accorded special status in their villages, not least because of their earning power. They receive comfort and caring when they are ill. Some are even eligible for a government pension of $4 a month. As with thousands of other women in her district, Durga, a mother in her mid-20s, was put through the ritualistic devadasi ceremony and married to an icon before her first menstrual cycle. "There was no question of being happy or sad," she said. "I didn't know what they were doing." It was just another part of an unforgiving childhood. Durga had been raised in a Bombay brothel, where her mother was sold into prostitution by her father. She remembers being so poor that she carried pails of water for the equivalent of less than one penny a trip. She also remembers being raped at 13 for refusing a customer, and being bruised so badly that she had to go to hospital. But now Durga earns the equivalent of about $120 a month - enough to care for her two children, two brothers and mother - and knows there is no other way for her now. "Once you're in the business," she said, "it's very difficult to get out." In Sangli's red-light district, in a downtrodden corner of the city near the railway tracks, most of the 260 prostitutes are devadasis who serve a prosperous farm belt from a squatter camp of cinder-block houses built on land allotted by the local government. Each room is fitted with a cassette player, ceiling fan, cot - some with two or three - and a sheet hangs from the ceiling to serve as a curtain. Outside on the footpaths, well-dressed young men loaf about in indecision or relaxation. The tradition seems unchanged in many ways, except one. "Men come and ask for younger and younger women," said Kamla, a local madam and devadasi, whose rotund frame and grimacing face is enough to keep troublemakers away. Even in far-flung Sangli, 10 hours by bus from Bombay, the fear of contracting AIDS has hit the brothels like a monsoon cloud. One young prostitute, who calls herself Seventy Jasmine, asked if AIDS really is a deadly disease with no cure. Durga told her that it is, and that two of her co-workers died last month. One had four children. Durga then told the others about Ichalkaranji, a textile-mill center not far from Sangli, where eight prostitutes died last month. There, the red-light district's population, which once numbered around 70, is down to 35. Durga once assumed she would dedicate her daughter, who is now 6, to be a devadasi, like herself and her mother. But not anymore. "We are afraid of death," Durga explained. "We do not want our children to die."
Sep 10 BOMBAY MILLIONAIRE DEVOTES RETIREMENT TO RESCUING PROSTITUTES Scripps Howard News Service By JOHN STACKHOUSE Toronto Globe and Mail BOMBAY, India - The note of desperation came from a 16-year-old girl named Rani. "Please come to rescue me," she wrote in Hindi from the depths of Bombay's red-light district. "I am in custody. Please help me." The letter was all that Vinod Gupta, one of Bombay's brashest millionaires, needed to spring into action. The 66-year-old textile magnate, who has devoted his retirement to fighting the evils of India's most corrupt and crime-ridden city, dispatched his volunteers and police contacts to Rani's brothel and soon the girl was free. The disgruntled pimps, who paid a small fortune for Rani, could do little but watch their investment walk out the door. Bombay's most powerful Good Samaritan had struck again. "All the police have connections with the brothels but they cannot say no to me. They are afraid of me," Gupta boasted from the dank back room that serves as a nerve center for his organization, Savdhan. After more than a decade of storming brothels and rescuing girls - 5,800 by his count - Gupta feels he's winning the war. According to many accounts, Bombay's sex trade is declining, albeit slowly, but the reasons appear varied: the threat of AIDS, the exodus of blue-collar jobs to the cheaper hinterland and the rise of communal tensions that rocked the city with bombings and rioting in 1992 and 1993, forcing many prostitutes to flee. "There are 60 percent less clients now than in 1991," said I.S. Gilada, a physician who runs an AIDS awareness and prevention program for prostitutes and their clients. "It is mostly because of the AIDS scare." Reputed to form Asia's largest sex bazaar, Bombay's red-light districts are far from closing down, however. Thousands of women continue to sell their bodies in dilapidated Victorian townhouses, tumble-down apartment buildings and, in some spots, cages. But as business declines, many brothel owners have turned to younger girls to attract customers from as far away as Africa and the Middle East. "Younger ones