South Asia Citizens Web
TWILIGHT ZONE FOR WOMEN RED-LIGHT WORKERS ALONG INDIAN HIGHWAYS
All over the country, highway dhabas are mushrooming, populated
by women from nearby villages or towns. Prostitution has always
thrived in such areas where deep seated poverty, unemployment and
vulnerability mingle to form a potent background to exploitation.
By Meena Menon
It is dusk and in the fading light, the small shed is only barely
discernible. Two women run inside and peer through the door. "Are
you from the police," they ask us in fear.
Located on a barren stretch of land, this shed is one of the many
dhabhas that dot the Solapur-Hyderabad highway which provide
women as an "additional service" to truck drivers and motorists.
The woman who runs the dhaba was in prostitution earlier. Now,
with a shed, two cots and a few girls from nearby villages, she
is in business. "I rented this place for Rs 1000 a month and take
Rs 20 per client from the girls. Here the police harass us often
and I cannot even bribe them. They told me it was beneath their
dignity to take haftas from me because I am a woman."
Since the dhaba is located on a lonely stretch, boys from her
native town help her keep guard. "The police chase us over fields
and lock us up for the night." As we speak, women arrive
clutching small bags. They will spend the night here and return
home in the morning. There are about eight girls, some from
nearby villages as well as Solapur. Most look in their early
On a dark side of the national highway, 35 km from Solapur, a
group of women sit by the wayside. A closer look reveals most of
them are garishly made up, wearing bright saris. "I came here
because I saw other women in finery, but I find that there is not
much of a show at all," said one of them.
J, who is from a village near Bijapur, left home after a quarrel.
She ran away to Pune where she came into contact with a woman who
put her into business (the dhandha, as it is called). She came to
Akkalkot where she is at present, again through one of those
nameless, faceless contacts.
"I work till midnight and in the evenings we all gather here
because it is too dangerous to sit in our houses alone." In their
flimsy houses, they are prey to drunken men who force their way
inside, take them to the fields behind and abuse them.
J earns about Rs 100-200 if she is lucky. She visits her parents
regularly but is not sure if she wants to stay with them, even
though they are willing to have her back.
Increasingly, fuelled by demands from truck drivers and
motorists, the highways are turning into impromptu earning
grounds for girls from nearby villages who either opt for
prostitution or are compelled by circumstances. One dhaba owner
said, "The more beautiful the women, the more they earn."
About 70 km from Solapur, again on the national highway, the road
has stray dhabas (as the roadside eating halts are called) with
very little evidence of food or the usual trappings. At a
ramshackle structure, the owner, a school dropout says, "Girls
are necessary on this stretch, otherwise there is no hope of any
He adds: "They come on their own from nearby villages. I have two
with me now and I take a Rs 15 commission for each client. Since
this is illegal, I have to pay the police station Rs 1,000 a
month as hafta. If a girl is beautiful, she can get as many as
five to ten clients a day." His monthly earnings can touch Rs
4,000 to 5,000 a month.
He is not concerned about the reasons why the girls come here.
"Who asks them why they are here. What else is there for them to
do in these parts. Some of them are already in the business and
come here because the money is good."
I hear the same story from another dhaba owner. There are three
women here, one of them from Latur. "They are poor women with no
options," he says philosophically. Behind another dhaba, two
cement boxes with doorways serve as rooms to entertain clients.
All around used condoms lie in small messy heaps.
Presiding over this sordid kingdom is a man who was externed from
his hometown after he committed murder. "I stared eight years
ago, before that I was into poultry farms. This is good business
and I have 10 to 12 girls. I have to pay the police a hefty 6,000
along with my neighbour as a monthly bribe because of our
flourishing business," he said.
He let on quite accidentally that he goes to Mumbai to bring
women from there and he seems to have some sort of a network
which he did not wish to speak about.
Near Indapur, two girls stand alone on the deserted highway. One
is an orphan from Pune. Her daughter is looked after by domestic
help at home as she travels all over depending on stray contacts
and addresses. She is away from home for a fortnight at a time
travelling from place to place.
Women said they were beaten up and raped in the fields by clients
or petty criminals and goondas who demand free services. Local
farmers also took advantage of them. The police did not register
any complaints of assault. Sometimes, bodies of women are found
on the fields, half eaten by animals. The police take no
cognisance of these cases, the women said.
Some of these women work all night going from truck to truck to
earn a livelihood. "We are poor women in need of money but all we
get is torture and stigma," said one of them.
For these women, many of whom have chosen this profession, it is
not the stigma of being a prostitute alone that is damning. In
addition, they have to put up with physical and mental torture
and absolutely no help from the police.
Many of these women, who could not return to their homes, have
now found their way to the highway dhabas to earn a precarious
Some of these women who distribute condoms to truck drivers along
the highway, find it increasingly difficult and dangerous to
continue with the programme.
While economic reasons seem to be the main reason women are
opting for this precarious life on the high road, many also come
from broken families, some are deserted by their husbands and
others look on it as a means of increasing their earnings.
There is also no ruling out the fact that some are procured for
the business. Some of the owners of the dhabhas disclaimed that
they actually procured women, and said the "girls" came on their
Police seem to think deterring the business or closing down these
dhabhas would solve the problem: what is not tackled is the
economic security of the women or their future. All over the
country, highway dhabas are mushrooming, populated by women from
nearby villages or towns.
This region of southern and western India is also a place where
the devadasi tradition still survives and many of the red-light
pockets are dominated by women dedicated to the Goddess Yellamma.
It is also an area marked by migration to the cities due to
drought, poverty and lack of employment opportunities.
Prostitution has always thrived in such areas where deep seated
poverty, unemployment and vulnerability mingle to form a potent
background to exploitation. --Third World Network Features.
- ends -
This article was written by the author as part of a media
research fellowship from the National Foundation for India. It
was earlier published in The Hindu. Meena Menon is a Mumbai-based
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