Social Issues

Inside India: Where Women Are Routinely Prostituted by Their In-Laws

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Women are still prostituted by their own family even in this 21st century specifially, in the Perna Caste in India.  Women born into this caste face many pressures to uptake sex work as their profession and are, in a sense, “trafficked” by their own families. Sex work is a familial and culturally-sanctioned activity in the Perna Caste and women as young as 14 are placed or sold by their parents into arranged marriages with the expectation that they will engage in sex work to support their family.

Rani’s daily routine rarely changes: she “goes for prostitution” around 2:00 a.m., taking an auto-rickshaw with other Perna women to public places. “Anywhere that’s crowded is good,” according to them. In nearby Delhi, women with the means to do so make their plans for the evening early and don’t leave the house without a male escort after dark. Rani, who goes out every night on her own, says she dreads the moment when the group of women inevitably separates: “You have to do the work alone.” She tries to avoid the police. Instead to provide her protection, they ask for free sex and take her money. On good nights she might service as many as five customers, bad nights are the ones when she can’t find a john. She comes home around 7:00 a.m., makes her six children and her husband breakfast, washes clothes, takes a nap, cooks dinner, sometimes steals another few hours of sleep, and then gets up to start the day all over again. She met her husband on the day of her wedding, becoming his second wife at the age of 17, and two years later, his prostitute. “I knew it would happen, it’s very normal,” she said. “I do it to earn for my family.”

Families would be paid for their daughters, sometimes as little as $50, and the girls taken by a series of transporters across the border to agents in Calcutta and Bombay, where they were handed over to pimps and priced based on their beauty and age. The pimps gave them to brothel managers for “seasoning”—repeated rape—and the girls, many between nine and 13 years old, were then kept in bonded labor, expected to service 10 or more customers a night for an average of $3 each.

The common argument made in countries like Norway, where the novel policy question is not whether to punish traffickers of underage children but whether to make adult prostitution legal, is that women should have a right to make a living however they please. “But if you are forced into sex work when you’re 10 years old and then told you can’t leave, exactly what choice are you exercising?” another Perna woman asked..

“No one wants to do this work,” Rani says. “It’s always without choice. But who would I go to complain to?” All she wants for the future, she says, is for her daughter to be someone society recognizes…


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