Like many Indian girls, Suchitra was taught her future profession by her mother. In her village, there was only one path. Even before she’d reached puberty, Suchitra had learned different sexual positions and other ways to please a customer.
At age 14, a man she had never seen before showed up one day at the family’s house near Bharatpur in northern India. At her mother’s urging, Suchitra got into his car. Six hours later they reached their destination. It was a brothel in New Delhi’s red-light district. She had been sent into sexual servitude.
“I always knew that this would be my life,” said Suchitra, sitting in her wardrobe-sized room and wearing a low-cut green top and jeans, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. “I can never forget what I’ve done but it is the only way for my family to earn a living.”
Suchitra, now 20, is from one of hundreds of villages in India where centuries-old tradition dictates that most girls enter into a life of prostitution. Rising wealth hasn’t reduced the trafficking of girls for sex in the world’s second-most populous nation: The number of child prostitutes is growing and the average recruitment age has dropped to between nine and 12 years old, according to the Delhi-based National Human Rights Commission.
“We are witnessing an unprecedented growth in prostitution,” said K.K. Mukherjee, a sociologist who has studied sex workers for more than three decades and has written government reports on the subject. “It is being driven by rising levels of income but also by a change in sexual attitudes and the increasing migration of women to cities.”
Districts such as Bharatpur, where half of the women are illiterate, are breeding grounds for the country’s $4 billion sex trafficking industry. India has 3 million sex workers, of whom 1.2 million are below the age of 18, according to a government estimate, and the South Asian nation traffics more women for sex than any other country.
The growth of underage prostitution in a country whose gross domestic product has risen on average about 8 percent annually in the past decade is testimony to the treatment of women and the power of caste in the world’s biggest democracy. India, which carries out almost 40 percent of the world’s female sterilizations, where a woman is raped on average every 21 minutes and where a third of all women are illiterate, is failing to change views that undercut the status of women.
Whole families from some castes at the bottom rungs of India’s social hierarchy rely on income from their daughters’ sex work, with fathers and brothers often acting as pimps. The girls often have their virginity auctioned to the highest bidder once they reach puberty.
Suchitra, who is of the Bedia caste, shows how the caste-based system determines access to occupations and social status. Rooted in religion, the millennia-old structure marginalizes certain groups, imprisoning women in a cycle of isolation and abuse. Many female members of the Bedia community, which numbers about 20,000, say they are treated like outcasts. They can’t marry if they have worked as a prostitute, are refused service in shops, are called “whores” and are greeted with disinterest by police when one of them is raped.
“Caste remains a defining feature for most Indians,” said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, a policy group based in New Delhi. “These attitudes bring an enormous cost in terms of a lack of social mobility and lost economic opportunities.”
A single bare bulb exudes dim light in Suchitra’s room, just enough to see the black water stains on the peeling, faded pastel-green walls. Used condoms lie on the floor. The stench of urine, sweat and cheap perfume hangs in the air. Rats gnaw at piles of garbage in the corridors outside.
Suchitra, who would only give her first name for fear of arrest by the police, said she has sex with as many as a dozen men a day for as little as 100 rupees ($1.60) a time. A concrete slab that takes up most of her room serves as a bed, where she sleeps and does her work. Customers have threatened her with knives, guns and beer bottles, she said.
Government officials and activists working to break the born-into-prostitution custom say that high levels of illiteracy and caste-based prejudice make it difficult for the women to earn a living any other way.
“It is going to be very difficult to stop,” said Niraj Pawan, the top government official in Bharatpur, who is struggling to curb the practice among the Bedia community. “How do you convince these illiterate girls, with no skills, facing enormous family pressure to be a prostitute to take a job where they will earn a tenth of their current pay?”
Bedia women say they can earn between 1,000 and 2,000 rupees a day working as prostitutes. That compares with the average daily income in India of 188 rupees.
The Bedias trace their roots to a 16th century battle in Rajasthan known as the Siege of Chittorgarh in which the Mughal forces defeated the Hindu Rajputs. The losers fled into the forests where they led a nomadic life on the fringes of the law. As told by members of the Bedia community, their women were driven into prostitution by the ensuing economic deprivation.
