Select Page

State Regulation of Vice

June 1, 1892 — Final meeting, Women’s Liberal Federation, Holborn Town Hall, London, England


Resolution: That this meeting regarding the existence of the State Regulation of Vice in any form as: —

A violation of the Common Law, and consequently a sentence of outlawry proclaimed against women;
A denial of the Unity of the Moral Law, and an encouragement of vice; and
A hygienic mistake, and a danger to the public health;

Hereby records its continued hostility to the system in any form; and renews the resolve to maintain constant vigilance against its reintroduction into Great Britain; to use every effort to obtain its entire abolition in India and the Crown Colonies; and further, as far as possible, to help the Abolitionist movement on the Continent of Europe and in our self-governing Colonies; and requests Mrs. [Josephine] Butler to sign a memorial conveying these expressions to the Prime Minister, Her Majesty’s Secretaries of State for India, and the Secretary of the Treasury.


Jesus, when He uttered that prayer to the Father before going over the brook Kidron, on the eve of going out to trial and to death¾that prayer for his disciples and all who should afterward believe on Him, said these wonderful words that have come again and again to me as I have thought of this evening: “For their sakes I sanctify myself.” We have been asked by friends in England many times since our return, “How did you have the courage to go to try to make the enquiry at all? How could you go on, week after week, looking into these things; yet your courage did not fail you?” I can only answer you and them to-night by these words of our blessed Lord and Master. He sanctified himself that His followers “might be sanctified through the Truth,” that is, “set apart.” We felt that we were, through His Spirit, “set apart” to do this thing. You may be sure that we never said to the British Committee that we were willing to go until it had become all clear to us upon our knees. We knew that there was trouble in India — sore, sad trouble; and we knew that if these Contagious Diseases Acts were going on still, under those delusive new Regulations, there must be women down in these abysses of misery and degradation; and worse still, native heathen women down there because thrust there by men who were the representatives of a Christian nation. So we felt we must go and see what was the true state of things. But you may imagine the difficulties of two women in such an undertaking; brought up in a land where we do not see a soldier unless we happen to be in that part of the country where they are stationed. I have scarcely seen a soldier once in five years. They are on the frontier, or they are being trained in the academies, but we do not see them. You know, perhaps, that we hear and see very little of military matters in our country since the close of our Civil War.

And so to go to India, to look on the military system, to hear a language we knew not, to work in a country whose customs we were not acquainted with, was very difficult. And you can well understand that there were days when the way seemed dark. There was a month of closed doors, when we did not see how to go on. We sought advice, and had the best that could be given us by a confidential friend in Calcutta, to whom we had taken letters of introduction from friends in England. But even this advice failed utterly when we put it to the test, because it led us straight away into the civil lines instead of into the military lines; and this would have defeated our purpose.

We went to Agra, and we sat down, as it were, before the fort. Never can I forget those great high walls, seemingly so insurmountable, and the deep moat at the foot. We looked at that fort, and it representated to our thoughts the system into which we were trying to penetrate and whose secrets we sought to know, high and deep and difficult. During this time we learned what we could of the customs of the country, and we were patient and waited upon God. Then there came a day when we felt it must be settled, The winter season was passing away, and the heat was coming on, when it would be impossible for us to work; and we had learned enough also of the military system to know that many of the soldiers would soon be on the march to the hills, there would be a breaking up, and our way would be more difficult. So we set apart a day for prayer and fasting that God might show us what we could do, and what was His way. What solemn times those were! I remember saying to Him — “We want nothing but the truth; but Lord, let us have the truth about this!” We had seen enough already to know that the Regulation system was being carried on in so secret a manner as to make it difficult for us to get inside it. It came with clearness to us that we were to go to a friend in a neighbouring city, who had lived in India for years, in whose discretion and unusual powers of judgment and helpfulness we had the utmost confidence. We went to this friend and laid the matter before her. She said, “I see no way; it seems to me an impossible thing that you should get this information.” Nevertheless she was willing to help, and put all the power of her mind into the question. She was of the greatest service to us in making us feel at home in our surroundings, and in teaching us a few valuable Hindustani phrases. Through her help we got an Interpreter — one among several true Christians who aided us in our work. We started out, and, summoning all our courage to go into the heart of the matter, drove to the Cantonment and to the Lock Hospital. Here we visited the women and talked with them, although we were not permitted to pass the inner gateway, for the dhai, or nurse, said the doctor would be angry if she allowed us to come in. Then we went from the Lock Hospital to that dreadful abode of sin, despair and misery, which is called in India the “chakla,” right within the Cantonment, only a few steps from the Sudder bazaar or central trading place of the Cantonment. The chaklas were not “contiguous to the Cantonments,” as we had seen stated, but inside the Cantonments. In every one of these great military divisions which we visited there were precautions which we had to exercise. We knew it to be a secret system; we knew also there was a Cantonment regulation which gives the Commanding Officer authority to expel any person from the Cantonment without stating any reason for it, if he should choose to do it. Therefore we knew that with the deep feeling there was on this subject, if it were known what we were doing we should be summarily dismissed from the Cantonment. So we asked direction from God day by day at starting, whether we should go up to the Lock Hospital or to the chakla first. We asked Him to protect us from meeting those who would be enemies to our work and inform against us. And He did most wonderfully protect us in this way. Time after time we visited places where those who would have opposed our work had only just gone away. We were shown clearly and constantly that our way was being opened and guarded by God Himself. In this way our faith grew as the testimony grew; as we realised that we were on the right track, and that God was protecting us in all things. So we went on with greater and greater courage, and towards the last we could gather as much evidence in one day as we were able to secure in a week when we first started, because we became accustomed to the military system, and to the customs of the country.

