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Punjabi girls forced into prostitution

Many young Punjabi girls are being forced into prostitution in the garb of working as dancers or entertainers, reports in the TRIBUNE.

 

Her dark gloomy eyes reflect her shadowy past, unable to hide her shame and pain. Sitting in a corner of a dark room, Rashmi (name changed) prefers this darkness of a dingy room to bright neon lights and posh hotel rooms. At the young age of 17, Rashmi has already experienced the seamier side of life that lies behind this glam world. Her nightmarish journey into this murky world began in cultured, air-conditioned rooms of five-star hotels and culminated into this innocent teenager becoming as a prostitute.


Women's trafficking in Punjab is not unheard of. While many young girls from other parts are sneaked into the state to be employed as sex slaves, a large number of Punjabi girls, in the garb of working as performers, are being herded across the borders to do the same job in metropolitan cities of India and Gulf countries like Dubai.

 

Investigations revealed that many of the musical groups operational in Punjab act as mediators in whisking off young women to Arab countries and other Indian cities for dancing, a euphuism for prostitution.

 

More than one lakh women are a part of around 5,000 orchestra groups operating in Punjab, though all of them are not involved in prostitution (The faces of the girls have been blurred to protect their identities)

 

"I had joined a musical group a year back and was promised Rs 500 per show. We performed at music shows, at marriages and other parties, mostly during late evenings. Two months into the job, my employer started asking me to stay back at her house to help her with household chores. Then came a time when I was prohibited to go out or meet my parents without her or her husband's permission.

 

"Show or no show, I couldn't go home. They always had an excuse. One day, they asked me to join them on a three-month tour to Bangalore for a series of Punjabi cultural shows. They offered Rs 15,000 per month for the job. Forced by poor financial circumstances, my parents agreed and I, too, went reluctantly. Only after reaching there did I realise what was my actual work. I was hired by a hotel on Bangalore's posh MG Road for pleasing its customers for a period of three months. They had signed a contract to this effect with my employer. I was in trouble in a strange land not knowing its language," narrates Rashmi, while giving details of her harrowing tale.

 

Rashmi, a good-looking girl of 17, is a resident of Basti Danishmandan in Jalandhar. She left studies after completing Class X and started working with a musical group in the city to supplement her family's income. After joining the group, she was forced to do menial jobs at the house of her employer and was frequently subjected to torture and abuse for not giving in to their unjust demands. She was also underpaid on the pretext that money had been spent on buying make-up and dress material for her.

 

But her real nightmare began once she landed in Bangalore. She found herself one among the 50 women present there to pander to the demands of the male customers of the hotel. "The guests, as we called them, would take us out for a movie or shopping They would give us gifts and in return expected to be treated like boyfriends. They could talk anything and we were not supposed to spoil their mood, whatever the provocation," discloses Rashmi. The 50 women in the hotel had come from different parts of the country and even from as far as Nepal.

 

Though she hesitates to speak clearly, Rashmi confesses that she was pressurised to do what she obliquely refers to as 'wrong things'. "We were five girls in that hotel from Jalandhar and I learnt that many more from the city were into the same business in other hotels of Bangalore. In fact, Hindi-speaking girls were at a premium there," she adds. Anjali Sinha, an activist with NGO Stree Adhikar Sangathan, reveals that there is an inter-state nexus between such 'gangs' that recruit innocent girls under the garb of dancing and later push them into prostitution.

 

"India is in the process of widespread economic and social restructuring because of capitalisation and globalisation, which have changed the social fabric of our society. Everything today is driven by capital. Women and children are increasingly becoming commodities to be bought, sold and consumed by tourists, military personnel, organised crime rings, traffickers, and men seeking sexual entertainment without responsibility," adds Anjali Sinha.

 

Though Rashmi has since quit the troupe, many of her friends are still into it and are doing a tour of Dubai at present. When The Tribune spoke to one such girl in Dubai, she confessed that they were actually working as sex slaves, providing entertainment to their 'guests' for money and material goods.

