While there is loud talk of the trafficking of Nepali girls, few are serious enough to address the issues behind the phenomenon. What are the real numbers? Who is endangered by AIDS? And should prostitution be legalised within the country?
When the average Nepali considers prostitution, it is most likely in the context of young village girls being lured or forcibly abducted under false pretences to India. For the more aware, prostitution looms large as the AIDS conduit which will directly transfer the dreaded disease from the brothels of Bombay to the Nepali hinterland. Very few choose to question or consider the reality behind these assumptions, or the alarmingly high numbers involved in the sex industry.
Part of the problem is that there is extreme paucity of data regarding prostitution. Most of the present theories and opinions are derived from second-hand heresay and not from empirical research. The information gap also probably derives from middle-class mores of Kathmandu society. Even serious researchers tend to shy away from discussion of sex in public or private life. In the end, the phenomenon of prostitution is ignored, or sensationalised from time to time.
Because there is a reluctance to personalise prostitution, the basic premise as to why prostitution and trafficking exist in Nepal is overlooked. Prostitution fills a need in society. It is a two-way process involving women (as sex workers) and men from all strata of society. It is not to be forgotten that like any other area of the economy, the sex industry is the result of supply fulfilling demand. Dr. Pushpa Bhatt, an STD (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) specialist of HMG’s AIDS Control Programme in Kathmandu, says the prostitute is often used as a scapegoat who takes the blame for larger problems in the area of health, religion and social norms. “Very rarely are men looked upon as fuelling prostitution; after all, prostitutes need clients, but the men are rarely blamed.”
Many ‘straight’ women, too, are reluctant to relate prostitution to themselves. Rather than tackle deep male-female divides that exist in South Asian society, it seems easier to think of prostitution as something “lower class women do”. Also, these educated women would rather not confront the possibility that their husbands, sons or brothers might be partly responsible for continuing victimisation of women as sex workers. Even within Kathmandu’s fairly timid society, prostitution is practiced at every level and not only within a narrowly identifiable group of ‘lower class women’.
While not denying the trafficking of women to Indian brothels, it is necessary to study the underlying reasons as to why the trade takes place at all. It is also necessary to consider other aspects of the sex trade as it exists in Nepal, and the related repurcussions.
Let us consider what is known about trafficking to India. Owing to the lack of systematic research, existing figures are acquired by amalgamating research conducted by Indian activists, Nepali police reports, and the efforts of individual persons and small organisations who have visited red-light districts in India as well as the ‘danger districts’ of Kavre, Sindhupalchok, Nuwakot and Dhadhing, from where the majority of trafficked women originate.
Analysis of all available data, taking into account the methodology used and the reliability factor, indicates that an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 girls in Nepal, most of them in the 10-18 year age group, are lured or abducted each year. Figures made available by ABC, an NGO working to stop the trafficking of girls indicates that as many as 200,000 Nepali prostitutes might be operating in India, while more conservative estimates of the Indian Health Organisation, puts the figure at 100,000. Although Nepali women are spread throughout the Indian cities from Madras to Bangalore, Kanpur, Varanasi, Lucknow and Delhi, their concentration is in Bombay, where at least 30,000 to 40,000 are estimated to live and work.
The tendency in Kathmandu circles to overestimate the numbers, like crying wolf, in the end trivialises the trauma that so many Nepali women undergo in Indian brothels. Journalists, for example, routinely claim that “one lakh” girls migrate to India every year for prostitution. Only last month, a member of the Nepali cabinet, no less, claimed at an AIDS meeting that 200,000 girls were abducted into the Indian sex trade each year.
Prostitution, touted as the ‘oldest profession’ in the world, is an old phenomenon in Nepal too. It has its roots in history and the socio-economic conditions that pervade in parts of Nepal. The tradition of buying and dedicating virgins to temple deities (devakis) has been documented over centuries. Ostensibly, these girls assisted in the religious ceremonies to be performed, but this tradition diversified into a form of prostiution.
Certainly, the traditional prostitutes can not be pigeon-holed along with the more modern form of prostitution that dots not have even the social sanction they do. These Traditional prostitutes are generally respected within their communities and have children, though no family life as such. Women of the Badi caste in the western Tarai, also receive strong community backing for their occupation as sex workers. In fact, the pressure to conform is sometimes so strong that girl-students feel obliged to forego schooling for their ‘traditional’ work.
