In a small house alongside a highway in rural India, in a bedroom with pink walls, teddy bears and heart-shaped pillows, 19-year-old Durga Chauhan studies and chats on WhatsApp with her friends; it’s where she practices for dance performances and where she dreams of becoming a doctor.
And until recently, this bedroom was also where she worked as a prostitute.
Chauhan belongs to the Bacchara caste, a community where women are the primary breadwinners in their families — many work as prostitutes. It’s what Chauhan's mother and grandmother did before her and what she was forced to do when her marriage ended.
The caste system is a framework of social hierarchy in India that has existed for centuries. People are born into a caste and cannot change which one they belong to, and even though caste-based discrimination is illegal, it continues to impact how people live here. Caste determines people’s social standing, the opportunities available to them and their interactions with others in different social classes.
For many women who belong to the Bacchara caste in Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India, it has meant a life of prostitution.
Monalika Tiwari, a social worker with the organization Jan Sahas, which strives to empower socially excluded communities (with a special focus on women and girls forced into caste-based prostitution), says young girls are often forced into sex work in order to support their families. She says men in the community are generally not expected to work, whereas at least one girl in most families will be forced to become a prostitute instead of getting married.
“The income that comes in for the household, it comes from girls who work in this space,” said Tiwari. “For them, the dowry that a girl generally gives at marriage, in their community, they give a bride-price — the groom’s family gives the girl’s family when they get married. So, even a boy’s bride-price will be paid for by his sister.”
Chauhan's mother, who was a sex worker herself, wanted to secure a better fate for her twin daughters, opting instead to marry them off young, since married women are not expected to work as prostitutes.
But then 13-year-old Chauhan decided to leave her husband after only a few months of marriage, saying he drank and hit her.
In her community, the council of caste elders or jyaati panchaayat, determined the final terms of separation, levying a fine of about 1.3 million rupees (about $20,000) on Chauhan for leaving her husband.
This economic hardship forced teenage Durga, who had very little education and no other vocational training, into sex work. “After that, I had to work as a prostitute,” Chauhan said. “I had no other choice — we didn’t have that much money and there was no other option.”
“Prostitution is an absence of choice, not a choice,” explains Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap, a charity in India that works with prostitutes and their daughters to end sex trafficking. “Caste is one of the factors. In some places, it’s combined with poverty, inequality, gender.”
Ashif Shaikh is the founder of Jan Sahas, which, since it started in 2000, has worked with about 6,000 girls in communities where the practice of caste-based prostitution continues. Shaikh agrees that the power structure within these communities contributes to women’s lack of options.
“Within a Dalit community, gender-based discrimination is very high. All the leaders of the caste panchaayat are men. Not a single woman is there,” Shaikh said.
Chauhan's story is not atypical. Other women in villages near hers recount similar stories of being forced into prostitution as adolescents because of economic necessity and family pressure. Like Rekha Chauhan, now in her mid-30s, who has worked on and off as a prostitute in different periods of her life, starting as a young girl.
“I was about 12 years old when I had to start working as a prostitute. For the first two years when I was put into prostitution, I wouldn’t go to work because I used to start crying; I would start fighting,” she said.
“I wanted to get out, but how do I get out? Where could I go? … There weren’t any organizations or orphanages even that I could go away to and get out,” Rekha Chauhan said.
Rekha Chauhan eventually found a way out through marriage, but it left her family resentful. “We fought a lot — I have two brothers and nobody talks to me ... because I got married. If I was earning as a prostitute, I could pay for them,” she said.
Few opportunities exist for women who want to leave prostitution, and the decision isn’t solely a woman's or girl’s but is influenced by her entire family. Rekha Chauhan helped Durga Chauhan leave sex work.
Durga Chauhan paid off a large portion of the fine she owed and now has a fellowship from Jan Sahas that supports her financially and provides for her education. Now, Durga Chauhan is helping other teenage girls like her find a way out.
“For other girls like me, I want to explain to them, to tell them, that this work isn’t good. ‘You should study, there’s nothing in this work.’ If I can explain it to more girls, then they can also get out of this work,” she said.
So far, Durga Chauhan has managed to convince a few teenage girls and their families in a nearby village to enroll in school with her.
According to Gupta, whose organization Apne Aap has helped educate hundreds of girls in these communities, families often resist educating girls, even though it can be an important catalyst for change. “The fathers didn’t want them to go to school because then who will earn for the family?” she said.
But “as the girls are going to college, graduating and getting jobs, slowly the [community] elders are also taking our side,” she said.
“We used to see other people going to school and we used to wonder, ‘Why can’t we also go to school? Why can’t we also study?’” Durga Chauhan said.
Her mother has been supportive of her going to school, and she wants to keep studying, “Until I make something of myself,” she laughed.
Masuma Ahuja reported from India.