37-year-old Sharda Bhati is a relentless crusader for the rights of the ‘devadasi’ women in Ahmedabad’s Wadia village. Sharda grew up in a supportive low-income family, completing her high school in Rajasthan and marrying soon after. She decided to volunteer with the NGO- Vicharti Jaati Samuday Samarthan Manch (VJSSM) in her spare time. It was here that she learnt about the plight of women from the Saraniya community, who had to work as prostitutes.
Saraniyas are a nomadic tribe comprising of about 100 families in Wadia. Since the olden days, prostitution has been the main source of livelihood for them. Young Saraniya girls are regularly sold to brokers to work as ‘devadasis’ or prostitutes once they reach puberty. The brokers rule the village; if families resist from sending their daughters to becoming sex workers, the entire village harasses them and often girls lose their lives. Women do not ever get married, as then they cannot be prostitutes. Things changed when VJSSM decided to work in this area and appointed Sharda as the local leader here.
Determined to get the daughters of Wadia village a chance to live a normal life, Sharda worked on the ground confronting brokers’, convincing families and liaising with local authorities to take a stand against this social evil. She noticed that the young people at Wadia were keen to break the vicious circle and with her team she built trust among the boys and girls. After convincing them to marry, VJSSM organized the first-ever mass marriage for them, thus altering the course of history for the people here. Today, at least 75 families at Wadia no longer participate in the devadasi tradition and send their daughters and women to school. Sharda continues to confront death threats from brokers but never loses hope.
Before VJSSM’s intervention, there were no roads, no arrangement for drinking water and no greenery. Through tireless work and with the help of the State government, Sharda and VJSSM have provided roads, water and other basic amenities to the village. Sharda receives complete support from her family and her children want to assist her work when they grow up.
Quote: I feel very proud when I see people leave prostitution and find an alternate livelihood. Sometimes I get frustrated but am proud to be working in this area and making a difference.