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Book Review

Asia's Sex Trap

Fallen Angels: The Sex Workers of South Asia, edited by John Frederick and Thomas L. Kelly (photographs). Lustre Press, Roli Books, New Delhi. $40 (Contact angels@rayhope.org)

SOUTHEAST ASIA'S booming sex industry has been described by numerous authors and journalists, but the outside world has paid scant attention to the same problem in South Asia, where hundreds of thousands of young women and men are trapped in squalid brothels in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Part of the reason could be that it is mainly an internal problem. Apart from paedophiles in Sri Lanka, few Western tourists are involved in South Asia's sex industry, unlike Thailand and the Philippines where there are many. Also, in countries such as Pakistan, official tolerance of prostitution is zero, which means that prostitutes are usually well-hidden. Only Mumbai's sleazy Falkland Road and Kamathipura and some areas of Calcutta have an open commercial sex scene.

This makes the tragedy even worse, and, as the authors of this remarkable book point out, the South Asian sex industry involves more children than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

In Bangladesh, for instance, bonded female children and the daughters of sex workers "often begin work at 11 or 12, and 16 is over the hill." In Pakistan, most prostitutes are under-age boys, many of them refugees from Afghanistan. The girls usually come from Bangladesh. But, as one of the contributors to the book writes, "The provocative word 'paedophile' is applied almost solely to pot-bellied foreigners, a negligible proportion of consumers in the region."

Lawmakers and non-governmental organizations might be encouraged by Fallen Angels, edited by John Frederick, with pictures compiled by Thomas Kelly, to rethink their efforts to curb South Asia's sex industry.

Fallen Angels may unsettle some readers, with its horrid tales of suffering, together with its compelling and sometimes shocking pictures. The book quickly gets to the heart of the problem: poverty, such as that in the hills of Nepal and in Bangladesh's flood-hit plains. But the 14 authors-most of whom are South Asians-do not moralize. They describe how some sex workers in Calcutta want to be treated with dignity, and protected for their right to work. A doctor working with sex workers in Calcutta states quite bluntly that "providing Aids awareness and condoms isn't going to be successful because sex workers have no power compared to the clients, the pimps or the madams. Without strengthening them, you cannot change this power equation."

Frederick, who lives in Nepal, caused a stir three years ago with a long article in Himal, a local news magazine, in which he argued that most young women from the hills of Nepal were not "tricked" into prostitution by crafty outsiders, or drugged and kidnapped by Indian gangsters only to wake up several days later in a Mumbai brothel. He said that many villagers knowingly sold their daughters to sex-industry recruiters because they had no other means of survival. In other words, prostitution in South Asia is not primarily a criminal issue, but a social problem caused by extreme under-development and caste discrimination in a strictly hierarchical society. Fallen Angels describes, in text as well as pictures, that social tragedy brilliantly.

The book is sold through a Nepalese-based non-governmental organisation, Ray of Hope Foundation, that helps rehabilitate sex workers and works with young villagers in Nepal to teach them about the dangers of entering the sex industry.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, March 21, 2002

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