An Open Secret: Sex Trafficking in Nepal

Publication Date

An Open Secret: Sex Trafficking in Nepal

Publication Date

 KATHMANDU, NEPAL -- “Be alert! You might be sold and your life ruined,” warns a poster hanging on the wall of Maiti Nepal, one of seven nongovernmental organizations working to prevent human trafficking and providing rescue and rehabilitation services to women and girls who have been trafficked and sold into prostitution.

The big, bright room at the center of the Maiti Nepal offices is adorned with posters, pictures and slogans that aim to build awareness about the unrelenting problem of female sex trafficking in Nepal. Today, there are tables and chairs set up on the right side of the room where two officers are busily providing information to the center’s many visitors. In the opposite corner a large bookshelf is neatly packed with books, most about the horrors human trafficking. A ceiling fan was whirls incessantly, distributing cool air throughout the room.

Geeta Tamang, 24, a petite woman with a round face, almond shaped eyes and a wide smile enters the room with a tray of tea for the visitors. Tamang has lived and worked at Maiti Nepal since 1997 when she was rescued from a brothel in the Indian city of Pune.

Tamang, who is from Nuwakot, a neighboring district of Kathmandu, was sold into the sex trade when she was 10 years old. She was forced to work as a prostitute for more than four years before a team of investigators from Maiti Nepal rescued her.

From the start, Tamang led a troubled life, but she says she never dreamed she would end up in a brothel.

Tamang was the only child born to a blind mother and an ailing father, who died when she was three years old. Poverty and her mother’s condition left Tamang to bear the responsibility of providing for her family. She says that as a small child she used to work as a daily wage laborer in her village. Neighbors employed her with petty tasks like fetching grass for cattle, firewood, water and other household chores. For this, she was paid with rice and other daily essentials.

When Tamang was 10, her mothers’ sister, Laxmi, visited the village. Laxmi told the young Tamang that little girls shouldn’t have to work so hard. She assured her that Tamang could work less and earn better wages in Kathmandu. Tamang was thrilled by the idea of living the city life. She fantasized about riding buses and she hoped her aunt would buy her fancy clothes and give her food and shelter. Tamang said her mother also hoped for more for her daughter, so she sent her with her aunt, hoping she would have a chance at a better life.

With excitement, Tamang followed Laxmi to Kathmandu. “But my aunt tricked me,” she says. “She sold me to a brothel in India.”

“My aunt said we would reach Kathmandu after a few days. But on the fourth day, I was taken into the brothel,” she recalls. Her body swelled with emotion as she recalled her first days in the Indian brothel. “I trusted her blindly thinking she is my kith and kin, but she ruined my life by selling me there,” Tamang says.

Every year, thousands young Nepali girls, like Tamang, are lured and sold into brothels in Bombay, Calcutta, Pune and other Indian cities. A article published by ABC Nepal, a local non-governmental organization that works against the trafficking of women, reported in 2003 that there were as many as 200,000 Nepali women taken to India and forced into the sex trade every year. A 2007 report from Child Workers in the Nepal Concern Center said that the number of young girls, between the ages of 10 and 16, trafficked into the Indian sex trade was as many as 7,000 annually.

With three open crossing points along the southern border of Nepal, coupled with India’s booming sex trade, it is no wonder that at least half of the 200,000 women trafficked out of Nepal end up in Bombay alone. The other half end up in other major Indian cities. According to an article published in the August-September 2005 issue of the Nepali magazine Himal, the demand for Nepali women is high in Indian brothels as clients are said to favor their fair complexion, soft nature and unique beauty.

Brothels typically pay as much as $1,700 for a beautiful Nepali woman, who can, according to the Himal article, earn brothel owners upwards of $50,000 over five years, the average work span of a prostitute.

Of course, the women in the brothels don’t see any part of their earnings. Tamang says brothel clients pay the owner for fixed increments of time before meeting the girls. She says she was never told how much a client paid for her. When clients would tip her extra money after sex, Tamang says it was taken from her. “No matter how many clients I had sex with, I never got a single penny. When some clients used to give me extra money, Didi [the brothel owner] used to search my wardrobe and take it from me,” she adds.

Trafficking Nepali women across the border to India for sex work is an open secret. The shocking frequency has made the reality of trafficking almost commonplace.

Like so many others, Tamang’s journey to an Indian brothel was tragic, but also typical. In 2000, a United Nations study reported that women are most often sold into Indian brothels with the lure of promising a better life.

When Tamang and her aunt reached Pune, she was dropped off at a brothel called The Purana Welcome in the Budhabaarpet neighborhood of the city.