While some forms of prostitution are sanctified by religion and culture, there is an important historical factor which has led to what might be called ‘modern prostitution’. The recruitment of Tamang and Guru rig girls in the royal courts of Kathmandu had existed earlier but really accelerated during the Rana period. Besides these, there were also other groups represented as susarays or lady servants, who often doubled up as concubines. The inhabitants of Helambu, north-west of Kathmandu, were especially favoured for their fair complexion.
With the fall of the Rana regime in 1951, the ability of their huge palaces in Kathmandu to absorb concubines dropped sharply. This was about the time when increasing poverty was making it imperative for many hill people to look for alternative sources of income. Prostitution in India filled that slot.
Some researchers lay great stress on the historical angle as a cause for present-day trafficking, lit this might be an oversimplification. Certainly, the pre-1950s ‘trade’ gave social credibility to the notion of girl trafficking, but the key reason must be the present-day social and economic-status of those who come from the high risk areas and, increasingly, the rest of Nepal. A look at the socio-economic map of Nepal will show that the majority of women who leave, come from the more destitute areas of Central and East Nepal. As traditional society disintigrates under socio-economic pressures and urbanisation further loosens societal bonds, women from all over the country are found as sex workers.
The popularity of Nepali girls in Indian brothels seems to be a combination of ‘exotic’ looks or origin (the mountains), fair skin, and if it is to be believed, the fact that Nepali prostitutes are more willing to disrobe fully than their Indian counterparts.
In a recent visit to the brothels of Bombay, Shanta Dixit, public health researcher, found not only Tamangs and Gurungs, but also Tharus, Bahuns, Chhetris, Newars, and other groups represented in the brothels. Infamous districts of Bombay with names such as Kamathipura (Falkland Road), Colaba and Patthebapura Marg house Nepali women along with prostitutes from different regions of India. Ho uses are numbered. Women indicate their availability by standing in front of doorsteps swinging both arms in unison. Others sit, talk and laugh, while some prostitutes’ children run about. They are heavily powdered. and make liberal use of lipstick and rouge.
Says Dixit, “You enter one door which has a sign, say, “Number 215 Welcome”, and the brothel-keeper, known as gharwali, takes you in. The house is four stories or higher with a narrow staircase that winds its way up. The bottom floor has women who have been around for five or more years, and it shows. In the upper floors, you find higher priced, newer, younger and ‘fairer’ girls. On the topmost floor, are girls who must have just been ‘broken in’, barely in their teens and looking very fragile.”
Extreme poverty is a primary cause for the ‘selling’ of girls. Fathers have been known to sell daughters to middle-men that prowl the countryside. The ‘going rate’ is between NRs 15,000 and NRs 40,000. (The cost of a Japanese VCR in Kathmandu is about NRs 30,000.) Virgins are at a premium.
Part of the difficulty in trying to stop trafficking (not that there is any concerted programme in place yet) is the number of ‘Bombay-returned’ women who go to their villages with an ostentatious display of wealth. (After a few years in Bombay, some prostitutes, it seems, are allowed by their gharwalis to return home, with the understanding that they will bring back more girls from Nepal.) There was a time when returning lahurays used to dispense easy money to buy status. In many cases, this is now happening in the Nepali hinterland among ex-prostitutes. The number of village houses with corrugated tin roofs in Nuwakot or Sindhupalchok, i t is said, is an indication of Bombay-sourced affluence. This indicator, however, is not popular in the villages, particularly among those who manage to put up a tin roof as a result of legitimate labour.
Not only are the more affluent returnee prostitutes socially accepted (most get married), according to development workers in the affected areas, the majority of these women proceed to advocate the path of prostitution to young girls in the village without conveying the trauma and hardship involved. With such ‘success stories’ abounding, how will the future development planner who would tackle women trafficking, persuade families to give up this one source of income?
