Ritual Slavery—should this be considered as a synonym for ‘breach of morality’? Or should we justify it as a culturally accepted and informed choice?
A visit to Patharia, a remote village in Madhya Pradesh, brought these questions to mind.
Why? Keep reading to know.
Ritual Slavery? What’s that?
It means marrying girls (who are still children) to a deity, prohibiting them from having a normal marriage when they grow up. The girls then have to, for the sake of religious purposes, fulfill pleasures (sometime, physical) of the deity’s devotees.
Ritual Slavery may sound bizarre, but it’s not uncommon. Not just India, several regions around the world – including the Middle East, Africa and other parts of Asia – also practice it. While some places have banned or discontinued the practice, others still follow it rather vigorously.
Ritual Slavery of Bedinis
The first emotions that came to mind when I heard about this practice were outrage, helplessness, sympathy and unendurable mortification. Led by a strong urge to find an end to these practices, I landed in Patharia with a few friends, to investigate the matter. It was November of 2009.
As per several sources, the Bedia community in some districts of Madhya Pradesh practiced Ritual Slavery.
The meaning of the word Bedia in Hindi is corrupt. The community was nomadic in nature, and became known for thefts or malpractices. Hence, the name. It could have been that owing to their bad reputation, they found a means to earn by popularising sex work.
Rural India particularly is known to favour male offsprings. Not in the Bedia community though. A girl child was preferred. But not for the right reasons.
In every family, parents sacrificed at least one daughter as a Bedini, in the name of religious obligation. The Bedini, when she turned 4 years old, was sent to learn the traditional Raai dance under the guidance of trained dancers themselves. Raai is an art form that depicts Ramayana and Mahabharata.
As soon as she attained puberty, she was auctioned in the village and sold to the highest bidder. The ‘ceremony’ was called Nathutharai or Siridakai. Moving forward, she was known as a Raai dancer, qualified to give performances for the villagers who auctioned her as well as others.
From then on, started a full-fledged life as a Bedini.
What was it like?
Bedinis performed at functions and ceremonies of which commercial sex work was a part. The only audience present consisted of all males. Females may also be present but their numbers were negligible. Sometimes, the dancers had to change into their costumes in front of the audience. Other times, dances were exotic in nature.
Whoever threw money at the dancers during the performance got to have intercourse with them. The system worked in a way that the person with the highest power got to have intercourse with the woman, followed by men with the least power. Naturally, all kinds of abuse, sometimes even rape, were inevitable. Bedinis resisting these brutalities or filing complaints was a doubtful affair considering their business depended on customers for continuity and survival.
Previously, Bedinis weren’t even allowed to have relationships or get married. But the trend was changing. Sometimes, these women got pregnant and had to raise their children as a single parent. In most cases, the child may not have known the father.
Men in the Bedia family hardly worked. Brothers of Bedinis became procurers and often, Bedinis were the sole earning members of the family. They supported joint or extended families, too, as nuclear families in this community were rare. Typically, a Bedini supported an average of 8 to 10 members in the house.
Shockingly enough, the Bedia community had accepted this form of cultural lifestyle for nearly two centuries.
What we learned
During our visit, we stayed in an ashram called Satya Seva Ashram in a village called Patharia (Kisanpur) near the city of Sagar, Madhya Pradesh. From Sagar, the trip took us two hours. From Bhopal, Patharia was about four hours away.
The ashram housed close to hundred students who had access to free education. It was run by a Government-sponsored scheme under the guidance of an elderly lady called Ms. Champa Ben, who was also a social activist.
The school staff stated that males in the family rarely worked or didn’t work at all. Kids never went to school because they didn’t have access. Primary Health Care (PHC) institutions weren’t competent and in case of pregnancy or childbirth issues, Bedinis had to travel for 2 hours to Sagar or 4 hours to Bhopal for a government or private hospital.
Surprisingly, Bedinis were aware of RTI, government schemes like NREGA and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). But precautions were still not taken.
Schools were situated far away. Some of the villages had no fields as rainfall was very low in the area. There were also villages plagued by drought. In such conditions, Bedinis were the only source of income for these households.
Meeting with the famous Champa Ben: A lone crusader against Ritual Slavery
Champa Ben conducted a lot of rallies and andolans (strikes) for women empowerment and anti-prostitution, especially for Bedinis in Sagar district.
On the 20th of January, there was an annual mahotsav where the Bedinis who chose to cease sex work as an occupation were married to grooms of their choice. Champa Ben oversaw this mass marriage ceremony at Patharia.
This ‘flesh business’ was not just restricted to Patharia, it was also carried out in other parts of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The involved communities other than Bedia were Bhanchada, Nutt and Sansi. Champa Ben called it ‘organized crime’ by these communities for making easy money. And it was criminal in a way. Girls aged 10, 11, 12 were turned into sex workers. Even though procurers and customers knew the law, the Bedinis entertained the police officers at police stations in order to get their family members bailed out of jail.
Champa Ben was rallying to dissolve the existing Panchayats in these villages and transfer power to the Central Government. She said that the Bedinis in the area had grown dependent on her and therefore, didn’t show any kind of resistance to prevailing injustice.
She also wanted to conduct awareness programs or seminars for Bedinis in different districts. The aim was to lead them through self awareness, for them to get determined and start a revolution, abolishing the flesh business they were involved in.
