In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx viewed prostitution as a victim of the capitalist system and referred to it as a “complement” of the bourgeois family. This seems to hold true even in the context of the Badi community in Nepal, which came into existence to serve as singers or dancers at royal palaces and in the homes of feudal lords. Later, Badi women were used by these sections for sexual services against payment and it is from that practice that the Badi custom of commercial sex emanated. Today this community, which is mainly concentrated in five districts of mid and far-western Nepal—Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur and Dang—is socially and economically marginalized and oppressed.
Every study on this community points towards social ills like caste discrimination, high unemployment, sexual exploitation, a high risk of HIV/AIDS due to unsafe sex and difficulty in integrating with other communities. Recently when I visited the Badi community of Rajapur in Bardiya district, I came across similar concerns. It is clear that the community is still unable to exercise even the fundamental rights ensured by the constitution as many of them are not recognized as citizens by the state. The community’s children, knowing nothing about their father, have been treated as outcasts since for a very long time national identity depended on patriarchal lineage. However, a recent Supreme Court directive legitimizing citizenship even using the mother’s name will make it easier for this community to obtain citizenship, though its implementation at grassroots will continue to remain a challenge.
During my field trip I came across children who aspired to be doctors, social workers and teachers, but were being held back by the absence of a recognized citizenship. Getting a proper and legitimate identity is the first step towards their liberation.
Since the Badi community has a tradition of engaging in commercial sex, it can be safely assumed there would be a high HIV prevalence level. But shockingly, there is no reliable estimate of the number of HIV positive cases in the community. According to local NGOs working for the Badi community, nobody in the community has taken HIV/AIDS tests, making it impossible to give any definite number. To make matters worse, most civil society groups working for the community are failing to address root and fundamental problems and are instead making cosmetic contributions like providing hand pumps or permanent roofs to houses.
Getting a proper and legitimate identity is the first step towards the liberation of children in the Badi community.
Another issue plaguing the community is severe poverty. Most Badi women are forced into prostitution and are paid less than a dollar per customer. Untouchability is yet another problem. This community is considered to be untouchable even by Dalits, who are a traditionally oppressed group. Ironically though, Badi women are not considered to be untouchables by upper caste men when it comes to paid sexual intercourse!
Though commercial sex is illegal in Nepal, the government has been able to do little in the case of the Badi community. Shockingly, such paid sexual activities in the community generally take place in a small room, often in their own homes, where children and relatives witness the proceedings. The negative impact this has on the psychology of the children, especially young girls, does not need to be elaborated. The Badi, 1993, a study report by British scholar Thomos Cox, says Badi women enter prostitution early, as they attain puberty, and continue till they become too old to attract any customer. The only difference between Badi and other forms of prostitution is that the former is more open.
Sociologist E.B. Tylor believes that all societies have some system of hierarchy in which its members are placed in positions of superiority or inferiority. Badi society is no different. It is divided into four classes: poor, lower-middle class, middle class and rich. The poor are both homeless and landless and are usually not involved in commercial sex. The lower middle class has meager land, a small house and is partially involved in commercial sex. The middle class typically has the male family member employed in India while the women are involved in commercial sex. Finally, the rich segment possess two to three bighas of land, concrete houses, has some links with local leaders, sends their children to school and engages in commercial sex only with people belonging to higher echelons of society who pay them handsomely.
Badi women in the past have tended to avoid marriage as they generally bear their client’s children. Gradually, however, marriage is becoming a more common phenomenon in the Badi society. While an elaborate dowry system has not yet been reported, there is a custom of providing some cash to the girl’s family during the ceremony. If the need arises, the marriage can be broken in a socially acceptable manner after returning double the amount to the boy’s family.
To improve the condition and lives of Badi women, adequate legal provisions that can protect their rights are a must. Giving them an identity is the first step. Issuing legitimate citizenship to the community by recognizing the maternal lineage can be a beginning and needs to be implemented effectively. Many studies have shown that given the option of suitable livelihood alternatives, Badi women would prefer leaving prostitution. Hence, there has to be a concerted effort towards providing vocational education to women in the society as well creating productive employment opportunities. The government also needs to address the threat of sexually transmitted diseases in the community more comprehensively by designing a program to test Badi women for HIV/AIDS and other STDs.
Further, rehabilitation of sex workers and professional counseling for them is also an imperative. However, ad-hoc or uninformed initiatives are unlikely to work. The government must conduct sociological and other studies of this community to be able to comprehend the fundamental issues and determine the measures needed to rehabilitate the community and to design any comprehensive strategy or policy for it.
The author is with the Clinton Global Initiatives regarding the upliftment of Badi community of Nepal