Natpurwa is a village where women have been forced into prostitution for centuries. And one of them is determined to help the others break free.

Round faced, stout and dusky, Chandralekha, at age 15, was the most desired girl among the politicians, policemen and senior members of Eastern Uttar Pradesh’s civil society. “They always wanted plump women,” says Chandralekha, now 51 years old. Chandralekha was pushed into prostitution, by her grandmother and aunt. They told her it was the tradition of their Natpurwa village. And indeed it was.

Prostitution has been the tradition in this village of 5000 people for 400 years. The entire village consists of the Nat community who were patronised by the zamindars of neighbouring villages in return for sexual favours from the women. This became entrenched in the customs and history of the village and continues even today.

Natpurwa is about 70 km east of the state capital Lucknow. The winding mud roads, the noisy cattle and the playful kids make the village seem like any other. But a closer look at the faces of the young girls tells a different story. Fear and oppression is writ large on their faces. No man would let an outsider speak to the women of his house and no woman would dare to overstep a man’s word. They fear that an outsider would influence the women to give up prostitution. Several NGO workers who came here were harassed by the villagers and sent back.

Treading cagily through the hostile lanes, one reaches Chandralekha’s house at the far end of the village. Chandralekha, like all other women of the village, was a sex worker and became pregnant repeatedly. When Chandralekha delivered her third child, a girl, she decided she had had enough of it. She would never let her daughter become a prostitute.

Motivated by Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey’s NGO, Asha, Chandralekha took to teaching children in the new primary school. She is now busy organising women into self-help groups. “I want to see every woman in this village educated and lead independent lives,” she says.

But her task is not easy. A stroll through the village shows several men smoking up and lazing around at street corners. “The men are used to eating off the women,” says Chandralekha, “they will not let their source of income dry out.”

While Chandralekha gave up prostitution owing to insufferable exploitation, she says several women she spoke to don’t want to give it up. They earn more money in prostitution than they would in any other trade. “How will they feed their children?” asks Chandralekha, “especially when they don’t know who their fathers are!” The children of this village live with their mothers; most kids have no idea of who their fathers are. And since prostitution is a tradition here, their mothers, brothers, uncles and aunts encourage young women to get into the trade.

The only way to relieve the bodies of the women from being a family asset is to get them married. And that angers the men of the village.

The reason why prostitution, as a trade, works so well in this village is because it becomes a family affair. While the women sell their bodies, the men bring them suitable customers. Marriage, for most women in other parts of the country, is a natural progression in life. But, for women in this village, it is a form of social emancipation.

Of late, customers come from bigger towns surrounding the village. “They bring more money,” says a woman who is a sex worker and wishes to not be named. “But, they also bring in more diseases,” she adds.

Ram Babu, a social worker and native of Natpurwa, says that the trade has expanded exponentially over the past few years. “Now the women are sent to Mumbai and Dubai,” he says. He recounts the story of a bunch of teenage girls from Natpurwa who were sent to Mumbai, where they were promised big money. The mothers did not resist the idea as they considered it a tradition. Only when the girls called after a few weeks to narrate gruesome stories of abuse did the mothers relent and call most of them back. The elders in the village would not accept these girls back because they feared the girls would have picked up some disease in a city far away. “They were left with no option,” he says, “they went back to Mumbai.”

Before prostitution became the norm for the Nat community, they were historically performers and a few still carry on this tradition. In 1871, the British passed the Criminal Tribes Act classifying certain tribes as engaging in “criminal activities”. The Nat community was also targeted by this law. Denied the right to pursue their profession as performers, they were forced to take to prostitution. For several communities in Uttar Pradesh, prostitution has become a means of survival for this reason. Sex work was a tradition in several villages of northern Madhya Pradesh and southern Uttar Pradesh. Even in south India, it is a “tradition” among certain Devdasis and has even achieved a level of social sanction in certain areas.

In Natpurwa today, more than 70 per cent women are into sex work, estimates Ram Babu. Not long ago he would have put the number at 100 per cent. One of the few men who married a woman of the village and lives there, Ram Babu says the men of the village should change for the situation to change. “I don’t know who my father is,” he says, “and that hurts till today.” He doesn’t want other children of the village to go through the same fate.

Women of Natpurwa are not married. No woman is married into this village; men force their sisters and mothers into the trade. Some men, however, marry women from neighbouring villages and live there. “I resolved to get my daughter married off,” says Chandralekha. She had to look for a suitable groom in more than six villages. In most cases, the alliance would be called off the minute she said she was from Natpurwa. Finally, after much struggle, she got her daughter married off. The boy was from a village, which had practised prostitution as a tradition, but had managed to abolish it many decades ago.

Chandralekha believes that the lack of education is the root cause of all problems in her village. “If a girl is educated, would she abide by her family’s wishes and become a prostitute?” she asks. “No, even if she has to go out of the village to earn a living, the girl would be confident,” she adds.

However, there is another major problem. No household in this village owns land for cultivation. The lush green fertile land in and around this village is owned by a handful of zamindars who do not reside there. They reap all the benefits from that land. “If we had some land, we could have at least learnt farming to feed ourselves,” says Ram Babu.

The villagers say that the police and political leaders do not want sex trade to stop in the village as they are often the customers. “It is conveniently away from their houses in Hardoi or Sandila. They will never be caught,” says another sex worker, who wished to remain anonymous. Therefore, Ram Babu says, the villagers have no hope of having their own livelihood. Only in the past five years have some men seen sense and taken to zardozi work. It is profitable and a respectable profession, says Ram Babu. He has also resolved to make every man of the village work in the embroidery or zardozi industry.

“When we started doing zardozi, we were worried that it wouldn’t be enough to fill our stomachs,” says Vikas Singh, who began his home-run zardozi factory three years ago. Today, he says his neighbours have also taken to it. According to him, prostitution made him live under the threat of the police all the time. He was very disturbed when his sister was pushed into the trade. He took on his aunts and insisted that he would earn money through other means. “Prostitution is not respectable, and men who push their women into it should be ashamed,” he says emphatically.

Chandralekha’s primary school now has about 45 students. Her day begins with teaching Hindi and Mathematics. Post-lunch she goes around to her neighbours’ houses to encourage them to send the kids to school. The school had ceased functioning and been revived several times. She says she has to shut shop when the children don’t turn up. But that hasn’t dampened her spirits.

“I want to see a college in the village,” she says, “preferably, a girls’ college.”