The oppressed half in a neglected community



05, Dec 2016

The Perna caste is recognized as a Denotified Tribe (DNT) and granted Scheduled Caste status. But the women of this caste are almost always forced into prostitution by their husbands in order to earn a living. The historical disadvantage of DNTs remains a complex challenge. A comprehensive list of DNT communities must be prepared at once but the ultimate goal should be to integrate them into society.

What fate usually awaits a girl from the Perna caste?

The Perna community members once belonged to a nomadic tribe and are now settled in Premnagar and Dharmshala areas of Najafgarh in Delhi among other places. They are one of the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes of India.

  • On attaining puberty, a Perna girl is married to a member of her caste as the Perna are endogamous.
  • Once she bears her first child, she is made into a prostitute by her husband to provide the family’s income. She has no say in this matter as the only world she knows is her community. If she does dare to resist, she usually faces physical harassment by her in-laws, says Ruchira Gupta, a sex trafficking abolitionist, journalist and activist working with the community.
  • After eight or 10 years of selling her body, she is asked to push her daughter into doing the same.
  • The men of the community have a history of being goat herders or idlers who whiled away their time and encouraged the women to become prostitutes.

This intergenerational prostitution – a practice in which women are prostituted by their husbands – has a long history and is worsened because the community defends it as a cultural tradition. One Perna woman, in her attempt to explain it to Aljazeera said, “I don't know why. You can say it is the traditional way. This work is our compromise. It's our way to make a living.”

Why are the Perna women thrice oppressed?

As Gupta points out, a Perna woman is born into poverty, into a caste which is greatly ignored and she is a woman.

  • A woman from this caste looking for work sees sex trade as a natural path to earn a living.The girls are prepared for this from a young age onwards; some have childhood memories of their female relatives going out at night.
  • Poverty is the worst crime and the Perna women bear the greatest brunt because sex trade for them is not as much as a ritual as a way to earn their daily bread.
  • They return at dawn to sleeping husbands and bathe before setting out to cater to the family’s needs. Only after this can they afford to take rest.
  • They avoid the police whom they say demand money and free sex instead of providing protection.

One woman said that prostitution was a trade she chose and was not coerced into. But in a community that is not only economically and socially ignored but has also been historically treated with contempt and denied the rights and freedoms of citizenship, there is barely any difference between choice and compulsion.

Since when have tribes like the Perna been marginalized?

As nomadic traders and performers, their lifestyles made them difficult to be regulated by the state and the rulers of the British Raj treated them with hostility and suspicion.The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 assigned to these tribes the tag of “hereditary criminals”, cut them off from traditional sources of income and made them the victims of several state-sanctioned abuses.

  • Though these tribes were Denotified following India’s Independence, the “historical disadvantage” continues into their present existence.
  • The DNT commission, the force behind the 2008 report had made definite recommendations to the government, its main emphasis being the government addresses the needs of the DNTs separately from other disadvantaged sections of the society. But a consultant to the commission and civil servant Pooran Singh said the government remained indifferent.

The 2008 report commissioned by the government described DNTs as "the most vulnerable and disadvantaged sections of Indian society".

Where do we observe the consequences?

The hindrances faced by current efforts to alleviate the situation of DNTs demonstrate the consequences.

  • Most communities classified as SC & ST are taken into consideration when designing welfare programmes. But these programs often remain on paper and even Pernas and other officially eligible groups do not get to avail the benefits.

Consequences of the historical disadvantage

  • The stigma of being labelled as ex-criminal tribes has remained, thereby making it difficult for the Pernas of Najafgarh to receive the benefits of government measures, according to anthropologist Subir Rana who has observed them.
  • Their unpleasant encounters with the state in the past have made the community view it with distrust. BK Prasad, Member-Secretary of the temporary National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes says, “Government always tries its level best to reach these people, but even these people have to come to the government. Most of the time, these people do not come.” He observes the DNTs may need “a special approach”.
  • The marginalization has made them unaware of their rights. For example, most members do not have any kind of a government ID. Therefore, they are unable to procure a caste certificate to prove their “SC” status.

Who have created a glimmer of hope?

The non-profit organization Apne Aap – a grassroots movement to end sex trafficking – is known for working to integrate the Perna community into society and provide the members mainstream opportunities. Ruchira, the founder of this organization has been involved with the community for more than five years.

  • The organization had put tremendous efforts to make government programmes accessible to members of Perna community. For example, the number of individuals with a caste certificate in this community was only 4 or 5. Thanks to NGO efforts, the number has exceeded 30 as of now.

The spirit of the Perna mothers

  • Most women are strongly opposed to pushing their daughters toward the same fate they endured. They are very clear that they do not want their girls to take up sex work. This is where Apne Aap also focuses on – trying to equip the children of the prostitutes with alternative skills.
  • A widow from this community who had to go back to sex trade to support herself supported her daughter for the short while the latter moved back with her to flee from her in-laws. They threatened and tormented the girl. Thankfully, her mother supported her and with Apne Aap’s help, was able to get an informal community court rule that her daughter was a free woman who should make her own choices. But the courage the mother displayed is a rarity.

How much more needs to be done?


  • The new DNT commission is actively seeking to address the glaring information gap:there is currently no reliable, countrywide demographic information on Denotified communities. But this, while necessary, is just the first step.
  • As Prasad says, the eventual goal is to mainstream them – in stages – into the society. This is going to be all the more harder when sex trade is a custom for DNT communities – the Pernas are not the only community whose women are devalued in this manner. Anuja Agarwal, a sociologist who has researched on DNT communities that practice sex trade as a tradition says, “Once you become associated with a trade like this, it is very hard to integrate, giving up [sex work] happens only when a very concerted effort is made; when other opportunities then become available.”

The Pernas

  • Campaigners who argue that a woman should choose her means of living should realize that in communities like the Pernas it is not choice, but the absence of choice that dries them to prostitution.As Abhilasha Kumari, a social activist asks, “If you are forced into sex work when you are 10 years old and then told you can’t leave, exactly what choice are you exercising ”
  • Prasad and Ruchira share the view that leaving the young girl children in their native environments will ultimately push them into continuing the practice of intergenerational prostitution. Prasad says, “If we can wean children away, get them admitted to [state] residential schools…” He points out that the change will be a very slow one and out of 10 percent who want to break free, maybe 2 percent will be able to do so.
  • Apne Aap provides scholarships which fund the education of some of the girls in private schools. One Perna woman says sending daughters to school is becoming normal now. This is the first step.

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Tags | Denotified Tribe DNT communities oppressed Perna caste prostituted Scheduled Caste