Tamang remembered being left with a woman addressed only as Didi, the traditional greeting for elder sister. She was told her aunt would be back for her the next day. But by the evening of the next night, it was clear Laxmi wasn’t coming back for her, “The [Didi] said, ‘You have already been sold here and now you cannot [leave] unless you pay the amount I have paid for you.’ ”

Tamang was sold for 70,000 rupees, about $1,600. “My aunt had already sold me for prostitution, but until then I didn’t even know that I was sold and for what kind of work,” Tamang says.

The reality of Tamang’s new life soon became clear. She was 10 years old, alone and living in a building with a red light constantly glowing outside.

The Purana was in a multi-level bungalow style building. Small shops with shutters occupied the ground floor. The higher floors were made up of small, dark rooms with five or sex beds, separated by curtains. Tamang said the place was always busy, with many men coming and going at all times of the day.

Tamang cried continuously during her first days in the brothel. She soon met many other Nepali women who had also been sold there. The brothel had more than 70 women, at least 40 were Nepali.

During her first days at the Purana, Tamang tried to escape, but was unsuccessful. When she was caught the first time, the Didi beat her and locked her in a room without food for days. She said she tried to escape again and again, but never managed to because the brothel was heavily guarded.

Tamang said she continued to rebel against the Didi and refused to accept her new life. For her rebellion she was beaten and tortured. Tamang said she finally chose to accept her new life after the Didi brought a group of five men into her room. They held her down and gang raped her until she fainted.

When she awoke, the Didi told her she would be raped again and again until she agreed to comply with the customer’s wishes and the Didi’s demands. “I finally knew I couldn’t win the battle. I realized I had no other option but to resign to my fate,” she says.

From her eighth day in the Purana Welcome brothel, she was trained on how to satisfy the customers. The Didi taught her how to have sex, oral sex and to stimulate her clients by touching and fondling them. She was asked to persuade her clients to use condoms, but not to pressure the ones who did not want to use one.

At the Purana, her day started at 11 a.m. and ended late at night. She lived in a small room that she shared with six other women. Clients would come into the room and were allowed to choose which woman they wanted. Tamang said the dirty, flimsy curtains between the beds were pulled closed while having sex.

Like most brothel owners, the Didi at the Purana was not selective about the clients she let in. As a result, violence was common. Tamang remembered many instances of being beaten by clients. “One day, a ferocious looking man came [to my room]. He beat me and pulled my hair. He burned my hand with the butt of a cigarette,” she says, showing the scar on her right hand.

Tamang’s daily routine was torturous.

“I had to have sex with [as many as] 40 men some days,” Tamang says. “Even during the days when it was less crowded in the brothel, I had to take care of at least 15 clients.” Tamang says during periods when there were festivals in the city the brothel was overcrowded with demanding clients. “Sometimes after going to the toilet to urinate, I didn’t even get the time to put my undergarments back on before the next client entered my room,” she added.

Sickness and infections were common for the women in the brothel. “I used to have pain in my vagina while having sex with clients. It used to be painful even to urinate. If we told the Didi, we could not have sex on some days, the clients used to complain to the madam and we would be beaten. So I had to show my artificial smile and somehow satisfy the clients,” Tamang says.

Because condom use was infrequent in the brothel AIDS and pregnancy were routine. Tamang said many clients visiting the brothels refused to use condoms. And when women in the brothel got pregnant, the Didi would take them to a local clinic where she had a contact who performed abortions. After an abortion in the morning, Tamang said, it was common for those women to be forced to take clients by the evening.

According to a 2004 study done by Family Health International, 50 percent of sex workers in India are infected with HIV/AIDS. “Maiti Nepal rescues about 60 girls and women each year from India, among which 30 to 60 percent are HIV infected,” confirms Sarita Baskota, an information officer at Maiti Nepal.

Tamang lived and worked at the Purana Welcome for just over four years. She was rescued in 1997 when a team of Maiti Nepal investigators launched a rescue operation in several brothels in Pune, with the help of Indian police. The rescue team along with the police raided four brothels there. Tamang was one of the lucky ones. In all, 20 girls were rescued from brothels and brought back to Nepal after the raid. Maiti Nepal provided counseling, shelter and employment to all of the women who were rescued. The center also helped to press charges against those who were involved in girls trafficking.

After her rescue, Tamang and a group from Maiti Nepal visited her home village in search of Laxmi, with hope of arresting her for selling her four years earlier. But when they reached Tamang’s childhood home, her mother informed her that her aunt never returned to the village after she took Tamang.

Law enforcement officials acknowledge that it is often difficult to press charges against traffickers, as many are family members or friends of the women they sell. Most often, studies show, traffickers promise better employment or marriage to lure young women away from their families. A UN study done in 2000 revealed, unsurprisingly, that illiteracy, poverty and family problems are the major reasons for trafficking.