 

"I dance in a hotel bar. In three months, I earn about Rs 2.5 lakh. I dance for about six hours a day, from 6 pm to 12 am. During this time, forget eating, I cannot even drink water without my customer's permission. If he wants me to drink while dancing, I have to do it`85 I had an inkling about the nature of work here while I was in Bangalore, but still went ahead`85 due to certain compulsions," discloses Alisha.

 

Alisha has signed a three-month contract with the hotel. She cannot step out unless her customer pays a stipulated amount to the hotel management. "It is like being literally enslaved`85 trapped in this vicious circle of prostitution and moral degeneration`85 I cannot escape since I am the only bread-winner for my family, back in India`85″ she sobs.

 

"Once trapped in the quagmire of flesh trade, escape is very unlikely. It's like a never-ending, widening gyre whose stigma lives with you like a ghost…" she adds.

 

But, why join such professions in the first place? "At 16, I married against my parents' wishes. The guy turned out to be a drug-addict. After three years of marriage and two children to feed, I walked out of this abusive relationship. But my parents refused to help me. So, I got a job as a domestic helper with an NRI family in Deep Singh Nagar, Bathinda. I was given a room, too. But the owner started demanding sexual favours and I decided to quit the job to work in an orchestra, run by a neighbour's relative. Good looks were my passport to the job. But, I soon realised that it was not all about dancing," confides Madhu (name changed).

 

"Penury, betrayal, illiteracy and abuse are classic ingredients of our lives. Everybody talks about izzat, but izzat isn't going to feed my family, is it? You need money to survive, and I had no other options," adds Madhu. In August last year, the Bathinda police had rounded up several girls who were involved in flesh trade in the guise of orchestra business.

 

According to a report by the Central Bureau of Investigation reports, the global human trafficking industry affects an estimated six to eight million people annually and is worth $ 9 billion. A survey conducted by the National Commission for Women estimates that 378 districts (62 per cent) of India are affected by trafficking of women and children for commercial sexual exploitation.

 

"Women, the world over, are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, especially, when they are migrants or refugees and when they are suffering from poverty or affected by racism and caste structure. Women and children are forced into the industry by violence, lack of economic alternatives, deception, debt bondage and financial enslavement. It is a human rights disaster. It is high time the government seriously tackled the menace that has assumed alarming proportions," says Jai Singh, who runs the Volunteers for Social Justice, an NGO.

 

Most of the girls are either forced into the profession by parents, or are victims of poverty and unemployment. Minal (34), a resident of Guru Nanakpura, Bathinda, has been dancing since she was 17, earning anything between Rs 8,000 and Rs 12,000 a month. After she failed in Class X, her widowed mother married her off. But as luck would have it, her moments of joy were short-lived. Just three months into the marriage, her drunkard husband started forcing her to sleep with other men to earn some money.

 

"I was young and good looking. One day, a customer asked me to join a western orchestra group then operational in the town. Sometimes you need to pay with your soul to earn a livelihood. I then started to work as a prostitute, disguised as a dancer," she sobs. "I have been to Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore on 'business' tours," she adds. There are around 5,000 orchestra groups in Punjab, involving more than one lakh women.

 

Although common, such cases don't usually come to the notice of the police. "Rarely do we come across such cases. Given our society's attitude towards the victim, girls and their families prefer to keep mum. The police, society and the politicians should work in tandem to curb this menace," says Manjeet Kaur, in-charge, Women's Cell, Jalandhar.

 

President of the Lok Bhalai Party, Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, says that while his party had not received any written or formal complaint hitherto, such incidents are quite common in Punjab. "Faced with unemployment and compelling family needs, young beautiful girls, sometimes even well-educated ones, are forced into this dirty business for the want of money. They do not choose it by preference, but out of sheer necessity, often after broken marriages or being disowned by families," he adds. But president of the Punjab Orchestra Association Vijay Sahota dubs these reports as false, saying: "Though incidents of pushing dancers or orchestra singers into prostitution had come to light in Bathinda in the late 1990s, after our association was formed in 2000, no such case has been reported." "Artistes are poor, not immoral. If the organisers play foul, the girls should complain to us. Our association will definitely come to their rescue and help them get due respect," he concludes.

 

tribuneindia.com/2010/20100313/saturday/main1.htm