Now I have thought it would be more satisfactory to you, and would at once allow all to see the track we followed, if I should give you a description of the places we visited and the surroundings of the women. I have thought it best therefore to group these habitations, these chaklas, under three heads:

In the ten Cantonments we visited, there were, one may say, three kinds of methods by which the women were housed, and the arrangements of the establishment carried on.

I. In certain Cantonments the women were practically housed all together under one roof. The Cantonments under this head were Lucknow, Amritzar, Bareilly, Sitapur, and Benares.

II. In other Cantonments, the women were gathered into chaklas in different parts of the Cantonment, regimentally placed. These were Meerut, Mean Meer, Rawal Pindi, and Umballa.

III. The Cantonment where the women were in one street, but under different roofs, was Peshawar.

I. In Lucknow the chakla is an extensive building. In some places the walls are 200 feet long and 12 feet high. In other parts of it, especially a certain distance along the line of the railway, the wall is low. But passing along still farther, from the railway side, you would look up to where the wall seemed to be 12 or 15 feet high, with only little windows, very high up. At another portion there was a gateway, where the brick wall was low. All around the wall inside were single rooms, numbered. I counted 33 on one side. There were two courtyards. We went through a narrow passage into one of these at our first visit, and the women gathered around us immediately, though surprised to see respectable women there. They conducted us to a mortar seat built around a tree. Then they came, dragging “charpoys,” or native beds, that others might sit down. At one time we counted 37 women around us. We asked if there was a mahaldarni (the woman superintendent) there.

Immediately an old woman came forward and said she was the mahaldarni. We asked, “Who built this place for you?” The woman said, “The Government.” We said, “Does the Government own it now?” They answered, “No, the Government have recently sold it to a Mahommedan, a native,” and they mentioned his name. Then we asked the mahaldarni whether she received regular wages, and she said “Yes; ten rupees a month.” “Who pays you?” “The Cantonment magistrate.” The woman told us another mahaldarni was present, pointing to her, and we said to her, “Have you any salary?” “Yes, ten rupees a month.” “Who pays you?” “The Government.” “But who pays you; where do you go to get your money?” “To the Cantonment Magistrate.”

The women poured out their hearts to us, and told us how they came to be there. That one talk was similar to scores which we had; they were constantly ready to give us their confidence because we came to them with sisterly kindness. As we talked with them, we learned more and more of the condition or things. There was a native watchman inside on this occasion in uniform —  a “chakidar.” He had a belt on, with a metal plate, on which was engraved “Chakidar Cantonment,” or Cantonment watchman, or guard. He was on guard. We asked the women, “Is there a guard here regularly?” And they said, “Yes; they are changed every few hours.” We asked, “What is the capacity of this building?” They answered, “There are a hundred women here now, but the place will hold 150, or even 200 when other regiments come, bringing their women with them.”

The Amritzar chakla comes next under this division: a little miserable place with mud walls surrounding it, and only a few rooms. There were five women and a mahaldarni there. The mahaldarni took one-eighth of the girls’ earnings. She had no salary from Government, but the girls had to pay two pice to her out of the four annas which they usually received. Four annas are less than four pence, because the rupee is worth not over 1s. 4d. or 1s. 3d. and a fraction, and it takes sixteen annas to make a rupee. Yet this mahaldarni earns her living by taking one-eighth of these wretched women’s receipts.

