Ana* lives in the Red Light District of Forbesganj, a rural village one of India’s poorest states. She lives with her family in a straw-thatched house with interior walls constructed from old newspapers. Her house is one many houses that performs a dual function of home and brothel; a private space where her body is a public site, frequented daily by her male clients.
Here, home-based brothels are an established part of the community. They are also the harmful consequence of the systemic persecution and marginalisation of the local Nat community, a nomadic tribal group who were branded criminal by the British under colonisation, forced out of their traditional occupations and ostracized from the social and legal infrastructure of society.
Under British colonisation, these communities were viewed with suspicion for their nomadic lifestyles which were seen as deviating from the organised society the British state was attempting to create. To deal with these ‘suspect’ communities, the British passed the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, formally notifying these nomadic tribal groups as ‘criminal’. This policy systematically persecuted millions of people belonging to these communities, exploiting their already marginalised status in society as members often belonging to lower scheduled castes and other backward classes (OBCs).
Following Independence, the government repealed the Act in 1952, and these groups were officially ‘denotified’ as criminal. But the stigma and persecution suffered by these communities continues in the legacy of their ‘illegality’.
An estimated 60 million people in India today belong to the government-assigned category ‘denotified and nomadic tribes’, although the invisibility and marginalisation of these communities in census data and public life suggests that the numbers could be higher than 100 million. Now labelled ‘Denotified Tribes’, the legacy of systemic oppression sustains itself in the continued stigmatisation of these communities.
As with other marginalised groups, it is the women and girls who shoulder the heaviest burdens. Here, the disadvantage of womanhood is clearly discerned in the community’s established practice of inter-generational prostitution in which women and girls are the sole commodities.
Home-based prostitution and inter-generational prostitution has become a widespread practice amongst denotifed tribal communities following colonisation. Forced removal from their traditional nomadic occupations saw these tribal groups seek new sources of income, with many turning to the women and girls to own this responsibility, exploiting their bodies as sexual labour.
In Forbesganj, inter-generational prostitution is practiced in the home and is an established familial and cultural system.
Women (though they are often girls as young as 10) are pimped by their fathers, brothers, and other male family members to male clients in the community who buy the women in their homes. For Ana, this is her daily reality, ‘servicing’ up to five men a day, sometimes more.
Ana is a young woman in her twenties with a dazzling smile and youthful eyes that dart unpredictably about the room. Her movements are slow and unsteady, a noticeable side effect of inebriation. It’s morning when we meet her, and she has already numbed out.
She invites us into her home with Apne Aap field staff and we sit in the bedroom on the stained sheets of the bed and stare at the newspaper walls. Ana speaks to Apne Aap’s Field Coordinator outside in the corridor while her little girl runs in and out of the room and peeks shy glances at us. She looks barely 6 years old. It’s hard to imagine her asleep or playing in the next room while men purchase her mum behind the paper wall.
Later that night we try to unwind from the day, but in conversation we realise that Ana is on all of our minds. We speak about feminist theory and the narrow lens of academia, which so often feels totally disconnected to the world beyond. I feel this today more than ever, thinking about how the great philosophers and theorists and feminist scholars have no place inside Bubbly’s newspaper walls, no portal through which they can be translated to meet her reality. For the member of the field staff we’re speaking with, this is an interminable conflict. She knows these women and has built strong relationships with them. She knows their realities and that these theories and philosophers have no real meaning within them. So, she asks, “How can I articulate justice for Ana?”
This young, vibrant woman deserves every shade and measure of justice, every nuanced idea of feminist philosophy should apply to her. But here, life is as black and white as the newspaper walls, and the only shades of grey can be found in the fine print – indiscernible and vague.
What can justice look like for Ana inside these walls where she is both a private and public commodity, an economic utensil of the family and victim of an entrenched cultural practice?
Maybe Ana finds her justice in the alcoholic refuge she takes – her escape from consciousness. If not for herself, maybe, hopefully, she can see justice in her daughter, who may be able to escape the same future through access to education and safe space away from her red light area brothel home.
Still, I want to believe that justice exists for Ana. Surely there’s a way to break through those walls, which are only as thin as paper but seem as impenetrable as concrete; walls that have been build on the platform of patriarchy and cultural constructions, and can therefore be demolished. They must be, so that Ana can access her justice.
*Name has been changed
Apne Aap Women Worldwide is an anti-sex trafficking organisation in India working with victims and survivors of prostitution and sexual slavery in a grassroots movement to end sex-trafficking. To learn more go to their website apneaap.org