fetch more money and get more clients per day," Gilada said. At K.K. Palace, on a garbage-strewn and rat-infested alleyway known simply as 13th Lane, a lanky teenaged boy named Kumar leads potential customers upstairs to a plush, air-conditioned hall he calls "the showroom." When the door is shut, Kumar rings a buzzer and girls from around the country parade through the room as if in a grotesque Miss India contest, with only their home state or city given as identification. "We have Madras, Hyderabad, Calcutta," Kumar said. "You like Nepali girls?" There is an Arab customer, a few Africans and several well-dressed Indians. Kumar offers the girls for the equivalent of $3 for a short visit - most girls go for $1 to $2 - or $100 for the night with one of his young teenagers. Outside, a long line of taxis has formed, waiting to take the girls and young women, with their sinewy pimps, to hotels and private residences, where prices run much higher. Across 13th Lane, up a broken cement stairway and down a dark narrow hallway, another room offers Nepalese women and teenagers who sit on couches watching television, playing cards or staring blankly at a wall of peeling, cream-colored paint. Down the street in another brothel, a manager flicks on two lights in a green-colored waiting room and marches out his girls from "Calcutta," which usually means Bangladesh, Bombay's newest source of prostitutes. Social activists say Bangladeshi girls may now be the most vulnerable in South Asia as awareness campaigns in Nepal and India take their toll on trafficking networks. The youngest girls, however, those barely entering puberty, are not so readily available. Social workers in the red-light districts say the girls are hidden in secret rooms and offered only through special brokers. Gupta startled Bombay in 1982 by rescuing a 13-year-old Nepalese girl who was being prostituted to foreign sex tourists in luxury hotels. More than a decade after the case made international headlines - and more than a decade after India and Nepal signed a treaty to stop child trafficking - Gupta estimates prostitution is still worth about $800,000 a day to Bombay's underworld mafia, pimps and local politicians. He should know. For more than 30 years, he served as state treasurer for the powerful Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and said the brothel owners made contributions to every party, including his own. "No government wants to stop this, not the state, not the center," Gupta said angrily. "I wrote to every prime minister. Only Rajiv Gandhi replied. He put it in his 1991 election manifesto, to stop child prostitution, and then he was assassinated. Since then, nothing." He said the only way to control child prostitution would be to legalize the industry and subject it to strict employment rules. Fed up with politics, Gupta took matters into his own hands. He has helped about 800 girls return to Nepal and in 1990 chartered a train to send 900 more back to their native state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. "When I rescue a girl, I ask her, `What do you want?"' he said. "She often says, `There is a boy I want to marry."' Gupta figures he has played matchmaker to about 500 teenaged prostitutes, usually to one of their regular customers. Many also get a free wedding reception from him at, of all places, Bombay's police-officers' club. Many social workers disagree with Gupta's methods, arguing that most of the girls and young women don't want to return to their homes, where they face ridicule and possibly rape. Many also don't have homes to return to, which is why they turned to prostitution in the first place. Social groups studying Bombay's prostitutes find the majority of child prostitutes come from families in distress. "We're looking at systemic problems," said Farida Lamba, a Bombay activist. "Child prostitution is a symptom, like child labor and street children." Homes broken by divorce, children frightened of stepmothers, villages displaced by dams or highways, communities unsettled by earthquakes or floods: The litany of rural disasters that consign girls to servitude hangs like stale air in Bombay's brothels. Priti Patkar, a social worker who runs a night-care center and school for children of Bombay prostitutes, says work such as hers can serve only as a bandage for a very deep social wound that most governments continue to ignore. "No one is talking about the rural economy, the education and shelter for destitute children in villages," she said. "No one is talking about strong and efficient `panchayat' (village council) systems. No one is talking about helping the girl and boy child while they are in their family environment."
