"Pareshaniaan toh bahut aayin, lekin soch rakha tha gaon ki bachchiyon ko ab gutter me nahi dhakelenge (We faced a lot of problems, but we were determined not to push our daughters into the gutter)," said Krishna Bai, 60, seated on the steps of a newly constructed meeting arena at the far end of Sookha Kirar village in Madhya Pradesh's Raisen district.
Her hopeful gaze is fixated on a group of young girls playing kabaddi on the village playground. Krishna Bai said that it gives her solace – after so many years – to look at young girls, who are so focused on making a name for themselves.
After all, Sookha Kirar has had a provocative past and a reputation for sex work, which had nipped the futures of many a woman in the bud. Now, only a scarce few linger in the shadow of their former trade.
This is the story of how the women of Sookha Kirar pulled themselves and their daughters out of sex work, daring to dream again. Now, their dreams have propelled them into the sporting arena.
And there's a testament to this: two girls in the village, Ganga and Jamna Lavariya – who are twin sisters – recently made it to the national rowing team and participated in the national rowing competition held on 27-31 May 2023 in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.
The transition, however, wasn't simple. It was long-drawn, and it took the members of Guriya – an NGO working against the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children – as well as the women of the village two decades to build a new Sookha Kirar.
When Women Heralded Change
On a hot and humid day, The Quint visited to learn more about its story of transformation.
The village is nestled at the foothills of a hill affectionately called Mahadev ki Pahadi. It is predominantly inhabited by the Bedias, a Scheduled Caste community that makes a living through labouring and dancing at events – and until very recently – by engaging in inter-generational sex work.
At the entrance of the village stands an Anganbadi Kendra – a rural childcare centre. Across the road, a small crowd has gathered outside a pan shop. They're engaged in a loud discussion about Ganga, Jamna, and their latest achievement.
"But things were not always like this," Krishna Bai told The Quint.
"Our ancestors were actually performers and entertainers – mostly dancers. But as time passed, men from our community and the nearby areas took advantage of the women and coerced them into sex work. Soon, we lost our identity and were left with the tag of dhandhe wali (sex workers)."
Another woman standing next to Krishna Bai, interrupted. Crediting the women of Sookha Kirar for heralding change, she said:
"Krishna didi is elderly and knows the history. It's because of women like her that we also decided to educate our children. Today, my children are involved in sports, and one of my daughters has completed her BSc. We hope they excel."
When Guriya began its work in Sookha Kiria over two decades ago, Krishna Bai was among the first group of women to cooperate with the organisation, in an attempt to bring about social change. She was also among the first to help Ajeet Singh, the convenor of Guriya, build a makeshift house in Sookha Kirar, which has now been turned into a community centre for children.
"When I came to Sookha Kirar in the late 1990s, Krishna Bai, Guddi Bai, Kallu Bai, Rekha Bai, Aneeta Bai, and Kiran Bai were the first women of the village to accommodate me. As I started visiting the village and learning their ways, their dances, and their culture, we became friends. These women played the most important role in turning around the fates of the next generation," Ajeet Singh told The Quint.
Singh further recounted that in a village that practised inter-generational sex work, change wouldn't have been possible had he employed conventional reform methods.
"It was not a law and order problem. There was no one to rescue and nothing to rescue from. We couldn't rescue the daughters from their mothers – that wouldn't have worked. Hence, I decided to become a part of their village and their community – and it took us two decades to get here," he added.
'Wanted To Educate My Kids'
Flanked by her peers, 20-year-old Jamna, who returned home from UP recently, is being garlanded for her selection to the national rowing team. Ganga, meanwhile, has stayed back at the training camp in Bhopal.
"I got interested in sports when I was in class 5. Initially, both my sister and I used to play kabaddi and were into athletics... But later, our interest shifted towards rowing as we were introduced to it by our coach Bhanu sir and Ajeet sir. He was the one who took us to swimming classes and trained us. And then we gave the trials and were selected for the rowing team."Jamna
Ganga and Jamna's mother, 50-year-old Guddi Bai, works as a daily wage labourer. Their father died at a young age.
Dressed in an orange saree, Guddi Bai had her head covered with a long, intricately patterned white scarf. She was rejoicing in the success of her daughters.
