On making the journey to Apne Aap’s field office in the village of Dharampura, situated on the outskirts of Delhi, I felt like an outsider in my home city.
Dharampura is home to a variety of tribes that were labelled, “Criminal” by the British Colonial administration and were accused of crimes such as sex slavery, murder, and other non-bailable criminal offences under the Criminal Tribes Act 1871. The idea behind this was the “European view that all gypsies are criminals, and following that logic, all Indian nomadic communities were also believed to be potential criminals.(1)” Unfortunately this reputation remained, even after the Indian government rid the so-called criminal tribes of the label “criminal” following India’s independence.
On my first visit to the field, I observed that the young members of these communities weren’t left with much of a chance for success. The girls are likely to be funnelled into an elaborate system of sexual slavery while the boys are likely to become common criminals. The case of Shilpa, who dropped out of school in Class 5 offers an example of this. Shilpa’s decision was largely influenced by her family and society, which deemphasized the importance of school for a young girl.
At the time of the visit, I was very new to the issue of sex slavery. Interacting with the girls opened my eyes to a broader reality. I learned that the girls are commonly married off between the ages of 10 and 14 and that they often become pregnant shortly thereafter. After giving birth, the girls are forced into prostitution. I wondered how best to help these women find an escape route? I realized that most of the women did not want their daughters to share their fate.
I am a strong advocate of the fact that no matter how bad a person’s situation may be, it can be improved. Moumal, an eighteen year old girl from the Sapera community was a skilled and fervent dancer. If she could cultivate this talent and make a living out of it, I believe it would be an example of hope for communities faced with pervasive gender inequality. If we harness the true potential of even one person in the community, and they are able to fulfil their potential doing something they enjoy, it would bring a sea of change in not only the practices but also the minds of people in the community where Apne Aap works. A domino effect, if you will.