At Bareilly we found a large chakla, in two divisions surrounded by mud walls, with courtyards in the centre. There we also saw a Cantonment watchman inside, in uniform. The rooms were built in the same manner to which I have previously referred, being constructed against the wall. Each room was twice numbered — one an English and the other a native number. The small numbers were the registered numbers of the women, they assured us; the larger numbers were the regular Cantonment numbers required for every house; every Cantonment house must be numbered, being under military rule. At Bareilly we endeavoured to take away a miserable woman, past middle life; the most miserable woman I ever saw in India. The girls called our attention to her, as she had once lived with Christians, and even in that horrible place was still called “a native Christian!” and they asked us to take pity on her, because unless they had shared their food with her she must have starved. They told us how she was beaten, and kicked, and knocked down when the soldiers came in drink, and how they called her “Grandmother,” and treated her so cruelly because she was too old to please them. They said to us, “Take her away; she is so wretched.” She was gaunt, hollow eyed, and apathetic in her despair. We arranged to go after her in the evening, but we had difficulty in getting to see her at all. The space near the entrance of the chakla was crowded with English soldiers and officers. There were many cabs waiting, and men constantly coming and going. As we sat there in the midst, in the dusk of the evening, our hearts were very heavy, seeing these English soldiers, and realising what Mrs. Wilson has said to-night — what it must mean to England to have these young men going down in the ways of death, and then returning after a short service, to bring these degrading ideas and practices home. We sent for the woman, and when she came she came trembling; but we could not get her to tell us why she could not come away with us. She said that after we had gone away in the morning, someone had sent word to her creditor — who had sold her food — that she was about to leave the chakla, and this creditor had sat down at her door and would not let her go because of her debts. We endeavoured in every way to overcome her fears, but she was held by invisible ties, and we had to leave her in that dreadful place. We found these women invariably in debt, in very many cases to the mahaldarni. It seemed almost hopeless to deliver them from their present circumstances. They were always so cowed. I remember three girls at Lucknow following us and weeping, saying, “We would go with you to-day, but we dare not go; we cannot leave till after the next examination day, and then we will come to you.” But of course they did not come; they were in the toils of that system of slavery. As we proved in the case of ltwaria, whom we vainly tried to deliver, it would certainly be impossible for these poor ignorant creatures to escape from the hateful regulations unaided.

Sitapur is the next place to be mentioned. This chakla was a peculiar building, different from those I have described. It resembled ordinary Indian barracks. It had two suites of rooms with one inside wall dividing them, and the doors opening on opposite sides, ten suites of rooms on each side. We visited the women there and heard their sad stories. They declared that the building was owned by the Government, and that they paid no rent. At Benares, which is the last of those where the women are gathered under one roof, we found the women established in a good building in a prominent street; there was a watchmaker’s shop in front. The women and mahaldarni told us the place was hired for them by the Government, and that they paid no rent; they had lived there two years and a half. We saw in this chakla three girls (two of them were deserted by their husbands, and one was a widow) who had been brought into a life of shame by the police and registered before they were 14 years old. Thus they told their pitiful histories.

II. Of those where the degraded women live in different parts of the Cantonment, Meerut is one of the largest Cantonments. Here we visited the women in three different chaklas. Four chaklas were recorded on the registration list, but we had only time and opportunity to visit three of them: the Sudder bazaar, the Lancers’ chakla, and the Infantry chakla.