We also met a Bedini
Next, we went to a village called Chowki. There, we met a Bedini in her 50s who was a companion to a man. He was a major source of social support and dependent on her income. She supported her son, daughter-in-law as well as grandchildren. The woman entered this business when she was only 11 years old. But she was determined to educate her grandchildren and prevent them from entering the same profession. Her daughter was in the business, too, and was in the hospital for her childbirth at the time.
The lady mentioned that in her profession, abuses were sometimes inevitable. They were just like any other occupational hazard. She claimed that she did file complaints against the abusers.
Sometimes, Bedinis had the option to never go back to a village or cease business where they had a prior bad experience. If the work hampered their health or if they needed first aid, they traveled to Sagar or Bhopal to proper Government and private hospitals.
The profession didn’t have a union or self-help group. They rarely discussed the occupation and its issues with each other, too. If a particular Bedini faced injustice, she had to handle it alone. The woman also stated that Bedinis hadn’t felt the need to organize themselves as a union against threats as these were not really unconquerable.
A Bedini could give up the occupation at any point in life but had to make sure she had other alternative sources of income. Usually, the Bedinis were left with no other option for employment, considering rainfall was scarce and agriculture wasn’t widely practiced in the region. While there were quarries where people from other states came to work, these workers were mostly men.
She also stated that other vocational options don’t pay better than what she earned from her current occupation. Some of them can’t even provide a hand-to-mouth existence. This was especially dire considering Bedinis have several family members to feed while being the sole breadwinner.
We met a few more Bedinis who also didn’t accept their situation as grave or unjustifiable. To them, this ritual was a usual affair, and most had come to terms with it. Several Bedinis voluntarily entered the profession at 11 or 12 years of age after learning of their family situation and evaluating other choices. According to the Bedinis, these girls do get informed choices from their parents and the society.
Since this ritual was culturally imbibed, the women practicing the profession had accepted them as an informed choice, claiming to have taken a conscious decision. Some of the Bedinis, given a choice to quit, still continued to practice willingly. These women didn’t see the need for a social change, nor did they feel this profession was a social evil. To them, it was a predominant profession ascribed to their community.
Is it still prevalent today?
The unfortunate answer is – yes.
Ritual Slavery among the Bedia community is still practiced today. Despite several efforts from activists and NGOs, the government has done little to provide alternative occupation opportunities.
And it’s not just in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Ritual Slavery is present in several poor communities of India, albeit under different names or customs.
Impact of the Lockdown
The pandemic was particularly harsh on everyone, but more so on the vulnerable communities. And the Bedinis were among those affected.
Because of the nature of Covid-19 pandemic, they weren’t allowed to indulge in sex work. Even if they did, they were at risk of contracting the virus and falling sick or, worse, dying. Moreover, there were no grants or subsidies for them. These women were also at health risks but couldn’t access public health infrastructure. Ironically, their profession is considered a stigma but still religiously practiced in India.
According to this news article, Bedinis earned anywhere between INR 500-2,000 a day. And as mentioned earlier, women in the community were generally the only breadwinners in the family. With no income, they felt compelled to borrow. It meant they were dangerously close to falling into an indebtedness cycle, probably having to indulge in sex work to pay off loans, too.
What’s even more frightening is that young girls in the family, who may have dropped out of school, could be asked to join the trade to help repay debt.
Help! The money well is running dry
While there are NGOs wanting to protect the women of the Bedia community, lack of funds is a common problem. Samvedna was one such NGO which is still working with several Bedinis.
The Jawali scheme, introduced by the state government in 1992, aimed to provide alternative occupations for these women. There were four ashrams set up – in Morena, Chhatarpur, Sagar and Rajgarh districts. As of 2019, more than 400 children were benefiting from the scheme. However, poor awareness among beneficiaries pushed the scheme into failure.
Efforts towards holistic development of children were missing. Demand for sanctioned seats in the ashrams was higher than availability. Children who’d passed out of the schools weren’t followed up with. The grant for children was raised from INR 500 to INR 725 in 2008. But as of 2019, this figure remained unchanged. The grant was also delayed. With supporting NGOs and schemes facing a financial crunch, the future of girls in the Bedia community remains grim.
Wrapping it up
As people living in the cities, we may not be exposed to the life of a Bedini every day. And so, it may be easy for us to stigmatize their rituals and occupation. But this stigma is exactly what’s keeping us from helping them.
Most of these women (and their communities) are classified as criminals under the archaic Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. How can they get jobs or move forward unless we start looking at them from a different lens? Because of this, they don’t have access to government schemes either – these could be for ration, gas, bank accounts – that are key to survival. They continue to have poor quality of life from birth to death.
Ultimately, all of the information above brings us to our very first question. Should this be addressed as Ritual Slavery?
Or should this still be accepted as Cultural Heritage which must never be disturbed?
Maybe, it’s time for us to evaluate our mindset and try understanding more about the troubled women of these communities. We’re sure, every little bit of help counts.
If you want to know more:
Here are a few NGOs doing good deeds for the Bedinis and other sex workers: Samvedna, Freedom Firm, and Dharti. Get in touch with them to learn more about their current situation. It is essential that you make informed choices before you act.