AS DREAM BEACOMES REALITY Weddings of Saraniya Girls of Vadia

The Saraniyas   hail from Rajasthan and as the belief goes had the responsibility of sharpening and maintaining the weaponry of Maharana Pratap’s army. But with the consequent turn of events following the defeat and death of Rana Pratap, they never went back to Chittorgarh, instead, they started roaming from one village to another, sharpening knives and agricultural tools. The community derives its name Saraaniyaa from the instrument called ‘Saran’ that it uses to sharpen knives and tools.

The Saraniyas of Vadia- A brief History:

At least 150 Saraniya families, originally from Budhanpur village; about 2 kilometers away from the town of Tharad of Banaskantha district, now live in Vadgama-Vadia village. The original occupation of these Saraniya families was to sharpen and upkeep the weapons of Maharana Pratap’s army however, following the death of Maharana Pratap they had no choice but to give up occupation.

The Saraniya women are known for their beauty and charm, one of the reasons certain women from Saraniya families of  Budhanpur got involved in activities of dancing and entertaining the royal and  Rajput aristocrats. The Nawab of Palanpur, the Rajputs of Tharad, Vav and Diyodar would invite these women to dance at their revelries or marriage occasions. The women believed to have increased the glamour quotient of royal Rajput bashes.  These dancers were not despised, instead had a prominent place in the society The Saraniyas associated with these activities gradually decreased wandering and eventually stopped working on their Saran.  However, as the Independence of India completely abolished the royal era in India along with it, the livelihood of these Saraniya women also reached a standstill. They neither had any inheritance to fall back on, nor had they learnt the traditional skills of their ancestors.  The emergent situation turned grim. The men from the community were as such dependent on the income of the women in the family hence hard work was not their cup of tea. It was the women who burdened all the responsibility of running the household.  Thus, unable to bear the hunger pangs of the family members somewhere in the year 1950, 4 women of Saraniya community from this region took up prostitution. By 1963 the number grew to 13. In an effort to rehabilitate these women and prevent other girls from being pushed into this trade, these families were given 208 acres of land, 17 kilometers away from the village of Budhanpura.

Dry and arid region, poor quality of land, dependence on rain and absence of irrigation facilities and skills required for farming were the factors that failed these families when they tried their hands with agriculture. Also 208 acres was inadequate sized land to support 150 families.   As a result, these families continued to depend on the occupation of prostitution. The income from prostitution was easy for the men in the families hence, they continued pushing the women of their families getting into this trade. For few women entering into prostitution was a voluntary decision they made but for the following generations/ the daughters it was a forced occupation wherein their fathers and brothers pushed them into the trade of prostitution.

As a result of its involvement in flesh trade, Vadia’s image had been tarnished in the region surrounding it. The neighboring villages would not allow access to Vadia from their village.  They would be refused employment/labour opportunities in the region if they mentioned they belong to Vadia.  They would avoid going to Tharad for shopping, as they feared getting recognized and insulted by the shopkeepers. During illness and other medical emergencies, they would go to clinics in Deesa, Palanpur or Mehsana to avoid from being recognized. Because of the notoriety associated with Vadia no one except clients would enter the village, for any other help or support required in case of emergency they had no choice but to ask assistance from the pimps.

In 2005, VSSM visited Vadia for the very first time. The image of Vadia we had harboured in our thoughts was of a prosperous village because that is what everyone talked about… prostitution, riches, easy money, happy folks…. We disembarked from the bus and took a 3 kilo-meters hike (because there was no road or transport facility leading to the village) absolutely shocked us. The picture that stared back at us was nowhere near to what we had imagined.  The houses were made of mud, some were of bamboo and grass, no power, no roads, no commutation facility, no water, half naked mal-nourished children all around, women more in rags than clothes, a village school that hardly functioned.  The men of village gathered in the school corridors and gambled all day long. The scent and marks of spitted gutka and tobacco were all around the corridors. All that the men did was find customers for the women in their family. We knew from the very beginning that working in Vadia will be an acid test for us and giving up was not an option we were looking at.

We began working gradually, addressing the peripheral issues like health, housing, education etc.. without questioning, judging or criticizing the choices the women made.  During our initial interactions with the community, we learnt about this unique tradition: in Vadia, it is customary for the parents of the girl child to engage her between the age of 7 to 10 years.  However, if for some reason that does not happen, it should be understood that she will be pushed into prostitution.  Surprisingly though, there is tremendous respect for the engaged girls as nobody even dares to think of pushing engaged girls into prostitution. Even married women are never expected to be involved in prostitution. These are certain unwritten rules this community follows.

