A Hard Place

A Dalit community struggles to break away from sex work

Charpoys—a sign of selling sex—lay along the Neemuch highway in Madhya Pradesh. According to a 2017 petition filed by Akash Chouhan, a member of the Bachhada community, about fifteen hundred underage Bachhada girls enter the profession every year. RENUKA PURI/INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
01 October, 2020

The village of Haripipliya is set a little apart from the highway between Neemuch and Ratlam, which traces the eastern edge of Madhya Pradesh. It is difficult to distinguish it from adjacent villages along the road. Past the colourful wall of a school lies a settlement of the Bachhada, identified as a Scheduled Caste in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The village’s other castes derogatorily call the settlement a “dera.”

There, in January, I met a 26-year-old resident who made her living as a sex worker. About a year ago, after visiting a health camp at the settlement, she discovered she was HIV-positive. She has been on antiretroviral medication, distributed free of cost by the government, ever since. When we spoke, she vowed not to let her 14-year-old daughter enter the “practice.”

By May, her plans had fallen apart. “Her 14-year-old gudiya has been going out at night,” Durga Malviya, a resident of the settlement who volunteers for the NGO UDAN, said over the phone.

As with millions of poor people across the country, the COVID-19 lockdown has hit the Bachhada hard. Sex work is a hereditary occupation in the community, passed on from generation to generation. “Humari pratha hai”—this is our tradition—I heard many in the community declare, showing how deeply the association of their caste and the profession has taken root. Caught between sex work and abject poverty, with little way out, the Bachhada have long struggled to find ways to improve their lives. The lockdown has only heightened their despair.