My first visit to Apne Aap’s Delhi field office in Dharampura added an exciting and yet disquieting dimension to my internship. Travelling by a combination of metro, bus and cycle-rickshaw from plush south Delhi to the bumpy, unkempt roads of Dharampura, we arrived at the Apne Aap centre; a simple building of faded blue, with a group of young girls outside waiting excitedly to greet us. Then followed the customary mayhem that comes with being the new girl in the field: my blonde hair invited cries of “you look like a ghost!” while my toe-ring led to a stream of questions about my “husband” (I wear it purely as decoration, but it’s a symbol of marriage there).
No electricity made the morning a challenge in the heat, and I learnt inside an unlit, sweltering office about the Perna and Sapera castes living in Dharampura. I was shocked when told that these tribes make their income mainly through inter-generational prostitution and have done so for decades. I came to Delhi expecting to be affected by the gravity of Apne Aap’s work on sex trafficking, but receiving this briefing in Dharampura was the most startling learning experience so far. It alerted me to the way that prostitution is deeply engrained into familial customs in parts of India; and that there is much work to do in this community where exploitation is normalised. What I found most surprising is that some women from Dharampura accept this unimaginable lifestyle: In a recent interview, one Perna woman said, “It happens to every girl, you get used to it.”
When discriminatory values and traditions fail to provide reasonable alternative livelihoods for Dharampura’s women, it was reassuring to witness first-hand Apne Aap’s intervention. After a cup of chai in a Sapera family home—along with an introduction to their collection of snakes—we paid a visit to a household of women who make jute bags, towel rails and other products to sell as part of an ongoing Apne Aap project. Back at the centre, I met some of Delhi’s most at-risk girls who are enrolled onto an Income Generation Project, Sewing New Futures. Many were busy at work stitching colourful hankies and learning appliqué skills to sell their handicrafts at Delhi’s upcoming art fair. So far, very uplifting. But the most poignant part of my day was meeting those girls and women who could no longer be helped.
I was introduced to one such young woman during a Perna community survey on my second visit to Dharampura. Listening to her stilted conversation with the field staff (inspiration enough for me to learn more Hindi) in her mother-in-law’s home, it became upsettingly clear that this seventeen year old would no longer be attending Sewing New Futures workshops as she had previously intended. Crucially, she is seven months pregnant; and gesturing discretely to her stomach, implied that she is all-too-aware of the life ahead of her in a few months’ time. Heartbreakingly, she pleaded: don’t let the same thing happen to my younger sisters.
My experience in Dharampura that day made me question how you can even begin to dismantle such rooted traditions, and it revealed the stark highs and lows of activism within this vulnerable community where the word “exploitation” seems to be unheard of, let alone understood.