Molli Desi is one of the small number of Devadasi (sacred prostitutes of India) still remaining; she and Rani Desi, a Nagarvadhu (high priestess) now live in London and are active on Twitter, which is how I got to know them. A few years ago Molli was trapped in one of the rescue industry’s many “rescue centers”, but eventually escaped; I asked if she would share the story on my blog and she graciously consented to do so.
I wish to give special thanks to the Nagarvadhu for helping me with this article, which is a translation from an account written in my mother language. In this short a space I cannot tell the whole truth about all rescue projects, but I think I can expose how structurally and institutionally dangerous most rescue centres are in much of South Asia. Furthermore, I will suggest that many donors from the West deliberately ignore these risks to detained women and girls so as to pursue their self-serving agendas. I do not use the terms women and girls lightly; women and girls are often conflated by the NGOs, so that women of 23+ or married women of 16 will be referred to as girls; female identity in India is far more complex than any simple consideration of age.
It seems so strange to me that organisations that condemn the excesses of closed brothels will in turn exercise the same powers over those they claim to rescue; of course most girls are not rescued from closed brothels, but rather are taken from domestic labour or other sex work environments such as bars, clubs or rooms. After “rescue” they are detained in facilities (sometimes called orphanages, shelter homes or rehab centres) where sexual and other abuse is commonplace; these detention centres are supposed to be inspected by the Government, but there is very little accountability so they foster and encourage a culture of impunity among the organisations that run them. I wish to share my story because I think it very important that people understand the motivations and practices of these organizations; my experience is not unusual, and was a direct consequence the power that “rescuers” exercise over detained women and girls. I have changed names and some details so as to protect myself and others.
I do not know my date of birth; I do know I was taken from the arms of a dying woman who told the people around her my name just before she died. One man claimed to be my uncle and wanted to take me away, but one Devadasi lady knew he was really a miscreant and refused to let him take me. Eventually I was taken to a nice orphanage, and while I was growing up there I was told that my mother and father were migrant workers who had been killed in a bus crash, so no one could trace my real extended family. In India this made me a social outcast, but my time in the orphanage was a happy one. I had many “sisters”, was successful at school and had a talent for classical dance and singing; however, I was also aware that was socially suspect and that I would not be considered suitable for marriage by most “respectable” families because I was an orphan.
In India, marriage is the institution in which patriarchal power is reproduced, and its implementation and policing is delegated to older women; married women in particular support marriage, as it is the means by which they exercise male-delegated power over their son’s wives. It was common practice for the sons of respectable families to target orphan teen girls when they went to college and to have affairs with these girls with promises of marriage. Once the boy graduated, his family would arrange a marriage to a respectable girl and the orphan girl would be disowned. Such young women would then only be able to make a marriage to a low-caste man, and then only with a promise of dowry; if the dowry was considered insufficient the husband and his family might even torture the wife, and sometimes kill her. Orphan girls fully understand that we need to find alternatives to marriage if we want to escape such subjugation. Some girls focus on getting skills or higher education; others develop dancing or even gymnastics. Others do sex work rather than marry or take dangerous work in a garment factory or domestic service. However, in India an unmarried woman is not considered fully human, so anyone who refuses to marry is considered a dangerous rebel.
As I got older, I began to spend time with a small group of girls and young women who sold sex in various residential hotels; I was attracted to them because they worked as a group and lived a freer life, coming and going as they pleased. Two of my good friends from the orphanage worked with these women, and when we were not at school and they were not working we would arrange outings and gatherings. Because they worked as a group they could negotiate with the owners of the residential hotels for better rooms to meet their clients and for less cost. If any residential hotel owner caused a serious problem or assaulted any member of the group, they would set fire to his rubbish bins or his car and send a note to say next time they would burn the hotel. They had money that could use for clothes and telephones but mostly they saved their money in the bank for when they would rent their own apartment. If men eve teased them in the street they would shout back and even throw stones at them, whereas most girls would run away. I admired their self-assurance, but I did not do sex work myself at this time because I did not feel confident enough.
One evening before Ramadan I was visiting my two girl-friends at a residential hotel where they working when suddenly there was a commotion from the lobby. One friend looked out of the door and then closed and quickly locked the door; she told us the police were in the hotel. We were all terrified because the police will often rape women and take their money. The police went from door to door shouting for everyone to come out; we could hear the screams of the women and girls. I hid one of our phones and most of the money in a condom inside my vagina; it was very painful but I knew we would lose it all if I didn’t. We then went outside into the hall, where two policemen shouted at us to come into the reception area; eventually there were about twelve women and girls surrounded by more than twenty police and NGO workers (only two of them were women). A police sergeant made us line up and he took everyone’s phone and money, except for what I had hidden; if he asked a question and didn’t like the answer he got, he would hit the woman in the face. After a few minutes the police inspector left, and the NGO workers said all young women and girls would have to go with them for safe custody; only women who could prove they were over 20 or had a magistrate permission certificate to be a prostitute could stay. Eventually the NGO workers took me, my two friends and another young woman; we were chosen because we were the smallest and the police said they knew the other women were well known prostitutes who were definitely over 18. The police then took the women who were allowed to stay, and in exchange for sex they could have their telephones back.
We told the NGO workers that I was not a prostitute, but was only visiting my friends; also, a police officer said that I did not look like a prostitute because I was wearing blue jeans and not Salwaar Kameez like the others. However, the NGO workers said I was at risk of being trafficked by my friends, so I must go to “safe custody”. There were five NGO workers; they took photographs of us (it’s not unknown for TV journalists to be invited to watch these “rescues”) and then took us outside to their minibus. I tried to run away in the street, but one NGO woman grabbed my long hair and slammed me into the side of the minibus. A crowd gathered as I was fighting back and during the chaos the other young woman managed to run away, but the NGO woman was much bigger than me so eventually my friends and I were pushed into the minibus. All the way to detention the woman hit me and called me very bad names.
In tomorrow’s conclusion, Molli describes the rescue center and tells how she eventually escaped.