Then three miles distant from the Sudder bazaar of Meerut we visited the Rest camp of the 50th West Kent Regiment. These soldiers had only been there less than a month, yet already there was the whole paraphernalia of vice prepared for them. Passing through the large encampment, beyond the tents of the soldiers, and then beyond the officers’ tents, we came to the bazaar, the trading place; and then just beyond that were these two rows of fourteen little tents for the women. Thirteen women were there and their mahaldarni. A few steps from these was a large opium tent. We went into that tent and saw men and women lying in drunken sleep. At Meerut, as in all the Cantonments visited, the women broke out in spontaneous expression of their hatred of the military regulation of vice. They described to us the shame and horror of the compulsory examinations in most vivid language, and in all the agony of their feelings; and declared that it was impossible for them to refuse to obey the regulations, for if they did they would be expelled from the Cantonment. And when we said, “But what does that mean if you should be expelled from the Cantonment”? they answered, in piteous tones, “It means starvation.” What was there for them to go to? “No one will give us work; we are prostitutes,” If any of you should stop for a moment and say, “Why should these women stay and endure all this?” remember that there are as many variations of history as of women there. We get into their history, and we find that a large proportion have been brought in by fraud, and by poverty, and by betrayal¾brought there by wicked men under promises of marriage, or by wicked women under expressions of sympathy or motherly interest; or brought into this awful life through other circumstances which they could not control. One particularly I remember, who told us that she was sold by a Sepoy — whose daughter had adopted her in famine times — sold when 11 years old, to the mahaldarni “to sit in the chakla.” She added, “In all the days of my life I have never known one day’s happiness. My heart is full of wounds.” She did not seem to be much above 20, yet she was old in misery. As I say, you must take into consideration these personal histories, and the way these women have been entrapped and brought in. Then you must remember that a large proportion of these poor women are the wretched widows of India. A missionary said to us, “‘Widow’ is almost a synonym for ‘prostitute’ in India.” And we found this true as we made inquiry in place after place. Scores of women said to us, “I did not know what I was coming to.” Then still another thing to be remembered is that there are so few industrial openings for women in India, and that the most respectable woman can do but little to earn a living. And after women have once gone into this shameful life with the soldiers, they are perfect pariahs and outcasts from their friends. In very many cases they would not be received even if they should wish to go back to their friends; their caste is broken; they are considered utterly degraded. The breaking up of family ties by this regulation system is a serious consideration. Over and over again women told us that they had been brought there by their husbands, or brothers, or sisters, and sold into it. I recall one case where a woman told us that her husband had brought her into the life; she seemed overcome with shame, and great tears rolled down her cheeks, as she told her story. We asked, “Where is your husband now”? and she replied, “He is a bearer in this encampment.” Think of the breaking down of honour and virtue among the natives by this system!

Another encampment that comes under this division is Mean Meer. There we visited three different chaklas. Do not think we went once only; we went in most cases over and over again, patiently trying to get all the information we could at all these different places. These we visited were huge Cantonments for the most part. It often meant miles and miles of driving to go from one part of the Cantonment to another, to find the abodes of the women. At Mean Meer we were obliged to stop at Lahore, three miles distant. It could not be supposed that anyone would go to this dreary Cantonment for any sort of pleasure or interest. We remained in the city; thinking it safer to do so, because of avoiding observation, and drove out to the Cantonment day after day. It was in this Cantonment that we obtained the Registration and Examination Ticket, which is the clearest evidence possible of these two points. This ticket bears the name of the Cantonment magistrate on one side, and the initials of the European surgeon on the other, with the dates for the periodical examinations; it was sold to us only two days after the last date on the ticket was recorded. This ticket corresponds to the blank form which we saw at the Lock Hospital, which called on the Cantonment magistrate to “give prostitute — a ticket enabling her to pursue her calling, as she is enrolled to appear regularly at the bi-monthly inspection.” These counterfoils were signed by the surgeon of the Lock Hospital, and bore dates as late as January, 1892.

We found the women housed differently here. In the Sudder bazaar the chakla was a very good building, which the mahaldarni said was full. She and the women assured us that the house was owned by the Government, and that they lived in it rent free. In the regimental chakla, not far from the Sudder bazaar, we found the women in rooms resembling barracks. They said their quarters were rented to them by the commanding officer, and that they paid from one rupee to one rupee and four annas per month, each. The last chakla we visited, namely. the Artillery chakla, consisted of rooms on the narrow native street.

At Mean Meer the women also spoke of their hatred of the examinations, of the feelings of shame and abhorrence they had towards them, and of the miseries they were subjected to in the carrying out of the wicked system. They also told us of their poverty. They told us their histories, and we sympathised with them and went on. What could we do? Can you think how it tore our hearts as these women would weep and sob around us? Often they would say, “Take us with you; we will go with you anywhere in the world.” But we could not take them. It was impossible, not only because of the lack of Rescue Homes within reach, but also because of the strongly entrenched power of the system of slavery under which they groaned. Then on to Rawal Pindi, a huge Cantonment far up the north-west frontier. We visited seven chaklas there. The women simply seemed innumerable in one that we went through; it was alley after alley, courtyard after courtyard. There was a great massing of soldiers there at that time because of some uneasiness in the country, which we did not understand. The whole Cantonment seemed alive and astir. We drove from place to place. In the Sudder bazaar we found the women whom we visited living right over the shops in the busiest thoroughfare. These were set apart for the British soldiers. We also visited the chakla for the native troops. The women here congratulated themselves that they were not brought under the strict rules applying to the women belonging to the British soldiers; for they were not compelled to go to the Lock Hospital except when the mahaldarni sent them. The native physician of the Lock Hospital corroborated this, and said only the women set apart for British troops were obliged to go to the Lock Hospital regularly for examination.

