The Melamchi river flows placidly through Sindhupalchowk district north of Kathmandu (above). Many girls from areas like this in Nepal are sex workers in Bombay, 2500 km away.
Sindhupalchowk district, barely 20 km northeast of Kathmandu Valley as the crow flies, shares with Rasuwa District, to its west, the notoriety of being the pre-eminent exporter of girls to the brothels of India. Like so much other information on girl trafficking out of Nepal, the history of this export is apocryphal, there having been little in the way of serious research by dispassionate scholars.
Some of the Sindhupalchowk locals say that the sex trade originated in the supply of Tamang and Sherpa girls of this region to the feudal Rana court of Kathmandu. Apparently, it was just a step away from serving as bhitrini (concubines) and susaaray (maid servants) to the “cages” of the Kamathipura red light district of Bombay. The antiquity of trafficking may be murky, but there is no doubt that there is profit in selling sex. That much is obvious from even a cursory look at some of the households of Sindhupalchowk’s villages such as Ichowk, Mahankal, and Talamarang.
There is a trafficking network which today continues to supply young women of Sindhupalchowk to Indian cities, and the fact that the locals are fully engaged in this supply is evident from the names of some of the largest brothel owners in Bombay: Lata Sherpa, Mala Tamang, Kabita Sherpa, Anita Sherpa and Maya (Tamang) Chauhan – all names which indicate to a fair degree the origin of the women in Sindhupalchowk. Vinod Gupta and Sanjay Chonkar, social activists in Bombay, say that in addition to these top five, there are many other small-time Nepali gharwalis (madams) engaged in running a fair number of the hundreds of bordellos of Bombay. According to them, altogether 25,000 Nepali women work in the brothels of the three key red light areas of Kamathipura, Pilla House and Falkland Road.
Unlike other equally poor hill districts of Nepal, Sindhupalchowk has concentrated on this particular export trade. It has helped that powerful gharwalis from this region rule the roost at the Bombay end. Over time, it has also become an accepted social custom, albeit a secretive one.
“The family members of the victims equally share in the crime,” explains Krishna Chhetri, a school teacher at Ichowk, which has many of what are known as “family traffickers”. “Prostitutes who return home after several years in the trade encourage their neighbours to send their daughters to Bombay. With their ostentatious display of wealth, it is easy to convince the parents to part with their daughters,” adds Chhetri.
Ichowk is popularly known as Sano Bambai (Little Bombay). From across the Melamchi river valley, in the afternoon sun, Ichowk’s tin-roofs reflect a prosperity that is said to come from earnings of its women in Bombay. Until recently, when they became more common in the hills of Nepal, these tin roofs were proof of cash income (required to buy the corrugated sheets) and an indication of Ichowk’s source of wealth, compared to poorer villages which had to make do with thatch. There was, apparently, a direct link between a daughter in Bombay and a tin roof above one’s head in Sindhupalchowk.
Starting from the roadhead at the bazaar of Melamchi Pul, it takes over five hours’ hard hill-walking to reach the closely-knit settlement of Ichowk. Indeed, the tin roofs are all there, with but a handful of thatch. However, the rest of the village is in bad shape: there is no electricity, running water or a health care centre. The fields are poorly irrigated, and the maize and potatoes they produce are hardly enough to last the year.
Unlike the tourist region of Helambu up-valley along the Melamchi, the locals of Ichowk are openly hostile towards strangers. This is, obviously, the result of the unwanted attention it has received over the last few years from Kathmandu-based activist groups, suddenly woken up to the scourge of trafficking. When this writer arrived at Ichowk one June afternoon this year and started chatting with an elderly Tamang woman on her veranda a middle-aged man arrived to grill me with questions, while another man came with a register book and insisted that I write down my name and purpose of visit. There was no unpleasantness, but the incident showed the deep suspicion that Ichowk villagers have of outsiders.
Later, when the Tamang woman’s husband arrived he explained that his two daughters had gone with his neighbour to the “Thulo Sahar” – big city, the term for Bombay. Shyam Karki, school teacher in the village, said that the old man often travelled to Bombay to collect money from his daughters. “There are many parents like him involved in sending their children to work in the Bombay brothels.”
“Up to 200 families in this village have sold their daughters, mostly between 12-15 years old. At least 15 girls have left the village with well-known pimps in front of my very eyes. Obviously, the whole community knows where their girls are headed,” says Karki. Everyone knows what is going on and what “Bambai” signifies, from the elderly to the very young. “But they pretend as if they do not know,” says Karki. “Some families feel the need to show concern, and they make noises in the village, even file a report with the police. But they wait some days before doing so, to ensure that the coast is clear.”