Many of the girls who are raised as prostitutes are injected with the hormone oxytocin to make their breasts grow faster, Pawan said. Unlike in the rest of India, where there is a traditional preference for boys that has led to a skewed sex ratio, Pawan said the Bedia community prefers girl babies because they are a potential source of income.
It was because she gave birth to a boy that Swati Kumari, a 25-year-old member of the Bedia caste in Bharatpur, said she endured months of abuse by her husband and parents-in-law. She fled to her parents’ house after she repeatedly had her hair pulled, was punched in the face and had objects thrown at her. She said her son also faced physical abuse from her husband and his family.
“I don’t want to tell you all the things that they did to me,” said Kumari, sitting on a charpoy, or rope bed, in the courtyard of the home of her parents, who filed a complaint with the police over their daughter’s abuse. “They told me that to make up for the loss of earnings I had to go work as a prostitute instead. When I refused, the torture got worse.” Kumari declined to provide contact information for her husband and in-laws.
To bolster their income, the Bedia, Nat and Kanjar communities are involved in trafficking rings that kidnap children from other communities, who are then raised in their villages, the United Nations said in a 2013 report. Some of the girls are sent to Mumbai and Middle Eastern countries to work in dance bars and escort services, the report said.
Sex trafficking rings prey on the poor and illiterate among India’s almost 600 million female population. The traffickers often operate with impunity due to poor police enforcement, compliant officials and ingrained traditions of caste, said Siddharth Kara, a fellow with the Carr Center Program on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Law enforcement officials are often complicit,” said Kara. “They either take bribes or look the other way or just don’t see it as something they need to be concerned about.”
Two policemen were among six people arrested for operating an extortion and prostitution ring in Delhi, the police announced last month. A police team investigating a sex racket last year in the south-western city of Kochi revealed that about a dozen girls had been taken out of the country on forged passports to the Persian Gulf with the aid of local airport officials, the UN said in its report.
“Official complicity in trafficking was a serious problem that remained largely unaddressed by the government,” the U.S. State Department said in the India section of its 2013 human trafficking report. “Some corrupt law enforcement officers facilitated the movement of sex trafficking victims, protected suspected traffickers and brothel keepers from enforcement of the law, took bribes from sex trafficking establishments and sexual services from victims, and tipped-off sex and labor traffickers to impede rescue efforts.”
The police regularly carry out raids to rescue women and girls trafficked into prostitution, said Alok Kumar, a deputy commissioner of Delhi Police who is responsible for the area that covers the capital’s red light district. Kumar said he wasn’t aware of the involvement of any policemen in assisting sex trafficking rings.
Krishna Tirath, the minister for women and child development, did not respond to emails, phone calls and visits to her office seeking comment. A secretary in the office of Nita Chowdhury, the top civil servant in the department, said she didn’t have time to meet.
In India it is illegal to live off the earnings of a prostitute, run a brothel or solicit for sex in public places. It isn’t illegal, though, to take money for sex.
Parliament passed a bill in March that mandated tougher sentences in rape cases and broadened the definition of trafficking, after thousands of people took to the streets in December to protest the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old Delhi student. A New Delhi court on Sept. 13 sentenced four men to death for the crime.
There has been a 16 percent jump in the number of reported rapes nationally in India in the five years ending in 2012, and a 902 percent jump since 1971, according to police records. The increase may be the result of growing confidence in reporting assaults, police said.
The changes to the penal code aimed at bolstering women’s safety include allowing rape that results in the death of the victim to be treated as a capital offense. Lawmakers also mandated life imprisonment for police officers found to have aided in trafficking.
The town of Bharatpur, located about 160 kilometers south of Delhi and the place where Suchitra was schooled in prostitution, is one of the main homes of the Bedia. The community has also spread out into the surrounding villages, located among rolling green fields.
At first glance Panchi Ka Nagla looks like many other villages in rural India, with its mud-brick homes, tea stalls and foraging goats. The women and teenage girls wearing bright purple lipstick and revealing tops suggest something different.
They loiter by the road running past the village, waiting for customers. Once the price has been negotiated, they head off to one of the houses or into the bushes with the customer. Children playing nearby watch the scene play out over and over. The village men lounge on cots on thatch porches, prodding their daughters and sisters to hook more customers.