When ;researchers and development workers have gone to the heavily trafficking-prone area that lies north of Kathmandu where Nuwakot and Sindhupalchok meet, they invariably face a hostile reaction the moment the question of prostitution comes up. In the case of those who have actively engaged in trafficking, this is an expected reaction. “Why do you Kathmandu-based people come here to destabilise our lives?” is what the more confrontational local will say in villages such as Ichhok, Mahankal, Thakani or Pati Bhanjyang in Sindhupalchok, and Sikharbesi, Ghyangphedi, Rautbesi and Betini in Nuwakot.
It is, of course, not true that all prostitutes return from India wealthy, with a retinue of porters. The majority come back broken in health and spirit. The case of Maya, from the village of Melamchi in Sindhupalchok, is an example. Now 27, she spent nine years in Bombay brothels before being forced to return due to bad health. She has contracted STD and is infected with the HIV-virus, which causes AIDS. Maya’s gharwali released her without giving her any of her savings. Having returned without anything to show for her stay in Bombay, her family was not too keen to have her back. Making no compensation for her condition, her father insisted that she work in the fields. This proved impossible. With her health deteriorating. Maya came to Kathmandu to seek help. When she visited the hospitals in Kathmandu, she received some medicine and vitamins and was asked to return to her village. When this reporter met her, Maya’s only refrain was, “I wish I had died in Bombay.”
The Bombay brothels together with Bangkok and Chiang Mai have the highest proportion of AIDS cases in all of Asia. Over the past year, the recognition that the sex trade provides a line for the passage of the HIV-virus from Bombay brothels directly to Nepali villages, has become a matter of concern among public health experts in Kathmandu. In the beginning, some girls had been sent back by social organisations which ‘rescued’ them from brothels. When tested, they were found to be HIV-positive. Subsequently, the Indian policy to send prostitutes testing HIV-positive back to their hometowns meant that unknown numbers of prostitutes have by now come back to Nepal, perhaps to continue their trade and to spread the disease.
The fact that returning prostitutes are a major source of AIDS introduction in Nepal is borne out even by the limited data available. Of the 24 cases of HIV infection reported in Nepal, six were among foreigners, eight were Nepali men and the remaining ten were Nepali women. One woman contracted the infection through blood transfusion, the other nine were all prostitutes who had returned from India, mostly from Bombay (Himal July/Aug 1991).
The overwhelming focus on AIDS spread through prostitutes might be considered unfair targeting, especially because male migrant labourers who work in India (and visit brothels) and Nepali men who visit sex houses in Bangkok or Hong Kong are also potential carriers of the HIV-virus. However, the fact remains that a prostitute is much more susceptible to infection, depending, of course, on the number of clients she sees. In the end, while some might choose to politicise the issue by claiming that ‘have-nots’ have been unfairly marked out as carriers of AIDS, the identification of high-risk carriers, regardless of class or ethnicity is crucial for a long-term programme to combat AIDS. It is not a question of apportioning blame, but facing the reality of the situation.
While issues of public information, epidemiological surveillance and other measures need immediate attention, it is unfortunately also time for HMG’s Ministry of Health as well as voluntary organisations to set up curative facilities for those who have ‘full-blown’ AIDS. Medical practitioners, for their part, must play a leading role by showing their willingness to treat HIV/AIDS cases, admit such cases to hospital and dispense humane treatment. The experience of Maya and other prostitutes shows that thus far humane care and treatment of HIV/AIDS patients has largely been limited to a very small number of individual doctors and nurses. Recently, an HIV-positive case was re fused admission at Teku Hospital, which is supposed to be the “focal point” for AIDS treatment in Nepal. In the absence of sympathetic treatment and proper counselling, it is likely that infected prostitutes will go back into the sex market while others will not even want to come in for an HIV/AIDS check.
The sudden interest of society at large regarding prostitution and its link to AIDS should not blind us to other issues related to the sex trade. In order to do so, it will be useful to separate the issues of girl trafficking and local prostitution.
Without a doubt, the majority of women working as prostitutes in Bombay are unwilling victims of trafficking. But what of those prostitute s who operate within Nepal. who choose the profession as a strategy for survival? Can they be placed on a lower moral plane, and their legal, medical and other needs (and demands) therefore regarded as less pressing?
Because prostitutes should be entitled to the same rights as everyone else, prostitution should be legalised in Nepal. Prohibiting or ignoring prostitution merely drives it underground. It does not stop it. The only victims then are not the male ‘consumers’ but the female ‘providers’ who have to rely on pimps, are susceptible to harrassment by the police and are pegged as ‘criminals’ if caught.
