Saving them from the world's oldest profession

An age old tradition stands challenged at Vadia village in Banas­kantha District in North Gujarat. Thanks to the grit of a teenager, the Sarania community in the village has now agreed to marry their daughters off instead of pushing them into flesh trade.

For the first time, the village organised a community marriage recently which saw at least ten girls married and a few more exchanging rings, to be married in the next few months.

Saranias are one of the 28 nomadic tribes of Gujarat with more than 50,000 population spread across the state. While the state government did make some half-hearted efforts to settle them, the women in Vadia village were pushed into the trade as the agricultural land given to them turned barren due to lack of irrigation facilities.

“We had made several representations to the state government for helping us with irrigation facilities, but all of them fell on deaf ears,” says Joni Sarania. With the land barren, the men in the village have no other source of livelihood and the onus falls on the women to keep the kitchen hearth burning.

The village with a Sarania population of about 350 adults has at least 80 girls still in the profession while about 30 more entertain single clients.

The girls as young as nine or ten are often pushed into the trade. Like anywhere else, a young girl fetches higher price, ranging from Rs  15,000 to Rs 20,000. The agents from nearby Palanpur and Mount Abu too exploit the vulnerability and prey on the women and children, who are often taken to those areas, where they operate under different names.

Things were, however, been shaping well for the community, albeit at a snail’s pace. A borewell, which was lying useless for years was reactivated in 2008, by Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch (VSSM) an organisation working for the nomadic and de-notified communities in Gujarat. The well now partly waters the agricultural land. The organisation also successfully got the village connected with Vadgam, the nearest important town with the district.

“Things were moving. However, one issue that really bothered us was  that the young girls were being pushed into the flesh trade by their families and we could do nothing about it,” says Mittal Patel, VSSM Director. Tireless efforts by Mittal and her team for last few years have finally resulted in a changed mindset and the village agreed to organise a community marriage for its girls.

“It all started with one girl Hemi who after attending our vocational training classes declined to become a prostitute and insisted on getting married,” said Mittal. While family members initially were reluctant, gradually they came around and agreed to Hemi’s demand.

“We then saw an opportunity and proposed a community marriage with the village elders and after some persuasion, they agreed to get at least ten girls married,” Mittal said.

Back in the village it is now time for celebration of liberation. “I was in the trade and now don’t entertain clients anymore,” says Joni Sarania. “It is a great feeling that the situation has changed and our daughters will not have to go through what we have, any more. At least their lives will be saved,” she says.

“As we see our daughters get married and settling in villages outside the distr­ict we are relieved that they will definitely have a better life and a stigma-free life,’’ echoed another parent Mithi Sarania, who too saw her daughter married off and the other now engaged at the age of 18.

Ramesh Sarania, Hemi’s brother and a community leader, too sounds hopeful of a new beginning. “First Hemi wanted to get married and then we spoke to the community and a couple of other girls too showed interest and Mittalben promised us the financial assistance for marriage,” he says.

“This was the first community marri­age in the village,” Ramesh says . This will mark a new chapter in the history of the community. The village elders too feel that this step will also now remove the stigma attached to the village for decades. “We agree that it will take some time for outsiders to come to terms and we will still be referred to as the village of prostitutes but this step will ensure a new hope for the new born girls and the generations to come,’’ said Ramesh.    

He said that the girls who had got engag­ed would also get married in the next few months and that would ensure more social recognition for the village and its women folk. The village elders add that they too would now encourage their women folk indulge in other activities and job options offered by the voluntary orga­nisations working in these areas.

“The income might be less but at least there will be no stigma attached,’’ says village elder Mahesh Sarania.

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