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Indian Sex Workers in Mass Marriage

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Download Vadia village in the Indian state of Gujarat is known as the “village of prostitutes” – the sex trade is the main income for 150 families living there.

Most women work as prostitutes, while men in the family act as their pimps.

Now the village is holding a mass wedding – locals say it’s to stop young sex workers from being pushed into prostitution.

But others have doubts about whether this can really help the women escape exploitation.

Asia Calling’s Jasvinder Sehgal went to the ceremony.

Almost three thousand people flocked to Vadia village for the ceremony.

Eight young brides are dressed in colourful Indian sarees. The grooms are armed with swords and wear traditional feathered turbans.

23-year-old woman who doesn’t want to be named watches the newly-weds happily.

She just quit her job as sex worker and plans to join them soon.

“I want to marry as I want to live a peaceful and happy life. I have told my fiancée about my past. I have promised him happiness all through his life.”

22-year old man is one of the grooms. His wife is a former sex worker, but he believes she will stop now.

“It’s wonderful to be married. I’m very happy today and I don’t care about the past of my wife. I will try to keep her as happy as possible.”

Prostitution is considered traditional, and is the villagers’ main income.

But a teenager name Hemi Sarania rebelled against the practice – telling her familly that she didn’t want to become a prostitute, and wanted to get married instead.

The community came around to the idea, says Vijay Bhatt, the government village development officer.

“The thing is that they are in this indecent profession from ages. It is not today but ages together. Any attempt intervening them will definitely have some impact. The very first thing we have noticed is that once a girl is married, she is out of her profession.”

Sex work is illegal in India, and suffers under a heavy social stigma. Women in the industry are often subject to serious sexual exploitation.

Sex workers have often got married before – but it’s usually a long time customer who becomes the husband.

And when this happens, the women often continue as sex workers.

The mass-wedding ceremony was organised by a local Non-Government Organisation called Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch. Mittal Patel heads the NGO.

“Poverty is the main reason for the villagers pushing their daughters into sex trade. They borrow money from the pimps and when they can’t return the money, the pimps will push their 13-15 year old daughters into sex trade. We have been helping them with various schemes, from giving alternative employment to houses. This was how we won their trust. And then we learned that they have a tradition of not allowing girls to enter sex trade once she’s engaged or married. We convinced them for marriage.”

Ramesh Ji Patel is smiling throughout the ceremony. His sister is getting married and her daughter is engaged. Both of them worked as prostitutes.

“Happy, very happy! They are very happy with their partners now. Mittal has created a wonderful opportunity for all of us. She has convinced us and I don’t think that the girls will ever return to sex work again.”

Now, the local government supports the mass marriage.

Gujarat’s district head JB Vora acts as the collective maternal uncle, giving wedding sarees to all the brides for the ceremony.

“The event has been possible due to the active support of the State Government, social activist groups and the local people.  In all, eight brides, all either 18 or older, will be married to young men from local communities, while another 12 girls who are under 18 have been engaged and will be married later.”

But not everyone is happy with this change – especially the women’s male relatives.

For years they have worked as pimps – now that they could lose their income, some have made phone calls threatening the NGO Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch, says Mittal Patel.

“Five women backed out of the marriage, as the pimps threaten their families to return back their money. The situation was tense. But then we welcomed 14 other women for the ceremony.”

The women’s guardians filed a complaint to the police – and heavy police protection was present during the ceremony.

The village head, Sarju Patel is happy with this new chapter.

“It’s the first time in the history of my village that a mass marriage of sex workers is taking place. As the head of the village, I’m tired of having people from different places mocking us. I’m happy that this marriage will break the cycle of exploitation and young girls will be saved from the traditional profession of prostitutes. I’m thankful to all of our supporters.”

But several challenges lie ahead, and many are not convinced this idea will work.

One of them is Ratan Karyani, coordinator of the organisation Mukti Dhara Sanstha, which works for the rights of nomads.

He says the women don’t need husbands – what they need are jobs.

“I have organized marriages for a few sex workers in my locality. But it was a total failure. We have to think about a complete rehabilitation program, enriched with employment opportunities. Organising a marriage ceremony is not a remedy.”

The government has not offered any jobs for the people in the village.

But many still believe the marriage is a step to stop the long tradition of prostitution and sexual exploitation.

Gujarat’s district head JB Vora says this will back the dignity for the women.

“This is a moment to rejoice as a change in society is depicted. Let us welcome the change which is all set to modify the course of life. “
Last Updated ( Monday, 02 April 2012 10:53 )  

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