July 06, 2020
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They Won't Be Hardoi's Harem

She walked out on tradition to lead a successful women's movement in a forgotten hamlet

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They Won't Be Hardoi's Harem
They Won't Be Hardoi's Harem
Breaking any age-old tradition is not easy for a woman, particularly if she happens to be from rural India. It’s that much more difficult if she’s born in a village where it is customary for every daughter to follow in her mother’s footsteps and join the oldest profession in the world. But 45-year-old Chandralekha not only broke the shackles ten years ago, but also paved the way for others in her village. After being 20 years in the flesh trade, Chandralekha now teaches at her village school besides working for women’s emancipation.

This brave woman is from Nat Purwa, a hamlet in Hardoi near Lucknow in UP. As the peculiar history of the village goes, men do not work, and women—generation after generation—take up prostitution to earn their livelihood. Over the centuries, they silently accepted the custom taking it as their fate. There is, of course, a discriminatory subtext to it all—none of the families in Nat Purwa village force their daughters-in-law into the flesh trade. Reason: daughters-in-law come from other villages where this custom is not followed. Therefore, they should be kept out of it.

Ten years back, even the idea of any Nat Purwa woman breaking the tradition was unthinkable. Chandralekha was only 15 when her mother introduced her to the trade. It was another matter that being a daughter-in-law, the latter had escaped the tyranny. After selling her body for 20-odd years, Chandralekha was at the end of her tether. "All sorts of people come here because it is a nondescript village and a woman’s body comes dirt-cheap. I hated myself for being in the profession." Her own three sons, all born out of wedlock, felt embarrassed about their mother and what she had to do to earn her livelihood.

Chandralekha could not think of any alternate source of income. But she knew she had to start somewhere. The silver lining came three years ago in the form of a school being set up in the village by Asha, a non-profit organisation run by the Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey. At 42, Chandralekha who had studied till the eight standard expressed her desire to teach in the primary school. She got the job.

Chandralekha not only teaches children, but also persuades reluctant families in Nat Purwa to send their children, especially daughters, to school. Initially, she had to face the wrath of the village. Both men and women seemed happy with the way they were living. She then started to focus on the women. "I thought they would understand. Given a choice, no mother would like to see her daughter falling into the flesh trade." And the women did understand. Now, most of the families in Nat Purwa village are sending their daughters to the school. But Chandralekha wants to do more. There is no facility for higher education for girls. "The colleges are far away, so people don’t send their daughters." Her dream is to somehow get a college set up in the vicinity where girls could continue their education after school.

Chandralekha knows that an alternative livelihood was the key to bring women out of flesh trade. Last year, she formed self-help groups of 48 village women who deposited Rs 30 each in the bank every month. This financial security gave strength to many other women to come out of their profession. Some of the Nat Purwa women who were earlier in prostitution have taken up tailoring and embroidery work. The number of women in Chandralekha’s groups have risen to 200 today.

v Her next priority is to dissuade clients from visiting Nat Purwa village. "These men have not given anything to this village, but have only snatched away the dignity of its girls," Chandralekha reiterates with tears brimming in her eyes.

Chandralekha cannot afford a phone but can be contacted at 092150- 22772, the mobile number of activist Arundhati Dhuru. Her address: Village Nat Purwa, Near Barahi, Police Station Atrauli, District Hardoi (UP).

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