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Commercial Sex and the Daughters of Nepal

Many of the girls of Nepal have been trapped in India's booming sex industry, and the sex trade is expanding as the poor get poorer, writes Bertil Lintner in the hilltop village of Ichok.

Prostitution? Girls from here going to work in brothels in Bombay? Never heard of it. Any question, even a discreet and indirect one, about the local sex trade is met with an awkward smile and silence. Yet, Ichok in Sindhupalchok district, 80 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu, is known locally as Sano Bambai, or "Little Bombay".

The contrast between this hilltop village at the end of a five-hour, steep climb along a winding mountain path and Bombay's infamous, sleazy, red-light districts of Kamathipura and Falkland Road 2,000 kilometres away could not be more striking. But that's where local social workers say at least 200 girls out of Ichok's total population of a few thousand, work.

A young man literally ran away when the subject was broached in Ichok. A woman in her late 30s was somewhat more forthcoming. She said that although she knew nothing about prostitution, some of her relatives worked on road construction sites in northern India. "I was there myself for a while, that's where my children were born," she smiles, displaying a couple of gold teeth.

Many Nepalese do work on such sites, but it is a subsistence job. Road construction doesn't explain signs of prosperity, not usually seen in a village as isolated as Ichok.

There is no electricity here, and water is scarce. But a 12-year-old girl shows off her new, beautiful necklace and boys with wristwatches play on dusty village paths. And a surprisingly large number of houses have new tin roofs which gleam in the sun as evidence of the fact that there must be a local income other than coarse hill paddy, a few vegetables--and supposed remittances from poorly-paid road construction workers in India.

Tanka Gajurel, a district NGO worker who has spent years in the hills, says that Ichok--and many other villages in the area--have been sending their girls to Bombay's brothers for more than 20 years. Human Rights Watch Asia states in a recent report that there are "hill districts where the flesh trade has become an almost traditional source of income".

Gajurel takes the issue a step further. "The land here is very infertile", he says. "No one can survive on farming only. There would be a famine here without the sex trade." And there would be very few tin roofs on the houses. The small children would not sport trinkets and watches, sent to them by the elder sisters in India.

But why, then, the reluctance on the part of the villagers to talk about it? For years, an abundance of NGOs and government agencies--supported by powerful foreign donors--have launched programmes to help the girls from Nepal who have been trapped in India's booming sex industry. And it's a huge problem: an estimated 70,000 to 100,000--some claim as many as 200,000--young Nepalese women work in Bombay and other Indian cities, while another 25,000 are employed in the local sex industry.

But, says John Frederick, a Kathmandu-based American writer and consultant on social issues, the problem has for too long been treated as a criminal issue rather then a social problem.

Evidence suggests that many of the women enter the sex trade are not trafficked into it -they enter it because they have no alternative. The girls are forced into the sex trade not by swarthy kidnappers lurking in the bushes and dragging them off village roads, but by acute poverty, lack of basic schooling, and social conditions which discriminate agaist women," he said.

The "criminalisation" of the issue appears to have exacerbated to problem by making it much more difficult to discuss it with people such as those in Ichok. "They are afraid," says Ram Prasad, another local social worker in Sindhupalchok. "I'm from this area, but the local hide many things from us also."

During the 1991 election, local candidates even threatened villagers in the district: "A certain candidate would say that if they didn't vote for him, their business would be exposed and they would have to stop," says Gajurel.

This is not a view that suits NGO workers in Kathmandu, foreign donors, and government agencies. They thrive on what Frederick calls the myth of forced trafficking. According to this long-and well-established view, women have been drugged and abducted by swarthy gangster types - mostly Indians from across the border - lurking in the bushes outside villages. Eventually, the young women end up living under slave-like conditions in Bombay's brothels, until they are rescued by the police and helped by NGOs to be reunited with their families in the hills.

Frederick first challenged this view openly in a cover story for the well-respected English-language Nepalese monthly Himal in October last year. He concluded that although some of the women no doubt have been duped into the sex trade, and are victims of "hard" or "coercive trafficking", he set this against the children whose families send them to the brothels as wage-earners-which he calls "soft" or "family-based trafficking".

But while the attention have been on the minority - the victims of "hard trafficking" - even discussing the second, much larger group has so far been almost taboo. Says Frederick: "It is so much easier to blame it on some unnamed mafia than to confront angry villagers whose income is derived from selling their girls."

Anuradha Koirala, who set up Maiti Nepal (Maiti means "my mother's house") six years ago to save girls who have ended up in India's sex industry, is outraged by the suggestion that the families are involved: "Parents are not selling their daughters. All of them have been forced into prostitution under false premises such as job offers, or simply by luring the girls away and kidnapping them." To make her point, she produces a stack of letters from parents in the hills who are looking for their missing daughters. Koirala also calls for the arrest of the traffickers.

No one in Nepal would want to challenge Koirala's credentials. She heads one of the best-respected NGOs in the country. Britain's Prince Charles made a point of visiting her shelter when he was there early last year, and she has been given many international awards for her outstanding social services. And there is no question that the girls in her custody are helped to lead a better life.