Sashi Tamang, a 14 year-old girl rescued from Kamathipura and now living at the Kathmandu shelter home of Maiti Nepal, an NGO providing assistance to women, confirms parental involvement in trafficking. She even says that the girls leaving the village know precisely where they are going to end up. In the brothel to which she was sold by her own neighbour, Sashi remembers meeting at least 50 Nepali girls, a majority of them from Sindhupalchowk. “Most of them had come willingly. Even their own fathers had reached some of them here. But they never knew anything about all the suffering they would face in Bombay,” explains Sashi.
In Krishna Chhetri’s village of Palchowk (which provides the second half of the district’s name) stands the 100-year-old temple of Shri Jai Bageshwari Devi, much revered by the Bombay veterans of Sindhupalchowk as well as the neighbouring Nuwakot district. Travelling from far afield, richly adorned women, escorted by their families, arrive here on Saturdays to perform the elaborate Hindu rite of Panchawoli. Lavish spending is in order, and up to NPR 10,000 (USD 150) is paid per buffalo sacrifice. Holy offerings are made to Bageshwari Devi, up to NPR 15,000, says Chhetri. All this conspicuous spending has the locals wide-eyed – it is “Bambai” that makes it possible.
The Bhageshwari mandir also serves as a place where sex workers and traffickers alike come to expiate their ‘sins’. This is evident from the large sums that have been contributed for the restoration and upkeep of the temple. The names of contributors prominently displayed on the walls, unlike in other temples of Nepal, are primarily those of women.
What is strange but perhaps natural is that the very young girls of Sindhupalchowk who have suffered at the hands of their brothel managers emerge over time as mirror images of their tormentors. These prematurely aged women, clearly, think nothing of entrapping more and ever more young girls from Sindhupalchowk into the maze of Bombay’s sex trade. The very women who have been trafficked by their parents, or by middle-men (and -women), are more than willing, in the role of brothel managers and gharwalis, to encourage the export of more young women from Sindhupalchowk to Kamathipura and Falkland Road.
Mahendra Trivedi, an ayurvedic practitioner in Bombay and one of the first persons to begin a counselling service for Nepali prostitutes, says he has given up trying to change the attitude of the gharwalis. At one time, Trivedi helped start the Sanyukta Nepali Satya Sodhak Pidit Mahila Sangh, an organisation of prostitutes and brothel keepers promoting the welfare of Nepali sex workers and their children.
“The movement was begun to help Nepali sex workers unite against the corrupt police, local goondas and wicked clients. It was also meant to solve problems of illiteracy and disease, and to help those who wanted to leave prostitution,” recalls Trivedi. According to him, however, now the organisation has become a base to expand the market for Nepali prostitutes in Bombay. “The Sangh is now doing more harm than good,” says Trivedi.
The membership of the Sangh is down today to just 3000 from the 12,000 during the late 1980s. Until a decade ago, about 80 to 90 gharwalis used to attend meetings every Saturday, discussing matters of concern to the Nepali sex workers. This does not happen any more, and the main Tamang and Sherpa gharwalis in the executive committee of the organisation actually own more brothels today than ever before. “The gharwalis kept on expanding brothels on the pretext of providing more rooms to their girls,” recalls Trivedi. The Bombay bazaar for Nepali girls is getting larger, and back in Sindhupalchowk, the supply is assured into the future.
” How much money do you want for your daughter”
The following is a transcript from the Emmy award-winning documentary, The Selling of Innocents, of an interview with a father and daughter by journalist Ruchira Gupta, who went undercover as someone wishing to ‘buy’ a girl. The conversation took place in Hindi, and the event was recorded at a Kathmandu bungalow by hidden camera.
RG: Please sit down. (To girl) What is your name?
RG: (To father) How many children do you have?
RG: Boys or girls?
Father: Two girls and a boy.
RG: Can we take the girl to Bombay?
RG: How much money do you want for your daughter?
Father: Maybe… one and a half lakh.
RG: Are you joking? When you say “lakh” you must mean “thousand”.
Father: Yes, one and a half thousand.
RG: OK, we will give you the money. (Counts money) Now can we take her to Bombay?
RG (to girl): Will you be able to do whatever you’re asked to do? Any job?
RG: Do you want to go to Bombay?
RG: Do you know what to expect in Bombay?
Girl: I haven’t seen it so I don’t know.
Savitri’s family is ‘high-caste’ Bahun (hill Brahmin of Nepal) from Nuwakot, a district north of Kathmandu. The father works as a bricklayer in the capital. Says Gupta, “I think he knew she was going to be sexually used but was also happy to let himself believe that she was going as a domestic.” About his near-absurd willingness to come down from his asking price of 150,000 rupees to 1500, Gupta thinks it may have to do with the father´s discomfort with the whole transaction. Savitri and her two younger brothers are at present being sent through school with support raised by Gupta.