From that, out to the Infantry chakla, which consisted of rooms built around an open space; single rooms facing on a large open courtyard.

Then the Artillery chakla; a most wretched place, mud walls surrounding it. Only five women were in these dreary quarters. We went there twice, and could not find the women at home first; but we found them in the evening. The mahaldarni they said was there to protect them from the cruelty and rudeness of the soldiers, especially when they should come in drink. But we looked at this decrepit old woman and said, “What protection can she be?” We said to the women, “Why are there only five girls here?” and they replied that the women were afraid to stay because the soldiers treated them so cruelly. We were impressed with the miseries of their surroundings as we stayed on with them into the deepening gloom of the approaching night. By and by a woman rose and lighted a lamp of the rudest sort¾a wick floating in a cup of oil¾and placed it in a niche in the wall. Here we were in a narrow little room, the women sitting, native fashion, on the mud floor around us; no furniture in the room, except the native bed or charpoy, on which we sat: it was bitterly cold after sunset; the women stretched their fingers over a little charcoal fire by turns, shivering as the wind swept in through the grass curtain (for door there was none) and pierced through their thin cotton clothing. We were warmly dressed, yet felt the cold intensely. It was one of the most wretched sights we saw in all India. And the misery was increased, because we did not see how these captives were to be delivered from their despair and degradation under the regulating system. It all settled down on our hearts like a pall. The other three chaklas we visited were only at what is known as the new Cantonments, Rawal Pindi. There remains Umballa under this division. There we visited two tent chaklas — women in the Rest camps. One of these was the chakla of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, and the other of the Second Gordon Highlanders. There were ten tents in each place, one hundred yards from the soldiers’ encampment, surrounded by a wall of native matting. We talked with the women at each place. Young soldiers came shamelessly to the very tent where we were, and in one case stood so near that we could read the letters on his shoulder strap. Oh, if my English sisters could see what we have seen they would not hesitate to rise for the sake of their own sons, even if they did not realise what it must mean to those native women to be so crushed down!

From these chaklas we went on to the Sudder bazaar, chakla, and Lock Hospital. I dare not take you into that Lock Hospital. It is torturing to me to remember that examination room, with its fearful paraphernalia. I dare not tell you what I saw. Oh, human degradation! Oh womanhood that can be so crushed down, down, under the ban of shame! We read the records there. We read that it was made a point of honour that soldiers should declare the women whom they held responsible for communicating disease. We read copies of letters from the surgeon in charge calling on the Cantonment magistrate to order these women up for examination. And yet at the top of the register it was written: “Prostitutes attending voluntary inspections!” But all the machinery laid bare before our eyes showed that it was not voluntary.
The Sudder chakla here is a large one, with accommodation for twenty women, with rooms built around a courtyard. We saw two little girls, one 4 and another 12. The one of 12 years was dressed as the degraded women were.

III. The place under my last division is Peshawar, near the Khyber Pass gateway through which Alexander passed to the conquest of India. We were told by a British soldier, and by others, of the hatred of the people here for the English soldiers. The chakla was formed by a street turning at right angles with its ramifications. The women told us that all the other chaklas had been broken up, and that all the degraded women of the Cantonment had been gathered here. Every door in this awful street was twice numbered, with English and native numbers, one a small number — a tin plate about six inches square. There were also large tin plates at least 15 inches in diameter, and on these were large English numbers. We asked of three separate groups at different times what these large figures meant, and they told us in each case that they corresponded to the registered number of the women. We found the women in deep revolt against the system of regulation.

Can you imagine how difficult it was to know what to say to these women? We went with sympathy in our hearts, but what could we say of hope and comfort? Over and over again we asked, “What can we do for you?” Never did they ask for money, though we knew they were in great straits and often wanted for bread. They always said, “Pray for us;” or they said, “Remember us when you go back to England, and try to help us, and have homes established that we can go to;” or they said, “Help us to get rid of these shameful examinations.” And often they folded their hands together and prayed to the only God they knew, asking Him to help us to help them. May God help us to help them!



Source: Facts Recorded by Eye-Witnesses in Regard to the Military Regulation of Vice in India, Being Speeches by Dr. Kate C. Bushnell and Mrs. Elizabeth W. Andrew, Office of the British Committee for the Abolition of State Regulation of Vice in India and Throughout the British Dominions (London: Pewtres & Co.) 1893, pp. 5-15.