National Anti-Trafficking Day Sex Trafficking Under Our Nose
National Anti Human Trafficking Day is being marked tomorrow, September 5, in Nepal. As usual, rallies will be taken out in cities, particularly in Kathmandu, and there will be speeches or statements from authorities and organizations working to prevent human trafficking. It has been long since such awareness-raising activities have been carried out as rituals, and there is a serious question over these. Has a tangible message of such activities reached the common people or the target groups? Or are they just limited to the ‘anti-trafficking core group’? These questions and the unabated trend of human trafficking in Nepal despite efforts to prevent it point at the gravity of the issue. Those that we term as the most vulnerable out in the villages are even more clueless, undoubtedly. For them National Anti Human Trafficking Day is just another day.
We have heard a lot, for long, of Nepali girls being trafficked across the border to Indian brothels. Because of this, we may have ignored the fact about domestic sex trafficking. Now there are probably more people trafficked within Nepal than outside the country. The worst of all, a significant number of them are minors trafficked for commercial sex. It, however, does not necessarily mean that trafficking outside of Nepal has declined; on the contrary, new destinations of trafficking have been found out from the Gulf region (Middle East) to south Asia, Europe, the American continent and even Africa! We are probably worse off than ever before.
Two decades ago, sex labour in Kathmandu was exclusively based on streets; there were areas like Ratna Park in Kathmandu that were notorious for sex trade. As street solicitations became more visible, there were numerous media reports on street-based sex trade. Until then, sex workers were mostly working on their own or through a handful of pimps who would ply the streets. There are no strong evidences of sex slavery then, the sex workers included either consenting adults or those who opted for that due to severe desperation.
With media interest came police crackdown and public resistance. This actually pushed the sex trade to more ‘organized’ forms like cabin restaurants igniting the growth of current sex industry, usually referred to as Adult Entertainment Sector which serves as the façade of sex industry badly plagued by Commercial Sexual Exploitation. As the industry has grown more, it has taken a form of organized crime.
There are many who believe that Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) in this industry was further fueled in Kathmandu (initially) by internal displacement triggered by the armed conflict. Many young people (as young as 13 years) had to flee the rural areas to avoid either the forced recruitment by the Maoists or oppression by the state security agencies.
With the emergence of cabin restaurants, the facilities of Adult Entertainment Sector diversified and there came dance bars, Dohoris (evening restaurants with stage show of duet folk songs), and massage parlours. The CSE kept evolving ever after. Among most common forms of new ‘fronts’ for CSE are the Khaza Ghars literally meaning snack houses. Khaza Ghars would look like a typical snack shop, but there would be girls upstairs in an apartment, who would come down as customers enter the snack shop. In the upper floor of many Khaza Ghars, there would be rooms for physical relations.
With expansion of Adult Entertainment Sector in Kathmandu, we begin to see some specific patterns. In the touristic hub of Kathmandu in Thamel there are numerous dance bars and massage parlours that are meant to look like catering to tourists, but majority of the customers are Nepalis, some Indians and occasionally foreign tourists. In the neighborhood of Gongabu and Kalanki, in the proximity of Kathmandu’s inter-city bus terminals, there are more cabins, Khaza ghars, ale houses and guest houses. These areas have different sets of client groups. In Gongabu, the customers include travelers, transportation workers and other low income group people. This clientele group simply would not be able to afford the dance bars. Meanwhile, the street-based sex work that includes children is said to be more rampant in Kalanki.
The estimates of girls and women in the Adult Entertainment Sector vary. A report by an INGO in 2010 estimated 13,000 girls and women involved in the Adult Entertainment Sector in Kathmandu valley. Multiple studies and sources then and now agree that as many as half of the workers are under 18. Many above 18 too must have entered the sector as minors. There is also uniformity in the observation that the number of new recruits in the industry is ever increasing, the median age of the recruits is decreasing, which means number of children in the industry has ever been increasing. Similar adult entertainment facilities have now well spread to other cities of Nepal. Pokhara, Itahari and many other towns now have robust Adult Entertainment Sectors of their own and the workers in these sectors across Nepal can be said to be trafficked or are in slavery by universally accepted definitions of these terms. Speaking of the minors, sex with them even with their consent, is a crime on its own.
From frying pan to fire
As if things were not bad enough, merciless traffickers have made the Adult Entertainment Sector (AES) a recruiting ground for international sex trafficking. International sex traffickers, it seems, leverage on our AES as a training ground. This is where they come and pick the more beautiful and talented ones to traffic to adult entertainment facilities abroad. The workers once transported out of Nepal get even more displaced, out of our reach and in a situation where they cannot reach out for any assistance or rescue.
As we go through the formalities of the day, let’s think deeper of the issue. It is high time that discussions and actions against sex trafficking in Nepal took mainstream spot light. Commemorative days like tomorrow can actually make a difference, if only we try harder and if the government takes effective measures to prevent both domestic and international human trafficking.
The writer is associated with Geneva Global Inc.