How can it be proper that Bombay (its men and economy) takes maximum advantage of poor women driven to prostitution and then dump them as soon as they are seen as hazards?
Acting on instructions from the Bombay High Court, police on 5 February raided some of the city´s brothels. Four hundred and fifty-six girls were rounded up, among them 218 Nepalis. Since there is no law against prostitution in India, it is customary to deal with the problem by sending the sex workers back to their home regions, once apprehended. This time, as a large number of Nepalis were also involved, the Maharashtra government notified the Centre, which in turn asked Nepal to take in the Nepali girls. But Kathmandu has been in no hurry to comply and the impasse continues, even as two of the girls have died, presumably through AIDS complications.
The Bombay High Court was well within its rights when it ordered the police action under the Suppression of Immoral Traffic of Women and Girls Act. But it was no moral indignation that motivated the justices. What spurred them was the disclosure by a daily paper that upto 65 percent of Bombay´s prostitutes may be HIV-positive. Their solution was simple: send them back to where they came from. Case closed.
Besides the questionable ethics of such a move, how could the learned jurists be oblivious of the wider danger of sending the hapless girls home? If the metropolis of Bombay feels threatened by their presence, what would be the repercussions on the rural areas from where a great majority of these girls come? And how can it be proper that Bombay (its men and economy) takes maximum advantage of poor women driven to prostitution, and then dumps them the moment they are seen as hazards? No one has bothered to ask that question, least of all the Nepali government.
How either government is going to handle the problem is still uncertain. Kathmandu hopes it can wish the matter away, while there is nothing to stop India from sending the remaining 216 across Nepal´s border. But the larger questions of prostitution and trafficking still remain.
One outcome of the as-yet-unresolved episode is that the two governments have been forced to discuss the issue of Nepali girls working as prostitutes in Indian cities. Several Nepali voluntary organisations are also planning to get serious. There are uncertainties that have to be tackled as the discussion finally begins, however.
No one knows for sure the exact numbers involved. The talk tends to concentrate on Bombay. There is no information on how many Nepali girls are trafficked to secondary Indian cities, such as Varanasi, Muzaffarpur, Lucknow, nor about what is happening in Delhi.
Conventional wisdom is that the girls are from districts adjoining Kathmandu. Is this true, or is there a correlation with the immobility of Kathmandu-based non-governmental organisations?
The talk of “forced trafficking” provides ethical legitimation for NGO work, for fundraising and provides an excuse not to confront the need for major intervention. But, it is not yet clear how many women are forced, how many duped, and how many have ´gone´ willingly. With this, there is the myth that women live in horrible enforced misery in Bombay. But many women lose and change their identities, deny their past, adapt, and may even prefer (after an all-too-short period) the city life. No one is willing to admit that prostitution is a profession, even though the term ´sex worker´ is now politically correct. Admission would be the beginning of sex worker empowerment.
The vast majority of data, qualitative and quantitative, collected on prostitution is dubious. The ´misinformation quotient1 is very high in research because subjects deliberately give wrong information about age, home, history, number of clients, use of condoms, and trafficking history. The patronising approach of researchers and ignorance of ´class separation´ has implications for the accuracy of information.
There has been dismal short-sightedness in providing alternative employment to returnee sex workers, or those in danger of being trafficked or entering prostitution. Would-be rehabilitationists offer opportunities such as weaving placemats at fifty Nepali rupees a day, which are just not economically competitive.
The focus on international trafficking has meant that the very real problem of domestic trafficking within Nepal is ignored. The Nepal government is not tackling the problem of offical (customs, police) collusion in trafficking. The local media in Nepal is no help either. It has the nasty habit of giving the names and residences of the women who have been apprehended. Such newspapers should be sued. The 218 girls rounded up in Bombay are just the tip of the iceberg.