What do you say to a prostitute who has been gang raped by 22 men in a field behind a police station in Biratnagar and left bleeding, unconscious and dying? What do you say to a fourteen year old girl who has been trafficked and sold to a brothel in Mumbai, and forced to have sex with an ill client, while pinned to the bed by four other prostitutes because the client believes that he will be cured of HIV/AIDs if he has sex with a virgin? What do you say to a woman working as a prostitute in Mumbai when she states that she would rather die of HIV/AIDs in Mumbai then of hunger in the hills of Nepal?
These women/girls mentioned above are not fictitious characters, but individuals I met while conducting a research on Nepali prostitutes in Nepal and India. These stories highlight the physical brutality and sexual exploitation they have lived through, and simultaneously draw attention to other Nepali women who continue to relive these nightmares each day, whether it is in the brothels of India, as domestic maids in a middle class residence somewhere in the Middle East or in innocuous homes or ‘massage’ parlors, bars and clubs in Kathmandu and other parts of Nepal today.
So who are these prostitutes you may ask? Frequently, the prostitutes I met were young and poor women, child brides, co-wives (sauta) or young widows from both rural and urban Nepal— some who had left their homes and communities in search of a better life in Kathmandu, some who had been lured by ruthless traffickers and pimps and still others, who had been abducted and sold by acquaintances and in some cases, by total strangers. Prior to becoming prostitutes, they were women/girls who had experienced hunger on a daily basis and endured extreme physical hardships and even been victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Many of these women/girls were naive who implicitly believed the promises of heartless traffickers who pledged marriage or guaranteed them employment opportunities. They were women/girls who had been betrayed by the very people who had once shown them love and empathy and whom they had grown to trust and believe. Once sold, they had been forcefully inducted into prostitution by being locked up, starved, electrocuted, having acid poured over their bodies, being burnt with live cigarettes or brutally beaten. Unable to bear the relentless brutality and realizing they could die in the process of resistance, these women/girls had finally given in and entered prostitution.
Violence is an everyday occurrence in the lives of prostitutes. It is often aimed at instilling fear and exercising power, authority and control over the bodies of newcomers and to remind them of the dire consequences of opposition and resistance—consequences such as severe bodily injury, disfigurement and even death. However, violence against prostitutes constitutes more than physical injury and the ‘breaking of their will’. Violence ravages the core of the women’s/girls’ emotional and psychological spirit. It sinks them into deep depression, makes them suicidal and causes them to turn to drugs and alcohol to escape their daily nightmare. It destroys the essence of who they are. It transforms gullible women/girls into ‘highly sexualized’ and dehumanized individuals for society to exploit, denigrate and ostracize, thus turning them into ‘socially dead’ individuals.
The National Human Rights Commission (Rastriya Manav Adhikar Aayog) believes that the human rights of every Nepali should be based on the notion of “dignity, equality and justice for all”. So what does being treated with dignity, equality, justice and respect mean? It means that all human beings—irrespective of caste, class, creed or gender—are ideologically equal, and free to live their lives in the way that most upholds their sense of social and moral worth. Likewise, from a humanist perspective, it means that every individual has the right to food and shelter, healthcare, physical safety and social respect. And most importantly, from a feminist perspective, it means that every woman has the right to sexual freedom, sexual security and sexual dignity.
Yet, when we consider the lives of Nepali prostitutes, this ‘right’ is violated and breached time and time again based on ideas of the prostitutes’ sexual promiscuity and immorality. What gets overlooked in this judgmental evaluation is the fact that most of the prostitutes did not willingly choose this profession. Ironically, from a social and a moral perspective, patriarchal Nepali society does not judge or condemn the men who seek sexual services of prostitutes. In fact, it condones men’s sexual promiscuity and licentiousness as proof of their sexual virility and manliness.
Violence is routine occurrence, aimed at instilling fear and exercising control over their bodies, ravaging the core of their emotional and psychological spirit.
According to a report released by the United Nations’ crime-fighting office in early May this year, over 2.4 million people around the world are trafficked each year, of which 80 percent are exploited as sex slaves. Likewise, 70 percent of all prostitutes working in the brothels of India are Nepali, and depressingly, the numbers of women/girls entering the sex industry within Nepal is also on a steep rise. While one has to laud the work done by non- government organizations such as Maiti Nepal, ABC/Nepal, WOREC to name just a few, the Nepal government’s pledge to end trafficking and the dreary plight of prostitutes seems to lack propulsion, political will and commitment. Therefore, when important political figures like Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai make speeches pledging to end gender violence and to uplift the status of all Nepali women (Nepalnews, April 3, 2012), these assurances mean nothing more than hollow political promises.
It is the contractual responsibility of the Nepal government to fight hunger, poverty, illiteracy and to promote justice by protecting the rights and dignity of each Nepali citizen. Irrespective of our social status and gender identity, we all have a moral obligation to raise our collective voices against the abuse and exploitation of all women (and men), and especially the socially marginalized prostitutes. To remain silent and to disregard the plight and abuse faced by Nepali prostitutes makes each of us complicit in their continued oppression and in the process, we lose our own humanity.
(The word “prostitute” has been used instead of the word “sex worker” in this article because the word “worker” from a basic Marxist feminist perspective means she gets paid or remunerated for their labor. However, in the case of the Nepali prostitutes, their earnings are misappropriated by pimps, brothel owners and family members).
The author is a social anthropologist currently living in Los Angeles