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NEPAL: Sex Workers Demand a Place in the Constitution

Sudeshna Sarkar

KATHMANDU, Jul 12 2011 (IPS) - Every time Bijaya Dhakal goes out to meet people and tell them what she does for a living, the simple task becomes an act of courage requiring nerves of steel. Dhakal is the founder of Nepal’s first and only organisation of women sex workers now trying to make the state and society listen to a community long hushed by poverty and discrimination.

Sex workers in Kathmandu demonstrate to demand their rights. Credit: Ghanshyam Chhetri/IPS.

Sex workers in Kathmandu demonstrate to demand their rights. Credit: Ghanshyam Chhetri/IPS.

A widow who had not completed school, the 35-year-old mother of two became a sex worker after struggling to raise her family on the meagre wages she earned in a factory. For almost eight years, she led a double life, working in the capital Kathmandu and returning to her village sporadically, with her family believing she worked for a non-government organisation.

“Sex workers suffer at the hands of the police and, at times, their customers who beat them up or rob them. Yet they can’t complain because the moment people learn what they do, a change comes over them,” Dhakal says.

“Landlords throw them out, and even doctors and nurses at the hospitals loathe touching them for fear of contracting some disease. I began to wonder one day, how long can we stay hidden? If we continue to hide, how will our needs and demands be met?”

Six years ago, Nepal’s growing gay rights movement inspired Dhakal to cast aside the veil of anonymity and start Jagriti Mahila Sangh. Jagriti means awakening, and Dhakal hopes it will catalyse sex workers hidden in the 75 districts of Nepal to unite for a change in their lives.

“I saw all these male sex workers, transgenders, and people living with HIV/AIDS declaring their status in public and demanding their right to be treated like any other citizen,” she says, sitting in Jagriti’s office in Kathmandu, a three-room apartment that did not have a single stick of furniture when it opened with seven registered members.

“They gave me courage. Besides, I was tired of speaking through intermediaries who often failed to convey correctly to the state authorities and donors what we wanted,” she added.

Today, Jagriti Mahila Sangh has grown into Jagriti Mahila Mahasangh, a federation with 26 associates spanning 23 districts, mostly in eastern Nepal and the southern Terai plains bordering India. Its major donors are the U.N. Development Programme, the British government’s Department for International Development, and Save the Children.

Dhakal feels even the donors are uneasy. “They prefer working with the HIV/AIDS community over us,” she says. “They think, being uneducated, we won’t be able to manage our projects and also, what we do for a living puts them off.”

Nepal’s sex workers have a chance to be heard, with the parliament writing a new constitution slated for promulgation by Aug. 28. But Jagriti fears sex workers will be excluded from the new charter.

“No one asked us what we want,” complains Shobha Dangol, general secretary of Nari Chetana Samaj (Society for Women’s Consciousness) that is a member of the federation. “And we have no access to the lawmakers drafting the constitution.”

Security is the foremost demand. “Sex workers should be allowed to follow their trade without harassment by police,” says Dangol. “Things are so bad in Kathmandu that if you go to public parks in the evening and carry a condom in your purse, the police will arrest you. During raids, only the women are arrested while their customers are let off. The arrested women are abused and even extorted.”

Jagriti also says the government should assign red-light districts, like in Thailand, with health camps in each area. The group also wants an end to discrimination against sex workers.

Supreme Court lawyer Rup Narayan Shrestha, who works with the Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), an NGO providing legal support to Jagriti, says sex workers’ invisibility partly stems from the fact that sex work is not recognised by law.

“While the law does not criminalise the sex worker, the act of running a brothel or forcing someone into commercial sex is a punishable offence,” he says. “It is not the law that says the women should be harassed, it’s what police do. Most of the women are actually charged with being a public nuisance, which allows police to present them before the chief district officer and not the court, which would have thrown out such weak cases.”

Shrestha also argues that Nepal’s courts are considerate toward sex workers’ rights. Till 2002, the law had a discriminatory legal provision for rape. If the victim was a sex worker, the perpetrator would face a fine of 500 Nepalese rupees – about seven dollars — or imprisonment for a maximum of one year, or both.

However, FWLD founder Sapana Pradhan Malla successfully filed a public interest litigation challenging the provision before the Supreme Court. Now, all convicted rapists face a maximum 10-year jail term.

Besides rights activists, Nepal’s health experts are also urging the government to sensitise the police, especially in view of the rising incidence of HIV/AIDS.

According to Nepal’s state-run National Centre for AIDS and STD Control (NCASC), the estimated number of HIV positive people as of 2009 was a little over 63,500. Women formed 28.6 percent, out of which 605 – about one percent – were sex workers. Every year, an average of over 4,700 new infections are reported, with about the same number of deaths. The government has just conducted a new survey which puts the number of known commercial sex workers at 28,000.

“The HIV figures are just the tip of the iceberg,” says NCASC director Dr Krishna Kumar Rai. “These are the people who came forward for treatment or condoms and so their status was known. But it is likely there is a large group which has not come forward. Police raids will only serve to drive HIV positive sex workers underground. And then it will be impossible to trace or treat them.”

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