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India’s minstrels reduced to sex slavery in Nepal

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS,

Kathmandu : Like the vicissitudes in the fortunes of the epic heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that formed the theme of their musical performances, a wandering minstrel tribe of eastern India is now reduced to prostitution for generations.

Once known as badyabadaks – or musicians, the Badis were a community of gypsy-like performers who originated in Vaishali, the kingdom of the Lichchhavi kings, in what is now Bihar.

Around the 14th century, the tribe came to Nepal across the border, making their first homes in the remote districts of Rolpa, Rukum, Jajarkot and Salyan.

They were given land and money by the chieftain kings who ruled over small kingdoms in western Nepal and reciprocated by entertaining the rulers. The women had sexual relations with royal family members and courtiers.

After a pro-democracy movement in 1950, when the Rana rule by hereditary prime ministers ended and the small kings lost their power and freedom, the Badis too lost their patrons and were reduced to prostitution.

Today, they stand at the bottom of the community, being also regarded as untouchables.

Illiterate, landless and without other skills, Badi families for generations have been depending on their daughters who become sex workers to provide for the family.

There are cases of families going to India in search of work, remaining there till their daughters are over 12 years and then returning to Nepal to make them enter the “family” trade.

Three years ago, supported by a prominent NGO, Pro-Public, Badi women rallied for their rights in the capital, holding demonstrations before the prime minister’s office and the Pashupatinath temple.

They were demanding that the government implement the Supreme Court order in 2005 asking the state to take measures to ensure livelihood opportunities for the community.

Their other demands included citizenship rights for their children, the identity of whose fathers is often unknown, and erasing the social stigma they have to live with.

Though the government signed an agreement in 2007, three years later, it is yet to be implemented.

Now the aggrieved community has resumed its protests.

“We wanted to lead a life of dignity but the government is forcing us back to prostitution,” said Shanti Nepali, who was part of a group of several Badi women participating in a press conference in Guleriya town in remote Bardiya distict Thursday.

From Friday, the community in Bardiya has begun sit-ins to protest against the state apathy. Three years ago, they had promised to strip naked in Kathmandu in protest but were stopped by police.

“We tried to eke out a living by opening tea stalls,” said Gita Nepali.

“But we have no customers since society treats us as untouchables.”

Though Nepal banned untouchability in 1955 and three successive governments reinforced the pledge since 2006, it still remains strongly rooted in Nepal’s conservative society.

“The government last year announced a budget of NRS 300,000 to rehabilitate the Badis in three western districts,” said Jayapuri Badi, a commercial sex worker. “But nothing has been done and I am still a sex worker.”