Guddi Bai broke free from Sukha Kirar over two decades ago. She moved to a nearby village (name withheld on interviewee's request) after a scuffle with her family's male members, as she wanted all six of her children to get educated.
"I left the village for the same reason that any other mother would do – for my children. It wasn't suitable for me to raise my children there. I wanted them to achieve something and not be trapped in the profession of selling their bodies. The male members of my family didn't want my daughters to study but follow the path that other women were pushed into. Hence, I left the village. I worked as a house help and in the fields... My children have ensured that my efforts bore fruit."Guddi Bai
Growing up in a village where survival had a different meaning, Guddi Bai understood the value of education and the opportunities it could bring for her children.
"I could see almost all the girls being pushed into sex work, it was passed on from mothers to daughters like a skill. There was no escape – if anyone tried to break free, they were punished, beaten, and tortured by their own kin. It was an awful sight," she said.
"If the village had been what it is today, I wouldn't have left. With each passing day, the village is shedding its former reputation," Guddi Bai added with hope.
The transformation clearly didn't happen at once. It has been a gradual process – and it is driven by the fact most parents don't want their children to endure what they did.
Acknowledging this, Ajeet Singh told The Quint that he kept at his efforts to bring about change for about one and a half decades before he could see the impact on a broader scale.
"No programme could have achieved it at once. What I understood was that it had become a part and parcel of their lives. They were gradually exposed to the allures of the outside world, education, sports, fairs, dance events, acknowledgement, and appreciation."
The Promise of Sport
Amar Singh, a 24-year-old graduate, now teaches kabaddi, athletics, and other games to approximately 100 children in his village.
Singh was one of the first children to be drawn towards the work of Guriya and get educated. His parents, he says, were supportive of this as they saw a chance to live a better life with him having a career outside the scope of the village.
"I completed my BA graduation, and simultaneously, I used to play. I was a sprinter. Most of the children would spend the majority of their time out of their homes playing or simply wandering because things weren't normal in their homes. I was in the herd that played athletics. I could have been one of those who loitered around, but I guess it never piqued my interest."Amar Singh
"As I grew up, I got in touch with Guriya NGO and Ajeet sir, and I got further guidance and help. I was introduced to professional gaming – and things changed. The people in the organisation asked if I could teach other children and my friends while I practised – and I happily agreed."
Amar Singh, along with a few others from his village, including the village sarpanch, Arvind Singh, now contributes to nurturing the next generation of Sookha Kirar by teaching them sports.
Girls like 15-year-old Janki Lavariya now want to play kabaddi at the international level and are determined to bring about change.
(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)
Fourteen-year-old Mohini, who is the only sister to her four brothers, wants to be a pro-kabaddi player and is also studying to become a Chartered Accountant.
(Photo: Vishnukant Tiwari/The Quint)
Bhanu Pratap Singh Yadav, the youth coordinator with the Sports and Youth Welfare Department of Madhya Pradesh, has also played a crucial role in the village's transformation, locals told The Quint.
"So far, we have utilised around Rs 8 lakh to provide facilities to build a playground and get a kabaddi mat, among other things, for the children of Sookha Kirar. Over 50 children from this village are playing at the state and national levels. We are doing what we can, and now, we are striving to secure a budget for a playground in the village."Bhanu Pratap Singh Yadav
The Battle Goes On
Even as change has been welcome, it has not been without hurdles.
Ganga and Jamna, who now proudly represent their state at the national level, are Dalits, but they lack the necessary legal documents to access the benefits reserved for Scheduled Castes.
"We have participated in trials and exams under the general category, despite belonging to the Scheduled Caste. It is extremely challenging, and we are already giving our best. Obtaining our caste certificates would provide significant relief," said Jamna.
Village sarpanch Arvind Singh, too, also complained of troubles in obtaining caste certificates.
"Most of the villagers do not possess their caste certificates. There are numerous required documents, and many of us are unaware and lack the necessary knowledge. Even though we have done everything possible, our children are still unable to acquire their caste certificates," he told The Quint.
Obstacles remain, but the young ones in Sookha Kirar are pushing hard to turn their lives around through sport. Their mothers, meanwhile, are hopeful, now that they've had a taste of change – and the promise of a life beyond the village.