But Himal's cover story last year has sparked a debate, which is very similar to the discussion in Thailand 10 years ago, when the prevailing view also was that the girls had been "forced" into prostitution. Today, when the initial anger at the suggestion that the bitter truth was far more sensible way than just to send the police to raid the brothels and "rescue" the girls.

One group, Empower, even wants, as the name suggests, to empower the girls to be able to stand up and defend their own rights vis-à-vis clients, pimps, and the police, without having to change their profession.

As in Thailand, social and often ethnic issues in Nepal are behind the fact that certain groups of women end up in the sex trade. Human Rights Watch states that 70 per cent of Nepal's commercial sex workers are thought to belong to ethnic minority groups such as the Tamang, Gurung, Magar and Sherpa. "They are poorer than other groups, and their daughters often end up in Indian brothels. The boys get some education, but the girls are always neglected," says Indu Aryal from ABC Nepal, an NGO working with the sex trade and other social ills.

According to Naresh Newar, a local writer who specialises in human rights issues and who also contributed to Himal's controversial cover story: "Some in Sindhupalchok say that the sex trade originated in the supply of Tamang and Sherpa girls to the feudal court of Kathmandu. Apparently, it was just a step away from serving as concubines and maid servants to the brothels of Kamathipura red light district in Bombay.

In Palchok, another village in the district, stands the centuries-old temple of Shri Jai Bageshwari Devi, where a remarkable procession can be seen every Saturday. Musicians blowing their pipes and banging their cymbals as fancily-dressed young women perform elaborate Hindu rites under a cloud of strong perfume. Sometimes a year to collect the money their daughters have saved," says Gajurel.

So could it be that the do-gooders are actually making the situation worse? Frederick argues that most NGOs want to make it simple because it facilitates their work. The media want spicy stories which "progress" must be listed, or funding would dry up. "So the number of girls who have been 'rescued' from brothels in India becomes the yardstick, not poverty alleviation in the hills, which is far more difficult to measure," he says. "And who 'rescued' them? The police, whom many girls in the trade see as the enemy? It's not a comforting situation."

According to local social workers and NGO activists, girls from Ichok earn 20,000 to 50,000 Nepalese rupees (about Bt 11,250 to Bt28,125) a year. This may seem a small amount if it is spent in Bombay. But even is only half of the earnings of the 200 young women who work in Bombay is sent home, that still means that at least US$60,000 (about Bt2.3 million) filters back to their families, substantial sum for an isolated, impoverished community in the hills. "While a lot of money is wasted on the relatives' gambling and drinking, the girls' contribution to the village is very significant," says Gajurel.

In shelters in Kathmandu, there are many girls who are prepared to tell interviewers that they had been tricked or forced into the sex trade, but it may be the story they tell - or are told to tell - outsiders. "These girls will do anything to protect their families," says Frederick.

"Meena", 17, from Makwanpur, southwest of Kathmandu, tells a gripping tale of how she was lured away from a carpet factory when she was only 10, just to end up in a Bombay brothel. But only after spending five years watching television in the mamasan's house.

"Radha", 27 says she was sold by her husband. But she was never a prostitute, she insists. She only cooked food for the other girls. She is skinny, coughs continuously, and the doctor says she has full-blown Aids. But she insists she was infected by her husband.

"Charu", 18 says she was trafficked to Bombay by her brother-in-law. As expected from women who have been humiliated and shamed, their stories are inconsistent and contradictory - and told in the presence of officials from their shelter.

But times are changing, even in the hill district of Nepal. Sindhupalchok has been a well-known supplier of commercial sex workers for years, even to the extent that local people are getting tired of outsiders coming here to look for "trafficking stories" if they are journalists- or new projects, or they represent one of Nepal's many NGOs. In recent years, however, the sex trade has spread all over Nepal, and it's affecting not only low-caste tribal girls.

"The sex trade is expending as the poor get poorer," says Frederick and, at least on this point, Koirala agrees: "People are still focusing on the same districts, but it's spreading all over Nepal." Established sex-trade networks also facilitate the flow of young women from areas not previously affected. And, as Human Rights Watch states in its report, the incidence of forced trafficking is also on the rise.

The government has responded to what is becoming a national crisis by launching a "Plan of Action" to deal with the problem, and the country's prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, has raised the issue at summits with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or Saarc. But critics such as Frederick feel that all those efforts will come to nothing, as long as officials and activities look for easy explanations, and continue to ignore the bitter social realities of life in Nepal's many small, remote and underdeveloped villages.

As the sex trade is expending, Nepalese social activities, especially at the grassroots level in the villages, are beginning to accept the same painful realities as their Thai counterparts did a decade ago - which also requires a new approach to the problem. "It's important that we see the social facts as they are," says Frederick. "Lots of time and money have been wasted, and people continue to suffer.".

This artilce first appeared in The Nation, June 06, 1999

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