The community is infamous for the practice but, say the experts, the custom can be looked at from another angle and that marriage here is nothing but 'societal cover for the commercial exploitation of women'. Photograph: (WION)
Perna women have been sex workers for generations. They have a first child and are then pushed into prostitution by their husbands
Sunita is 26 but she looks older, and tired. “I don’t remember the first time I stepped out of my house.” she says staring out of the window with kohl-rimmed eyes. “Since then every day has been the same. My husband had no work and with so many people in the family to feed, I did what other women in my community do.”
She's talking about sex work.
Sunita is a Perna, a member of a nomadic tribe that moved from the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan to the capital city sometime in the 1950s and settled in the Najafgarh area. They are also found in the north Indian state of Haryana. They came to Delhi in search of better lives but have found themselves unable – or unwilling – to leave behind the community profession.
That, unfortunately, is what they have gained notoriety for – a community whose women prostitute themselves while the men do the pimping.
But Taw Nana, who works for the non-governmental organisation Apne Aap Worldwide (On Your Own Worldwide), says the custom can be looked at from another angle and that marriage here is nothing but “societal cover for the commercial exploitation of women”.
“Why would the men let go of the easy money coming from their wives? Tradition is an excuse to live off their wives' earning. Also, it is not women who decide but the men. The woman earns her money by selling her body to five to 10 men in one night. Unfortunately, it is the male who decides when women should stop allowing strangers to invade their body,” says Nana.
To back up her argument she says that even though most Perna women deny they are prostituted by their husbands or in-laws, a majority of the men from the 50-odd households in the Perna settlement at Najafgarh do not work. The few that do, work odd jobs.
A long history of stereotyping
The Pernas have suffered a long history of stereotyping. In colonial times, the British – who ruled India from roughly 1757 to 1947 – labelled them -- this was officially -- a criminal tribe. Ethnology of this sort was common, with entire communities stereotyped as “martial”, “non-martial”, “criminal” etc. And while the Supreme Court of India did away with the idea of "criminal" tribes in 1952, the label continues to stick, and do continued damage.
“We know for certain that the girls are groomed to become a prostitute, and on the same side even the boys are groomed to become pimps. Most of them do not go to school. They are married off early. They are trained to eye their wife as their property as the girls are bought in the name of marriage. Hefty amounts are paid to the girls' parents during marriage,” says Nana.
Most Perna women take to prostitution soon after giving birth to their first child. This might seem ironic but to ensure racial purity, it is thought important that the first child be sired by the husband.
And it is possible that after years of conditioning, prostitution has become the default fallback option.
“I was thirteen when I got married. My firstborn died soon after her birth because we didn’t have the money to go to a good hospital. My sister-in-law and other women in the community were getting money from this work and so I decided to follow the tradition,” says Sunita, sitting in a carefully decorated room in her two-story home. “I would have done any other work if I had the choice.”
Heerabai, a friend of Sunita's, says she did not take up the “Perna” trade until her husband died.
“He died of tuberculosis and I was left with four daughters. I was young and vulnerable with no relatives. How could a widow have survived away from a community of her own people? So I did what other Pernas do,” says the 36-year-old.
Today, she is one of the older sex workers in the settlement.
Nana says "there is a 10-point approach to help uplift the Pernas which includes providing safe houses, government ids, and legal empowerment".
Until then, Heerabai and Sunita will continue to live the life of their foremothers.
Two to five customers a day
“In the morning we Pernas live like all other housewives cooking, cleaning, taking care of children. Our work can start as late as 3 am when we step out of the locality in small groups and hire cabs to go to our usual spots, mostly around west Delhi. We then get back around 6 am and after a small nap prepare for another long day,” say Heerabai.
Sunita says a "group leader" takes care of the younger women when they go out for the first time.
“Pernas never go with customers to their house or even to hotels. Secluded spots are better because you can run if your client gets abusive.”
Most women service two to five customers a day, which means they come home with about Rs 500 or $8.
Heerabai: “We are the ones who decide the rates but with so much of haggling by the clients it never goes beyond Rs 200 ($3) per client. There are also times when the customer goes without paying.”
Heerabai married her two elder daughters within the community – they got married when they were about 13 – but dreams of a better life for her two younger ones who study in a nearby boarding school. Apne Aap Worldwide, which started working with the Pernas in 2008, helped with the admissions. As they did with Sunita's daughter. Since then, the two ladies have become more vocal about stopping their daughters from entering the community trade.
“I will marry my other two daughters only when they have a respectable job in their hands,” says Heerabai.
Sunita shows us a music system she has bought her daughter. The eight-year-old puts on an uptempo Bollywood number and begins to dance; she says she wants to become a choreographer. Her mother shows off a certificate of appreciation the child has got from a popular dance school.
“My daughter is fortunate to be living away from home. I don’t get to see her much but her progress keeps me motivated. We could never get out of this morass but she will,” says Sunita
A number of communities in South Asia practice intergenerational prostitution. The Indian Supreme Court recently asked state governments to act against the “Devadasis”, women who would become "temple servants", remain unmarried, and end up mistresses of powerful patrons. Today, they are prostitutes. The court also called upon the states to look into similar practices among other communities.
Sunita’s sister Rita worries about the day her children will discover what it is she does for a living. She has taken a temporary hiatus from sex work while she is pregnant with her third child.
“The more they stay away from the community, the better. I am trying to get my children enrolled in a residential school,” she says. And then goes silent as her husband enters the room.
The names of some people in this story have been changed in order to protect their identities.