Distress sale of poverty-stricken Bhil women
PUSHED TO the brink of desperation by acute scarcity, are the Bhil women of Rajasthan being sold off to the Patels of Gujarat by their own families? The distress sale of cattle is a typical drought phenomenon, but the distress sale of women for money has become a raging controversy here. A local NGO, Adivasi Eki Andolan, has alleged that nine Bhil women in the Kotda block were sold off to the Patels in April.
Kotda is the poorest and most backward tribal block in southern Rajasthan. Prolonged hunger and malnutrition has made the Bhils physically vulnerable. Any disease can turn fatal. Infant mortality rate is high. Female literacy is as low as 2 per cent. Drop out rate from run-down schools is 50 per cent. There is no electricity in the entire block of 20 lakh people. Of the 300 solar panels, most do not work. The tribals have 'handkerchief size' lands, which are parched or mortgaged. The wells have dried up. With starvation deaths becoming frequent, the proud Bhils are trapped in an infinite age of darkness.
Moti of Jogiwarh village is in her 20s. The entire village says that her father Rama sold her off through a pimp for Rs 20,000 to an unknown man across the border. The pimp pocketed Rs 15,000. The rest went to Rama, of which he paid Rs 2,500 to a money lender. Rama has not only sold his daughter but also his buffalo.
The police allegedly threatened the families and asked them to get back the women. Five of them returned, including Moti, but four women are still untraced. Locals believe that the women are further sold off in an organised chain of sexual exploitation.
Moti said she was made to do domestic work. "In the night the man would get drunk and paw me," she said.
The administration denies the distress sale. "The women went on their own. They have admitted it to the Press. It's a non-issue," said District Collector P.S. Mehra.
M.M. Atre, Udaipur SP, dismissed it as "tribal custom". "The Bhil women go off with any man who pays. It's their tradition."
Is this then not organised prostitution compelled by poverty? "No. It's their custom," said Atre. "You go there, pay money, and you too can pick up a woman."
The chief minister has denied that women are being sold. Local MP and state Congress president Girija Vyas, talking to the Hindustan Times, neither denied nor confirmed the reports. "Yes, the situation is terrible. The government should have a different yardstick for the tribals," she said.
The Bhils have a strict code of conduct. Men have to pay the woman's family for marriage. "But women being sent with men outside the community is unheard off," said Gandhian Kishore Saint. "Even if they are not sold, the transaction itself, that too outside the state, is a dangerous trend."
Meanwhile, the drought has created serious sociological aberrations in the Bhil villages. A nephew murdered his uncle on May 23. The old man was lucky to get a day's work in the food for work project instead of his nephew. A woman returned to her hungry children after getting no work, drank pesticide and committed suicide. Another Bhil went to Gujarat looking for work. His dead body arrived in early June. His wife said that he had not eaten anything for four days, then he drank water and instantly died. A tale of hunger, dying and slow death. This is the unfinished story of the proud Bhils of modern India.