According to the 1986 Human Trafficking Prevention and Control Act of Nepal, anyone convicted of selling humans are subject to 10 to 20 years in prison. And anyone caught forcing women into prostitution are subject to 10 to 15 years in prison. The law, however, has no provisions to punish intermediaries who purchase women for the purpose of trafficking.

Experts say the law is insufficient in many ways, since it lacks a provision to mandate compensation and rehabilitation for trafficking victims.

Under pressure from local and international NGOs, the interim parliament in Nepal, which has been in power here since January 2007, passed the New Human Trafficking Control Act on July 18, 2007. In this act, prostitution and trafficking are further criminalized and provisions are made for awarding compensation and rehabilitation to victims. Advocates agree that the new law includes other important additions, like more stringent punishment to the public officers who help in trafficking. Research has shown that local police are often complicit in assisting traffickers.

While the new law is a positive step toward addressing the problem of human trafficking in Nepal, the law alone does not guarantee that the problem of trafficking will be resolved, especially as enforcement resources are minimal. Women’s rights activist and member of parliament representing Nepal Communist Party, Urmila Adhikari says, “We had [an] anti-trafficking law in the past, but it failed. The fate of new law will also be the same if it is not enforced effectively.”

As human trafficking has emerged as one of the most pressing and devastating human rights issues in Nepal over last decade, government officials, advocates and police agree that legal enforcement has not been effective. Anti-trafficking campaigners say the human trafficking act is one of the most poorly enforced laws in Nepal. According to the women's police cell, a wing of police department that investigates and prosecutes crimes against women, 128 people involved in acts of trafficking were arrested between 2006 and 2007. Among those, police filed charges in only 97 cases. In the previous year, 393 cases were filed, 243 of which are still under investigation. Since 2005, an estimated 400,000 women have been trafficked to India and only 87 people have been penalized for acts of trafficking. The court dismissed 60 cases in 2007.

Yuvraj Sangroula, a local attorney and director of the Kathmandu School of Law, says, “Weak Nepali laws and ineffective enforcement has served to encourage trafficking. The culprits have grown confident that the legal system will not punish them.”

Nepal is also party to dozens international legal instruments, including the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979, which strictly prohibits the trafficking of girls. However, the implementation and enforcement of these legal instruments and treaties are weak. Sangroula said he blames the lack of political will and commitment to stop trafficking. Other issues, like the open border between India and Nepal, fuel the trafficking trade. “Trafficking is very easy because of open border between India and Nepal as there is no effective mechanism to regulate the 1,740 mile open border between the two countries,” says Sangroula.

Baskota, the information officer at Maiti Nepal, agrees. She says because of the open border between the two countries there is no way to detect and apprehend traffickers as they cross into India. “Since Nepal and India share open border and no official papers are required to cross the border, the brokers take advantage [of this],” she adds.

Ritu Raj Bhandari, the joint-secretary of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare in Kathmandu, said the trafficking of girls is a disgrace to the whole nation. He realizes that the government has not been able to do much to help solve the problem. “Government lacks enough budget, manpower and enforcement mechanisms to implement the laws,” he says.

Publicity around the issue of human trafficking is increasing, as are the number of organizations dedicated to achieving an end to it.

Still, the reality of trafficking remains grim. Even with tougher laws and international pressure, trafficking is a major source of income here and penetrating trafficking networks can be almost impossible. Officials at Maiti Nepal say traffickers work in highly sophisticated networks of organized crime. Many women are sold by their families into complex trafficking rings, so it is often difficult to pinpoint the source of a sale. Moreover, as technology and communication systems develop, ways to lure, transport and sell victims has also changed.

Baskota says that in the past, traffickers used to mail photographs of the girls to be trafficked to brothel owners for their approval. Now, photos are commonly emailed and traffickers and brothel owners are known to communicate via cell phone and text messaging to speed up sale arrangements.

As questions over technology, enforcement and border issues remain at the forefront of the trafficking debate, many advocates choose to focus on rehabilitation instead. Tamang is one of 55 women who has been rescued from an Indian brothel and reintegrated into society by Maiti Nepal, which is funded by international donor agencies and INGOs.

But even rehabilitation statistics are bleak. Research indicates that as many as 40 percent of women rescued from brothels return to prostitution because they are shunned by family and society.

Experts and advocates say that rehabilitation for trafficked victims will go a long way toward decreasing social stigma, increasing awareness and changing the quiet acceptance of the problem.

Tamang, who has been out of the brothel for 10 years now, says her life is finally getting back on the right track. “After spending a hellish four years and losing everything I had, I am now back,” she says. Today Tamang says her life is dedicated to giving voice to other victims “Many other women like me are still being victimized and their pains remain unheard of.”

Originally published 2007, PIWDW