IN HER mid-twenties, Neelam looks a quintessential married housewife - vermilion in the hair parting and a mangalsutra dangling prominently from her neck. But this salwar-kurta-clad mother of a little girl is beyond this stereotype.
She is one of the few Bedia women from Panpur village of Mandsaur district who have come out of the sordid tradition of flesh trade they are forced into at a tender age.
With sheer grit she is sustaining herself and her little daughter with dignity of manual labour that fetches an irregular Rs 30-40 per day. Her roughened hands betray her courage and her eyes her pain.
Neelam travelled to Bhopal on borrowed money to be part of the first State-level convention of Bachda-Bedia communities. It was organised under the joint aegis of Bachda-Bedia Ekta Manch and voluntary organisation Bhor – an ActionAid initiative.
Neelam came to the convention with the purpose to help girls like her to get out of the unclean profession that has stigmatised the community as a breeder of sex workers.
“Main chahti hun key merey jaisi ladkiyan jo yeh kaam chhorna chahti hai, unkey liye kuchch kaam ka intezaam ho jissey wo bhukey na rahe,’’ (I want some arrangement so that girls like me who want to leave the profession do not go hungry) Neelam told Hindustan Times.
Hers was the truly representative voice of the convention. Similar sentiments echoed in the meet in different ways through activists and leaders on the dais.
The convention was organised with the objective of highlighting two major demands of the community – proper implementation of the Jabali Yojana charted in 1991 following a High Court directive and inclusion of the communities in Scheduled Tribe category to enable them get more benefits of government schemes.
However, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan could not spare time for the meet despite several attempts by the organisers. Worse, Women and Child Development Minister Kusum Mehedale and her deputy Meena Singh did not turn up even after consenting to come.
Minister of State for Tribal Welfare Jagdish Dewda and BJP Rajya Sabha member Narayan Kesri, who attended the convention seemed more focused on criticising the earlier Congress Governments for allowing the issue to worsen.
Chairperson of the Bachda Bedia Sansi Jati Vikas Mandal Champa Behan, Ram Sanehi of Vimukt Jati Abhyuday Sangh, Morena and president of Bachda Bedia Ekta Manch Mukesh Chhari were present along with office-bearers of ActionAid and Bhor.
The convention was preceded by an introductory session at Gandhi Bhavan where the community representatives from 16 districts were introduced to each other and several women members came out with testimonials based on personal experiences.