Sep 10 INDIAN, NEPALI PROSTITUTES ROUNDED UP, DETAINED IN AIDS RAIDS Scripps Howard News Service By JOHN STACKHOUSE Toronto Globe and Mail KATHMANDU, Nepal - They're the lepers of the late 20th century: young prostitutes suspected of carrying the AIDS virus, chased from their brothels, detained by police, ostracized by their own families. In Nepal's capital of Kathmandu, and in several Indian cities, 456 prostitutes, including more than 100 children, have spent the past six months in forced custody, where they've been subjected to mandatory HIV tests and public ridicule. None has been charged with a crime. "You cannot find any worse succession of violations of basic rights," said Colin Gonsalves, a legal activist in Bombay, where the women were first detained. "They were kept in places worse than prisons for months and months and months. They were denied legal aid. They were denied proper food." Bombay police took the women and girls during a Feb. 5 raid on brothels that was ordered by the state court to clear the city of HIV-infected prostitutes and illegally employed children. During the first weeks of custody, six women died from what police said were AIDS-related causes such as tuberculosis. As the world tries to face up to a global crisis of child trafficking and commercial sex abuse, many child-rights activists say the "Bombay rescue" does little to curtail child prostitution, and often adds to the stigma of prostitution. "It is far better to concentrate on prevention by working with the communities where most of them come from," said Gracy Fernandes, research director of Bombay's College of Social Work. A college survey of the detained prostitutes found that 41 percent said they wanted to return to their brothels. "They feel they will not be accepted by their families and their marriage prospects are slim," Fernandes said. "They feel their lives were ruined. They feel they really have no human capital in them." The survey also found that 20 percent of the detained prostitutes said they were under 18 years of age, and another 46 percent said they were between 18 and 21. But Fernandes said the number of minors and children is probably much higher, as many girls overstate their age to avoid police harassment. And several prostitutes rounded up in the raids said in interviews that the younger girls in the brothels - some as young as 11 - were hidden by madams and pimps before police arrived. The raids were designed to collect only 456 girls and women - the number that could be accommodated in state-funded homes. (Prostitution is not a crime in India, although both soliciting and sexual contact with children under 18 are.) After a public uproar over the forced custody and conditions of the Bombay homes in which the women were held, the state government agreed last month to send 124 Nepalese prostitutes and four of their children back to their homeland. About 100 more Nepalese women refused to leave Bombay, telling counselors they intended to return to their places of work. However, a legal appeal by non-governmental organizations in Bombay to release the women was dismissed by a judge who accused the NGOs of helping brothel owners win the prostitutes' freedom. Most of the Indian prostitutes were moved to group homes in other cities, where conditions are so poor that in one home in Bangalore women rioted and smashed windows to protest the quality of meals, a daily diet of millet and lentils. The Indian courts responded by ordering state governments to increase the prostitutes' monthly food and care budgets to the equivalent of $40 a woman, from $20, the amount reserved for children. The random raids on three red-light districts were the first of their kind in Bombay. They followed an Indian press report in January that stated that 65 percent of the city's estimated 70,000 prostitutes were HIV-positive. "I think the real motive of this raid was the HIV-AIDS scare," said Richard Young, a senior official with the United Nations Children's Fund in New Delhi. "It wasn't really motivated by a great concern for the girls." In Nepal, the repatriation launched an avalanche of public criticism as newspapers and politicians whipped up fears that Kathmandu would become an AIDS dumping ground for India's commercial-sex industry. An estimated 100,000 Nepalese women and girls work in Indian brothels. "They are full of diseases but we can accept that," said Durga Ghimire, president of ABC Nepal, an agency caring for 28 of the repatriated prostitutes. "It is their right to return to Nepal, and if they return, we can give them good lives." Some Nepalese, however, fear that India will take advantage of the rehabilitation effort. "This is a very short-sighted, emotional reaction by these NGOs," said Harish Joshi, a dentist. "Maybe they can handle 100 girls, but what happens if India sends back 1,000 or 50,000? Will their families accept them? Will they go back to their old jobs? Probably." "People really have a problem with this issue. They don't see these women as victims," said Anjana Sakya, a women's-rights monitor at the Kathmandu-based International Institute for Human Rights, Environment and Development. At ABC Nepal, Ghimire said most of the 28 women and girls in her care show signs of TB and anemia. She said about half are HIV-positive. Desperately short of funds, the seven Nepalese agencies caring for them have set out to provide temporary housing, HIV and AIDS counseling and skills training in fields such as tailoring and fabric painting. A stigma and public curses, however, trail many of the women and girls. In one Kathmandu halfway house, a teenaged girl named Devi cried frantically and clung to a door when her brother, appearing unmoved, came to collect her at the request of police. She pleaded with the home's managers not to let her go back to the village that had sold her into prostitution before she was 16. The managers said Devi could return to the halfway home as she wished, but that she should make peace with her relatives. Devi's friend Sunita, 18, figures she doesn't have the same choice. She was kicked out of her father's house five years ago only to land in a carpet factory and then in a Bombay brothel. She doubts anyone will come for her. "I know my father will not come," she said. "But I want to see him once to tell him what I went through."
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