- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 28, 2002

Women and young girls from Nepal have become the latest victims of one of the fastest-growing areas of international criminal activity human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

An estimated 12,000 Nepalese women are annually smuggled to India's sex industry in Bombay, making Nepal one of the largest "countries of origin" for human trafficking, according to a recent International Labor Organization (ILO) report.

An open border between India and Nepal of nearly 1,000 miles facilitates what critics call a modern form of slavery, one which they say is abetted by corrupt police.

"People crossing the border don't require passports or other forms of identification, thereby making it difficult to control trafficking of girls," Hemlal Kafle, a sociologist with American University, told a recent seminar in Washington.

In the absence of travel documentation, trafficking occurs under the very glare of police checkpoints, many times by bribing border officials, he said.

Traffickers, mostly agents of Indian brothel owners, attend local Nepalese festivals and scout for vulnerable girls whom they can sell for an average of $200 per girl.

In the majority of cases, girls 9 years old or older are trafficked across the border by these middlemen, who promise lucrative factory jobs and a big-city life to the girls' families.

Desperate to break free from poverty, the girls are sold by their fathers, brothers and uncles for a few hundred to a thousand dollars, only to end up as bonded prostitutes in India's brothels.

In many cases, parents are unaware that they are unwittingly selling their daughters to the sex trade, said Mr. Kafle at the seminar hosted by the Association of Nepalis in the Americas, an expatriate Nepali group.

"Many Nepali families are so poor that they contract their daughters to employers, not realizing that the girls will end up as prostitutes outside of Nepal," he said.

In other cases, young girls themselves fall prey to false promises made by the middlemen and take up these offers in the hope of finding better opportunities outside their remote villages.

Low levels of female literacy in Nepal are yet another crucial factor for trafficking, said Madhavi Basnet, an immigration lawyer.

"Lack of education leads to low awareness of the whole issue among women, their family members and the community as a whole," she said. "This poses problems for the girls since they are not aware of the nature of people they are talking to."

Just 27 percent of Nepalese women are literate, compared with 52 percent of men, according to recent statistics from the government of Nepal.

Trafficked girls are transported from the Himalayan kingdom's foothills to dingy Indian brothels where they find themselves trapped.

Economically handicapped, the girls depend on the brothel owner for food and clothing and are not permitted to refuse customers.

Once sold to brothels, each girl is "forced to serve an average of 14 clients per day, with a minimum of three and a maximum of 40 persons," according to the ILO report.

The younger girls fetch more money and are made to work longer hours by brothel owners, who want to recoup the amount they paid for these girls, the report says.

Trafficked girls and women are also frequently resold to other brothels to increase profitability for the owners, the report says.

Studies reveal that Nepalese girls in Indian brothels live in perpetual fear of imprisonment and are beaten, not just physically, but they also endure extreme psychological and mental abuse.

They are especially vulnerable to HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases.

"In many cases when trafficked women are tested for pregnancy, it turns out that they are infected with AIDS," said Debendra Karki of the Harvard School of Public Health.

In 2000, an estimated 72 percent of Nepalese prostitutes under 18 years old who were working in India had contracted the virus that causes AIDS, according to one U.N. report on the disease.

In the region, ignorance is so high that many Indian and Nepali men believe that sexual intercourse with young virgin women will cure them of sexually transmitted diseases.

This belief has led to increased demand for younger Nepalese girls in the age group of 8 to 12 being forced into prostitution, participants at the seminar said.

Ignorance of AIDS also leads Bombay's brothel owners to throw out women and girls who have become infected.

"When these Nepali sex workers return to their communities, often their families don't want them back and no one will marry them because the stigma [of AIDS] is so great," Mr. Kafle said.

"Therefore, the women go back to big cities and practice prostitution, giving higher probability of increasing HIV/AIDS among the common people of Nepal," he said.

Girls who are tested positive are not always told of their status either by the brothel owners or by doctors who carry out the tests.

"There is an ongoing debate in the research community if the health condition of a sex worker should be disclosed to her or not," said Mr. Karki, who addressed the issue of ethics involved in doing research among trafficking victims.

"Can researchers compromise such ethical issues for advancement of careers? As a researcher, my research should help the trafficked victims and not take advantage of their plight."

The Indian government has come under fire from human rights activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for failing to educate Nepalese women in Bombay's brothels about AIDS.

There are no official educational materials in the Nepali language to inform the Nepalese girls about the disease, according to a report by Human Rights Watch/Asia.

"There should also be better communication between NGOs across the borders," said Carol Yost of the Asia Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports local NGOs in Nepal.

"Nepali girls arrested at the borders need translators in order to understand the charges against them. They also need women advocates to protect their legal rights," Ms. Yost said.

There is no dearth of laws prohibiting trafficking in either India or Nepal.

Nevertheless, activists accuse governments in both nations of lacking the political will to tackle the problem.

"Perpetrators of this crime should be prosecuted and punished by the respective countries," Mrs. Basnet said.

International aid and human rights groups have called on Nepal to protect trafficking victims who return to Nepal from India.

The organizations have also called on the government to educate the border police force about human rights issues related to trafficking.

The organizations have appealed to the Indian government to curtail the demand for Nepalese girls in Indian brothels and to prosecute all parties involved in brothel operations.

As an added safeguard, they have also called for more Indian women on the police force to handle detention cases pertaining to sex workers.

Despite their efforts, however, trafficking continues to flourish owing to the involvement of police officials at various border checkpoints.

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