It started with a Tweet, spread like wildfire and grew into an unstoppable force. The #MeToo movement has triggered a wave of reckoning for the enduring culture of sexual violence against women.
From Hollywood to car factories and every industry in America, women are speaking up, and they have one message: Time’s up — for harassment and harassers alike.
I’m encouraged to see this conversation finally happening in our country. Yet, having spent my life hearing the stories of women from all over the world, I’m well aware we’re not the only ones who are saying, “Me, too.”
It seems like yesterday when I found myself in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh, north India. There, removed from the lidless eye of 24/7 news and social media, lives a group known as the Banchara. For half a millennia, this secluded community has harbored a dark secret: The community’s entire economic infrastructure revolves around the prostitution of its eldest daughters.
Ironically, their secret is betrayed by a painfully obvious symbol: cots.
I quickly noticed this on my first day in a Banchara village. There were many wooden cots lined up outside residents’ homes. Some had colorful red and yellow pillows, others thin mattresses embroidered with flowers. Some were simply hand-woven mesh made out of rope. I later would learn that a cot outside a house means sex is for sale there. A girl sitting on a cot means business is open.
According to Nari Mata, an ancient Banchara tradition, the eldest daughter must prostitute herself to provide for her family. Girls as young as 12 years old are forced into a life of prostitution with no chance to get an education or to escape. As they become women, they contract venereal diseases and mother children, which further bonds them to the sex industry.
When they give birth to a daughter, they already know she’ll follow in their footsteps. The tradition is so embedded in the culture that it’s considered normal, everyday business. It’s a five-century-old form of cultural slavery that’s alive today.
What started out just affecting the eldest daughter comes to affect the entire family, community and even define the group.
While in the West, the lines between victims, perpetrators and enablers of sexual abuse are — for the most part — easy to distinguish; in the Banchara community they’re much harder to parse. Mothers groom their daughters to enter the sex industry. Fathers peddle their services to passersby and local customers. And brothers depend on the earnings of their sisters to pay their dowries when they get married. The entire family benefits from the prostitution scheme.
I met one 18-year-old girl who had entered the sex industry when she was 12. She had four brothers. My translator estimated it would take 30 years to 40 years to pay for four dowries. As we spoke, we noticed a group of men had lined up down the street. They were her customers, coming for her services.
Every girl I spoke with told me she didn’t want this life for herself or for her children, but she had no choice. Family expectations, community pressure and poverty destined them to this “profession.”
This was 15-year-old Sonu’s story: “My mother is a sex worker. She thinks there is no need for school and doesn’t want me to study,” Sonu told me. “She said to me, ‘You must stay at home and do what I do. That is the way of things.’ ”
At World Help, we realize that to help the Banchara we need to do more than simply provide aid. If we want to break through the Nari Mata tradition, we have to empower women and approach the poverty perpetuating the sex industry at a community level.
A few years back, we drilled a well in the heart of one of the Banchara villages. Having access to this simple, yet essential, commodity helped alleviate one of the greatest needs in the community. It opened doors for our team and local partners to build relationships and trust with the girls and their families. And in turn, it helped us introduce the girls to our local Freedom Center, where they can get a quality education in a safe environment.
Sonu is one of the students there. The education she’ll receive at the center will allow her to find meaningful employment outside the sex industry. She’ll never have to sit on a cot outside her house.
We’ve been fortunate in the West to have courageous women use their platforms to confront sexual abuse. But the women from India’s Banchara community have few, if any, options to fight back — and even when they break the silence, there are few who will listen or care.
These women have been saying “Me, too” for 500 years. It’s time somebody listens to them.
Noel Yeatts is the vice president of World Help, an international, Christian humanitarian organization.