Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Population

NEPAL: Girls ‘Rescued’ from Brothels in Limbo in Bombay

Ramyata Limbu

KATHMANDU, May 9 1996 (IPS) - On the night of Feb. 5, Indian police in Bombay raided a series of brothels and ‘rescued’ 456 sex workers. Among them were 218 women from Nepal, the youngest 14, the oldest 30 years.

The Nepali women and girls are still in protective custody, two of them have died, reportedly of complications from AIDS. The Nepal government seems to feel no pressure to bring them home, and the Indian authorities do not want to let them go back to the red light district.

The raid was seen as an attempt to check India’s ballooning sex industry, and an impending AIDS epidemic that it helps create.

There are an estimated 100,000 sex workers in Bombay alone, nearly half of them are estimated to be HIV positive.

Bombay is an AIDS time bomb, and police have started raiding dens in an effort to weed out HIV carriers. Prostitutes from various parts of India are sent home, but the Nepali women are caught in a diplomatic tangle.

“This is only an excuse to send back Nepali sex workers infected with HIV/AIDS,” says Anuradha Koirala, a social worker in Kathmandu.

Indian prostitutes in Bombay, many of them HIV positive have been sent back to their villages by charity organisations as a cheap way of getting rid of HIV.

Two months in detention, 17 of the Nepali girls, most of them minors, have sent an SOS letter to voluntary groups here to help repatriate them. At present they are being housed in Bombay’s social institutions as they wait for the Nepali government to respond to the Indian government’s request to repatriate them. It is not known how many of the girls have tested HIV positive.

About half of the women and girls in Bombay’s notorious brothels are from Nepal: they are preferred by Indian clients for their exotic “Mongoloid” looks and fair skin. Many of the girls are cajoled, coerced or forced into what activists call sexual slavery.

There have been cases where the girls have actually been sold to middlemen by their impoverished Nepali parents.

Once at the periphery of the AIDS epidemic, women are now the centre of concern, their sexual and economic subordination fueling the AIDS epidemic in South Asia. The region is expected to have seven million HIV cases by the year 2000 and will overtake Africa in the number of new cases per year by that time.

“The root of the problem lies in our social, economic and political set up that force our girls into prostitution in India,” says social worker Koirala. Over the years a handful of girls have been rescued from India with help from police and human rights groups, but never in such a large number.

The government in Kathmandu, meanwhile, seems paralysed with indecision about what to do with the Nepali women. Even though voluntary organisations have offered to help, officials seem worried about the precedence repatriation will set, and what to do with large numbers of HIV carriers returning.

“The girls have a right to return to Nepal, as they are Nepali citizens, but we need to think about rehabilitation. That is going to be difficult and costly,” says Gopendra Bahadur Pandey from Nepal’s Home Ministry.

What is left unsaid is that the government doesn’t want AIDS carriers back. But women’s groups and human rights activists here say thousands of Nepali sex workers will be returning from India every year with HIV anyway, and they say the government needs to get its policy together to cope.

The recently formed, but under-funded, Women and Social Welfare Ministry seems unable to make a decision on its own. The Foreign and Health and Interior ministries are looking for a solution, but after two months haven’t been able to come up with any ideas.

“The government seems to be hoping that the girls, like the AIDS threat will just quietly go away,” said one frustrated volunteer.

Admitting that most government programmes are geared towards protection rather then rehabilitation, Dr Bikash Lamicchane of the government’s AIDS and STD Control Project sees a need to reframe heath priorities.

Since the first AIDS case was diagnosed in Nepal in 1988, the official total for HIV positives is 349. Out of them 49 have

developed AIDS and 20 have died. WHO estimates the number to be up to 10,000 HIV cases in 1995. Sex workers, their clients, housewives and migrant workers are most vulnerable.

And while NGOs mean well, they are not sufficiently equipped.

“Rehabilitation doesn’t just mean a place to stay, food, clothes,” says Sister Roselyn a social worker from Bombay. “The institutions where the girls were taken were unprepared for the large number of sex workers and were overwhelmed by the anger and aggression of the girls who were in a state of panic.”

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