Shedding the preconceived notions:

As is evident from the prevalent custom, for the girl child in Vadia it was in her best interest to get engaged even if it had to be at a very early age.  It is understood that the implications of the trade the community is involved in were unhealthy, but it had to be accepted that this wasn’t their first choice. A trade that was once opted under dire circumstances by couple of women, has been interweaved in the cultural and social ethos of this community so much that criticizing it and preaching moral values is bound to face resistance and rejection. Instead of building our own judgments for them there are facts that need to be understood and absorbed:

  • The Saraaniya girls of Vadia are not in the occupation of prostitution by choice. They are forced into it at a very tender age, most of the times as early as 12 years.
  • For every girl child born the parent’s wish is ‘to never to marry her off.’
  • It is unimaginable for the girl involved in the trade to come out of it because of the norms of the community.
  • In most of the circumstances they are sole bread earners of the family and receive immense respect from the members of the family.
  • For the men folk here, their daughters/sisters are ‘golden egg laying geese’. The money these women bring in is easy income for the men who do not want to engage in any other form of labor or employment activity.
  • It is the pimps who rule the region. It is the nexus of the pimps the families fear the most.
  • The families depend on the pimps for support during financial needs and emergencies. The rate of interest on money lent to them is anywhere between 10 to 20 percent. With such rate of interest, the amount of loan becomes huge and the debtor is never able to repay back. Most of the families are under perpetual debt traps of these pimps. The pimps eventually start pursuing and pushing the debtor to involve her daughter into prostitution. And the cycle carries on.
  • Of the earnings the girls/families are entitled to, the pimps take away lion’s share.
  • Focused attempts to develop alternate sources of income have not been made earlier.

VSSM decided to arrange for a communal wedding of the daughters of Vadia. It was a huge risk we were taking, it sure invited lot of criticism and threats, but we held on to our plans and went ahead with the weddings, the first ever event of its kind in Vadia.

 Achieving a dream we had seen with wide open eyes…..

This unprecedented communal weddings  for the girls of this village can be termed as culmination of VSSM’s efforts of 6 years. The strategy adopted by VSSM has been that of being supportive rather than being critical. Provide education; help them avail their Rights and entitlements, initiate income generation activities etc. were some of the activities taken up by VSSM in the Vadia. When the work began, we felt it would be great if we could stop even one girl from being pushed into prostitution.  It was a dream seen with open eyes and realizing it has been the most rewarding experiencing for the team of VSSM.

The desire to see the girls getting married and leading normal lives was sparked by Hemi, a young girl who came in our contact in the year 2005, when we began working in Vadia. At the time we met Hemi she was just on verge of entering prostitution.  Her sister, sister’s daughters were all in this trade. But as Hemi started getting involved with VSSM her interaction with VSSM’s Shardaben grew, she got to see the world beyond her society. Gradually as she warmed up with Shardaben, she expressed her desire of getting married and not following  the trade. This wish churned a storm in her family. She was bitten, abused by her family members especially by her brother and sister, but yet remained firm in her decision.  In the next couple of years our relations with the family improved. In the meantime, the activities of VSSM had geared up in Vadia. The villagers started putting faith in our work and the VSSM team was recognized and respected for the work it did.  Opportunities for developing alternate sources of income were also created by VSSM in Vadia

Of the numerous children covered under VSSM’s educational intervention, VSSM also supported education of Hemi’s nephew who was very bright in studies. The family began comprehending our perspective so when we talked about finding a suitable match for Hemi they all agreed.  The wish to organize a communal wedding was shared with the village elders in January 2012.  We had identified quite a few girls who had to be engaged or married or else they were on verge of being pushed in prostitution. The discussion held for making the event happen were kept transparent and were held on public places. Families involved in trading girls were asked to engage their own daughters. VSSM facilitated finding grooms for the girls. Other 2 girls from Hemi’s family also showed readiness to get engaged.

Gradually the number of girls to get married or engaged reached 15. This was enough to get the alarm bells ringing for the pimps. While we were trying to persuade the parents to engage or marry off the daughters in their families the pimps started doing just the opposite. They resorted to blackmailing, threatening the community, parents and the team of VSSM. As a result of these threats 5 families changed their minds. Until the day of the ceremony i.e. 11th March 2012 we weren’t sure how many of these 15 daughters would turn up for marriage and engagement.

Nevertheless, as the ‘mahurat’ approached one after the other girls started coming to the ‘mandap’, in all 20 of them turned up. 8 of these girls got married and 12 were engaged.

The community was absolutely clueless on how to perform the ceremonies during this mass marriage event.  VSSM played a pivotal role in organizing and facilitating the entire event. It ensured that the weddings took place in peace, without any hindrances.  Right from searching grooms for the girls to arranging for the priest, to trousseau shopping and all the other logistics … the entire program was planned and executed by VSSM.

The support:

Individuals: As much as the willingness of the parents to allow the marriage of their daughter was vital, of equal importance was the relentless support from the well-wishers of VSSM. As the word of this mass marriage event spread donations started pouring in. The money helped us take care of the main event, the costumes for girls, their wedding gifts etc.  It was overwhelming when a lot of donors sent a note with their donations saying that this money be treated as a gift from maternal uncles.  We were told to convey to the families that henceforth these donor families will stand beside the families of Vadia in case of any eventuality.

Administration: Once the date of the event was made public, the team, community and parents started receiving threats from the pimps and other vested interest groups. It would have been a daunting task to accomplish our dream if we did not have support of the state administration. If it hadn’t been for the support of Chief Minister Shri. Narendra Modi, Chief Secretary Shri. Nitin Patel, Banaskatha Collector Shri. Vora, DDO Shri. Bhatt, Police Chief Shri. Katara, District Social Welfare Officer Shri. Prajapati, Police Inspector Tharad Mr. Chaudhari and numerous other officials, this event would have proved a challenge to accomplish.

The entire event was provided necessary police protection by administration because there were threats from groups that resisted the change.