“Of course it makes us sad that we have to force our women into this line of work, but how else can we earn this sort of money?” said Pratap, 30, who uses a single name and lives off the earnings of his sister, Manju, who was soliciting customers nearby. “It is easy for them. They don’t have to work hard for it.”
Manju’s virginity was auctioned for 25,000 rupees 11 years ago to a hotel manager from the northern city of Agra shortly after she had her first period at age 13. A ceremony called nathni utarna, which literally means “taking off the nose ring,” was held to signify that she was ready to enter the sex trade.
Keeping the money from the auction sale is considered inauspicious, so a lavish party was held. Guests from nearby Bedia villages were invited and Manju was adorned with new jewelry and clothes, she said. The festivities culminated in a feast at which alcohol was served and a goat was slaughtered.
“The first time I was so scared, I cried a lot,” said Manju, spitting a mouthful of paan, a betel leaf concoction, onto the floor of her mud shack. A small woman with dark eyes exaggerated by the use of thick mascara, Manju said she has sex with about six men a day and doesn’t know who the fathers of her three children are.
The rules of Manju’s caste dictate that she will never be allowed to marry because she has worked as a prostitute. Women married to Bedia men usually come from outside the community and are exempt from working as prostitutes. A Bedia girl can only begin sex work once she’s had her period and Bedia men are prohibited from having sex with prostitutes from their community, villagers said.
“Of course it is very difficult to understand why you want your own daughter or wife to sleep with other men,” said sociologist Mukherjee. “In a patriarchal society like India women are just considered a commodity to exploit and to earn you money.”
Stiffer financial penalties for running a brothel and successfully prosecuting sex traffickers would reduce the number of women drawn into prostitution, said Kara. The current penalty for operating a brothel is between one and three years in jail and a fine of as much as 2,000 rupees.
“Even if all the owners of brothels in which sex slaves were exploited were convicted each and every year, sex trafficking would still be a high-profit, minimal-risk venture,” Kara said. “It is a very good business model” for the brothel owners, he said.
Ultimately, the key to extracting women from a world of sexual slavery is schooling, said Soumya Pratheek, who works for Apne Aap, a Delhi-based group that campaigns against sex trafficking in India. Some 73 percent of children aged 11 in schools in the state of Rajasthan are unable to subtract and 79 percent can’t recognize numbers between 10 and 99, according to the 2012 Annual Status of Education Report.
“The most important tool that we have is education,” said Pratheek. “Girls must go to school. They need to know that their body is theirs. It is not something that other people can trade in.”
In Bharatpur, Kumari, who took refuge in her parents’ home, said she is the first woman from the local Bedia community to finish college. After graduating with a degree in Hindi, Sanskrit and political science this summer, she said she wants to work as a teacher. Because she is from a low caste she won’t be given a job at a private school and so will seek employment at a government school, she said.
“I want to be a role model in my community and show people that there is a way out,” Kumari said. “I understand the pull of this tradition is very strong. But if women can get a good education and earn more money then maybe one day they won’t be forced to work as prostitutes.”
Like Suchitra, other Bedia girls also end up working on Garstin Bastion Road, the red-light district in New Delhi. The area, just a few minutes’ walk from the city’s main train station, is home to shops selling water pumps, paint, tiles and toilet seats, as well as 92 brothels and about 4,000 prostitutes, according to data cited in the UN report.
Hundreds of women stand on balconies behind black metal grills overlooking the mile-long road, beckoning to passersby to come inside. Customers walk through dark stairwells to reach the brothels. Signs on the walls carry a warning: “Beware of the pickpockets and pimps.”
The entrance to the brothel where Suchitra works opens onto a room with wooden benches, where the women sit talking and brushing their hair in between soliciting customers. Men fasten their trousers as they emerge from adjoining chambers.
Suchitra, who was talking about the dangers of her job, suddenly broke off the interview to join a group of her colleagues trying to solicit a customer who had entered the brothel. She arrived too late and the man headed off with another woman.
“This is my life, I can never do anything else,” she said. “I just pray that one day other girls like me will be able to do something different.”