Last year I spent a few months living in a small town in Bihar, along the India- Nepal border, studying an organization fighting human trafficking and inter-generational prostitution (IGP). If you aren’t sure what inter-generational prostitution is or are shocked that it even exists in India, then you know exactly how I felt in November 2017. In brief, IGP is a practice where, depending on the community, the daughters or daughter-in-laws of a family are expected to prostitute themselves in order to provide for their family. In some communities, it is after the daughter-in-law has given birth to the first child and in others it involves the entry of girls between the ages of 9 to 13 into the family ‘tradition’ of prostitution. While it is debatable how old this practice is and how it started- what matters is that it has been around long enough for many communities to claim it as part of their ‘traditions’.
Similarly, years ago I had read about the once upon a time existence of the devdasi system- where young girls are married to temple deities and then expected to provide sexual services for upper caste males. I assumed that like other ancient Indian social ills, it had been dealt with by the just laws of our democratic nation. Apparently not. The devdasi system still exists in parts of south India and inter-generational prostitution continues in various forms in different states of our nation- some within an hour’s drive of our Capital.
As I have considered these situations, the question that has stuck with me is what factors allow such practices like the devdasi system, bonded labour or the barbaric practice of manual scavenging to persist despite having, in some cases, been banned several decades ago? What are the conditions that have enabled these ‘oppressive traditions or institutions’ to endure despite society having largely agreed to the contrary? An argument can be made for systemic corruption being one of the factors contributing to the weak implementation of laws. But that didn’t explain the acceptance of these practices amongst many of these communities and in most cases, the tacit consent of the society around them. Why isn’t there an upheaval in society against the continued existence of these oppressive social practices that go against our social values? Or could it be that our laws are out of step with our basic social values? Have our lawmakers assumed certain values which we, as a society haven’t yet or are not yet ready to accept? What happens to justice when certain social institutions carrying the values of society are allowed to override explicit legal codes?
Take for e.g. the much lauded idea of equality as enshrined in Article 1 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which India is a signatory- All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Can we really discuss equality and dignity if large sections of our society believe that certain people are inherently less worth then others? Or when certain people are expected to remain at the bottom to serve those at the top of the social hierarchy? How does that affect our understanding of justice and equality before law? Is it even possible for ideas such as equality and dignity of the individual to be practiced in such a hierarchical society?
There are no easy answers to these questions. But if we ever hope to truly deal with deeply entrenched issues such as IGP, bonded labour, the devdasi system or human trafficking in our society, we will need to ask the hard questions and then be prepared to make some tough decisions. As a society, we will need to be committed to tracing the lineage of apathy, neglect and discrimination to their sources in order to examine and uproot any belief, attitude, practice or institution that perpetuates inequality and injustice. At the individual level, we cannot ignore any longer the dignity and worth of the least of our citizens if we hope to build a society where truth prevails and justice rolls on like a river.
By Roscoe Conan DSouza
Roscoe Conan DSouza is a PhD student studying institutions, organisations and social issues like justice and inequality.