By providing prostitutes with legal rights, the government would only be publicly admitting what is already known. Legalisation would facilitate proper counselling, dissemination of information regarding safe sex, and the provision of proper health facilities. Thus, the risk of STDs and AIDS spreading unchecked to the general population would also be considerably lessened. Legalisation may give prostitutes the confidence to insist on condoms, thus reducing work-related risks.
In Kathmandu and elsewhere, there are those otherwise liberal-minded people, who become examples of Victorian prudery when the subject turns to sexuality and prostitution. Such persons consider that because prostituion is a question of public morality, the State should stay out of it. Actually, because prostitution is a question of personal morality, the state should allow the individual to be a prostitute, or to visit one. At a recent seminar held in a Kathmandu hotel, prescient observers noted that those who argued vociferously against legalisation came up with no alternatives to the “modem” urban based prostitution. At the same time, they were the votaries who with Kathmandu-based diktat declared that traditional prostitution such as those practiced by the devakis and the Badi community be banned. While quite willing to ban traditional, even religiously sanctioned prostitution, these ‘activists’ would do next to nothing to protect the urban prostitute, or her client.
While, again, there are no hard data to back up the pa int, there is a marked increase in prostitution in Nepali towns, particularly Kathmandu. One estimate is that about 5,000 prostitutes operate in the valley, increasing by a few hundred every year. It is said that there has been a spurt in prostitution because of the large number of single women who have come into Kathmandu to take up jobs in garment factories and the carpet industry. Many of these women, new to the bright lights of the city, either become victimised or voluntarily take to prostitution to supplement their income.
This garment, carpet-induced increase in prostitution is a phenomenon that is only a decade old. Previously, there were very few industries in Kathmandu to attract female migrants, and the number of prostitutes had remained static.
The situation in the urban centres is of concern not only because of ‘street prostitution’, but because of ‘middle class and elite prostitution’. These latter categories of prostitution involve educated women who provide escort services and more to- local and foreign clientele. At one extreme, there is information of ‘high-class’ prostitutes being supplied to international civil servants who have a hand in determining the choice of important development projects.
The link between tourism and sex is another area of concern, and the experience of Bangkok can serve as a warning. In the 1960s and 1970s Bangkok was the main rest and recreation destination for American soldiers engaged in the Vietnam War. Consequently, the Thai prostitution industry took off. After the Vietnam War, direct air links with Europe, particularly West Gemany, made it possible for Bangkok to keep the prostitution industry on a high roll.
Five million tourists visit Thailand every year. Package tours to the red-light districts of Bangkok, Chiang Mai and other cities started in the early 1980s, and today form an established feature of the tourist trade. Experts believe that there are between 700,000 and one million prostitutes in Thailand. According to a study done on German tourists, three-quarters of the 200,000 Germans tourist arc men coming to enjoy sex-tourism.
To see how far tourist-led prostitution might spread in Kathmandu, what Thai scholar Prawase Wasi says is of relevance. As quoted by the Times of India, Professor Wasi draws the link between prostitution, the tourism industry, consumerism, foreign debt, rural poverty, crimes, violence, war and destruction of the environment. “All of these have reached crisis proportions (in Thailand),”says Professor Wasi. Given that many of these indicators of sex-tourism (except war) are already recognised problems in Nepali society, could mass sex-tourism be far behind, and can anything be done to prevent it?
In conclusion, prostitution is an unwholesome profession, most of all for the sex worker herself. Among the many challenges it faces, the Government of Nepal must first commission a detailed study of the extent of women trafficking, identify the danger areas in the Nepali hinterland and then work in concert with international and national voluntary agencies to provide alternative avenues for economic survival in those areas. For those who return from the brothels of India, Nepali society should be made more welcoming, particularly to those who come back without riches and with HIV/AIDS. Within Nepal, there should he counselling as well as medical facilities for HIV and AIDS patients. To protect the rights of prostitutes, prostitution within the country should be legalised. Lastly, the society should look ahead to guard against expansion of prostituion, both locally generated prostitution as well as tourist-led prostitution.
Rana is a writer based in Kathmandu.