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 near death? 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 girl? 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 I am writing about are not fictitious characters, but individuals I met while conducting research on Nepali prostitutes in Nepal and India. By recounting these stories, I am not seeking to sensationalize the experiences of the women/girls, but rather 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 and every 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” parlours, bars and clubs that abound 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, endured extreme physical hardships as they worked in the fields, walked for hours to fetch water, collect firewood and fodder for the animals and were victims of physical, domestic and sexual violence meted out by husbands, fathers, brothers, and female relatives such as mothers/sisters-in-law. Many of these women/girls were naive and trusting females who implicitly believed the promises of heartless traffickers who pledged marriage, guaranteed them employment opportunities as domestic maids, cooks, baby sitters and carpet weavers and offered them assurances of a better life in both Kathmandu and India. 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, these were women/girls who had been forcefully inducted into prostitution by being locked up, by being starved, electrocuted, having acid poured over their bodies, being burnt with live cigarettes and beaten with belts, sticks, shoes or whatever the pimp or the brothel owner could lay their hands on. Unable to bear the ongoing and relentless brutality and, realizing they could die in the process of resistance, these were the women/girls who had finally given in and entered prostitution.
Violence is an everyday occurrence in the lives of prostitutes. Violence by pimps and brothel owners is intended to “break the will” of the new recruits so that they give up any last vestiges of resistance to working as prostitutes. It is also 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 by denying their personal history and identity as somebody’s daughter, sister, wife, friend, members of our own communities and worthy citizens of Nepal. It transforms gullible women/girls into “highly sexualised” and dehumanized individuals for society to exploit, denigrate, ostracise, ignore, forget or disown and, thus turn into “socially dead” individuals.
The United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights Articles 3, 4 and 5 espouses the principles of equality based on the idea that every human being has an inalienable right to life, liberty and security and that no one can be enslaved or subjected to torture and cruel and inhuman treatment. Similarly, 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 – whether male or female, rich or poor, rural or urban, black or white, gay or straight, high caste or low caste, moral or immoral 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, immorality and social worthlessness. What gets overlooked in this judgmental evaluation is the fact that most of the prostitutes did not willingly choose this profession. Even more amazingly, from a social and a moral perspective, patriarchal Nepali society does not judge, condemn, denigrate or ostracise the men who seek the sexual services of the prostitutes nor does it subject them to violence for their sexual behaviour. In fact, it condones men’s sexual promiscuity and licentiousness as proof of their sexual virility and manliness.
According to a report released by the United Nations’ crime-fighting office in early May of 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 Nepali Government’s pledge to end trafficking and the 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 3rd 2012), these assurances mean nothing more than hollow political promises that remain just that – lofty but empty ideological objectives.
While it is the contractual responsibility of the Nepali Government to fight hunger, poverty, illiteracy and to promote justice by protecting the human rights and dignity of each and every Nepali citizen, from both a feminist and a humanist perspective, I strongly believe that, 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) but especially against the socially marginalised prostitutes. To remain silent and to disregard the plight of Nepali prostitutes and the abuses of their human rights makes every one of us complicit in their continued oppression and in the process, we lose our own humanity.
(I have used the word “prostitute” instead of the word “sex worker” in this article to elucidate the fact that the word “worker” from a basic Marxist feminist perspective means that a “worker” gets paid or remunerated for their labour. However, in the case of the Nepali prostitutes, their earnings are misappropriated by the pimps, the brothel owners and family members, thus leaving the prostitutes socially, sexually and economically exploited.)