For generations, prostitution has provided the only means of economic survival for some tribes in the Indian desert. Now, a handful of schools are teaching kids that a life outside the sex industry is possible.
In India’s financial capital Mumbai, Pinkie has entertained the “richest to the poorest men” since she was 20 years old.
For 10 years, she sang and danced for lawyers, doctors and tradesman before leading them to a small bed in the corner of her one-room home.
“There are only one or two men we can enjoy. But we have to have sex with so many people how do we enjoy it? We are doing it for money, so it’s not a question of enjoyment,” she said.
Pinkie lives in Malwadi slum in the outer suburbs of Mumbai and insisted on anonymity while talking to Deutsche Welle. She is now retired but her three sisters and 16-year-old daughter continue to work in the sex industry to support her and the rest of their family.
The women are from the Kanjar community – an ancient tribe in Rajasthan, which like the Nats have come to rely on prostitution for economical survival.
According to the Mumbai-based NGO Summitra Trust, more than 1,200 Nat and Kanjar women work in Malwadi’s sex industry, where they face the threat of imprisonment, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Before British colonisation, the tribes were entertainers for the ruling families. But when the British came their traditions were lost and they turned to prostitution out of economic necessity.
Now it’s just a matter of social condititioning, according to Surbhi Dayal, a researcher from Jawaharlal Nehru University who has been studying the communities’ family structure for almost a decade.
“If you see your mother who is a married woman doing household work from 4am until 11pm, and your aunt who is an unmarried sex worker always dressed up and able to fulfill whatever you ask of her because she has money, then definitely a girl is going to take up to prostitution not a married life,” Dayal said.
While the men earn little money – occasionally working as their sisters’ or daughters’ pimps – the majority of women get married or become sex workers.
“They [the parents] decide around 10 to 12 years of age if a girl is quite talkative and attractive then she pursues sex work but if a girl is shy or she is not very good looking … she will get married,” Dayal said.
When Dayal first learnt about these practices she said she was indignant.
“I kept thinking, ‘How someone can do like this, how women can just go to prostitution? How men can just sit in the house pimping for sisters or daughters?'”
The answer, she said, was poverty.
Path out of poverty
Although Rajasthan attracts tourists with its grand palaces and colorful handiworks, it remains one of India’s poorest states.
Almost 40 percent of people are illiterate and the average income is just over one euro a day.
In contrast, prostitutes working in India’s big cities can make up to 80 euros ($110) a night.
But the extra income has come at a high price. The community faces intense social stigma and the majority of children remain uneducated, which leads to another generation of girls being forced into prostitution.
After witnessing the poor standard of local government schools and watching the pattern of prostitution repeat itself in the Nat and Kanjar communities in Alwar, social worker Nirvana Bodhisattva set up Nirvanavan Foundation.
The foundation, which opened in 2001, runs 12 schools, 10 of which cater specifically to the Nat and Kanjar communities, and provides free education to children aged between 5 and 10.
One of these modest schools is at Kalsara Bagh, a small village split by a highway that links Rajasthan to Delhi.
Along the road, women laze around on grass beds and plastic chairs waiting for customers. Most of these are truck drivers who will pay the equivalent of between 1 euro and 7 euros for time with the women.
In the heart of this village, Bodhisattva and his team have set up a one-room school, which blends the community’s traditions of dance and song with Hindi, English and math lessons in order to maintain the students’ interest.
“We began with one school and at that time; we had two teachers and about 60 students,” Bodhisattva said. “Now we have about 520 children.”
Running the schools, however, remains a challenge. Lack of funds led to five schools temporarily closing and gaining the communities’ trust is an ongoing battle, Bodhisattva said.
“The community depends on that profession and the men live on the money that the women earn, so we are a threat,” he said.
A future outside of prostitution will not happen overnight, but a new future is slowly emerging, Bodhisattva said. A former female student is currently studying to become a doctor and several boys have gone on to mainstream schools.
The children now have aspirations, added Anju Singh Rajput, a teacher at the school.
“They are becoming aware of their education,” Rajput said. “They have a dream to become a teacher a doctor because they read about these things in the books. Now they even ask for homework.”