Wadia, a village in north Gujarat, close to the Rajasthan border, is famous for prostitution. Aside from a few exceptions, most of the boys are raised to be pimps, and the majority of girls, some as young as 12 years old, earn a living selling sex.
Men come to the village from as far afield as Ahmedabad, Pakistan, Rajasthan, and Mumbai to buy sex, with rates beginning at 500 rupees (£5).
The 600 inhabitants of Wadia are descendants of the nomadic Saraniya community. Saraniya men once worked for the army, which ruled over the region prior to India’s independence from Britain in 1947.
Ever since, realising how much money could be made from the sex trade, the majority of men in Wadia have continued soliciting buyers for their sisters, daughters, aunts, and even mothers.
I head out to Wadia from Gujarat’s main city, Ahmedabad, accompanied by a driver and translator, during Diwali. After almost four hours on the road we reach a hilly terrain and are directed onto a narrow road. Off this are several hamlets consisting of a few huts made from wood and plastic sheets.
I was told that it is unsafe for anyone to travel alone near Wadia. As my driver asks passersby for directions to the village he is warned by several that it is “bandit country”.
“It is very dangerous in Wadia,” says one elderly man walking his small herd of goats. “You will be robbed and maybe even worse.”
As we approach the village, the car is surrounded by a group of young men, all with sharp haircuts, designer jeans, diamond earrings, and good jewellery. They ask the driver why we are heading to Wadia, and whether we are carrying any weapons.
Arriving in Wadia I am met by Amr (not his real name), one of the main pimps in Wadia. Amr, who is in his 20s, speaks good English. He has whitened teeth and is wearing a large diamond earring. Amr immediately calls the man he refers to as the chief of the village, who quickly appears, dressed all in white and with his face hidden behind a large white scarf.
I am led to the porch of the village shop where at least 40 boys and men are gathered. I am given sweet, milky chai in a saucer and one of the two plastic chairs to sit on. The chief takes the other.
I ask Amr if the police try to impose the rule of law on the village. “They are corrupt,” he tells me. “Many are customers.”
No women or girls are visible as we arrive, and when I ask if I could meet some of the women, I am told, emphatically “no” by the chief. I ask why. “Because they will be scared of you,” he says. “They will think you are a police officer.”
There have been occasional attempts from outsiders to prevent the sexual exploitation that has become the fabric of Wadia society.
Vicharti Samudaya Samarpan Manch (VSSM), an NGO working to improve the education and welfare of nomadic tribes in the region, decided that the only way to break the cycle of prostitution was to marry off as many girls as possible. In March 2012, a mass wedding ceremony was organised at which eight young women were married and twelve girls, aged between 12 and 17, engaged. Some of the bridegrooms were regular sex buyers at the village. Most of the women, once married, would still be required to sell sex, with their husbands living off their earnings.
Daughters of prostituted women in Wadia are considered unmarriageable, so they too are forced into prostitution as the only way to survive.
During my tour of the village, on which I was accompanied by a reluctant Amr, I saw several women and girls, dressed in pink or red saris, scurrying into their huts when they spotted me. One woman was going into a half-erected brick building with a man I assumed to be a sex buyer.
My translator tells me that each of the newly-built houses are brothels, and the old huts are the family homes. “Ninety nine per cent are prostitutes,” he says. “The man with the white handkerchief, big broker [pimp]. His wife, mother, sister, daughter – all prostitutes.”
I ask Amr what age the girls start selling sex, and was told, “not before 18”, but according to VSSM it can be as young as 12. I was told by Amr that the women all like their work; the customers are never violent; there are no STIs; and that at most, only one-fifth of the women in Wadia are in prostitution.
Despite the obvious poverty in the village, there are also pockets of wealth. Many of the older men had expensive iPhones, and three of those I met were attending college in Ahmedabad.
“The women are in [prostitution] for life”, Amr tells me, as I say goodbye, “They are illiterate, it is all there is for them.” Clearly pimping is more lucrative for the men than prostitution is for the women.
On asking my colleagues involved in the sex trade abolitionist movement in India if they had heard of Wadia, I soon discovered that this tiny village had almost the same notoriety and potency as Nevada, the only state that allows legal brothels in the US.
Wadia is far away from the legalised sex industries of Nevada, Germany and the Netherlands, but it has something fundamentally in common with those prosperous nations.
Where prostitution is seen as part of the economy and a job like any other, and men are given free reign to treat women’s bodies as a commodity, gender equality will remain a distant dream.
Julie Bindel is a journalist and author. Her book about the international sex trade will be published by Palgrave McMillan in 2016