Tue, Jun 10, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Prostitution in India hurts Nepal

Nepali women account for about 30 to 40 percent of women in India's red-light districts


Priya was just 12 when she was drugged by an aunt and dumped at a brothel in New Delhi. "I thought it was a cinema hall but then I realized they wanted me to do bad things," said the young Nepali woman, now 21, who was brought from her poverty-stricken village with the promise of a job as maid.

Priya spent the next three years in the Indian capital's red-light district where she says she was forced to have sex with "all kinds of men from 13-year-olds to old men with no teeth".

"They threatened me, saying they'd let me go if I worked for three years and earned 50,000 rupees (US$1,070) for them," Priya told Reuters. "Otherwise, they said they'd send me to a brothel in Bombay where I'd be locked in a room until I was old."

Today, she's one of a lucky few to be rescued from sexual slavery -- in fact she now works with police, saving other women from brothels. But thousands of Nepali girls are trafficked across the 1,580km India-Nepal border and sold to brothels.

Social workers say the number of girls being trafficked from Nepal has increased in recent years because of AIDS.

"There's a myth that having sex with a virgin can cure you of AIDS," said Roma Debabrata, president of STOP, a group that rescues girls from brothels.

She said some men with AIDS fork out up to 100,000 rupees (US$2,126) -- almost an entire year's starting salary for an executive -- for a virgin.

There are from 200,000 to 375,000 Nepali women in Indian brothels, according to a report the Indian non-governmental organization Prayas helped compile.

About 30 to 40 percent of the total number of women in India's red-light districts are Nepali, Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, told Reuters.

Trafficking of women from Nepal's hill communities began in the 19th century, when feudal lords recruited girls from the Helambu region north of Kathmandu to work as concubines. Owning "Helambu girls" became a mark of high social status.

Today, the practice of keeping concubines has ended but the recruitment of women continues -- only now they are sold to Indian brothel owners who like them because of their fair complexions.

"There are organized gangs and it's a multi-million-rupee trade," Nair said. "The problem is cross-border trafficking is not given the same importance as cross-border terrorism or trafficking of drugs."

Almost always the story is the same -- poor and illiterate girls as young as nine are sold by their families or lured to India with the promise of well-paid jobs as domestic or factory workers.

Once there, activists say they are sold to middlemen for US$200 to US$500 and then they must resign themselves to life as a prostitute or face gang rape and torture until they submit.

"Their spirit gets destroyed," said Nair.

A US-based non-governmental group, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, recounts the story of 13-year-old Mira from Nepal who arrived at a brothel on Bombay's Falkland Road, where thousands of women are displayed in zoo-like cages.

"When she refused to have sex, she was dragged into a torture chamber in a dark alley used for breaking in new girls. She was locked in a narrow, windowless room without food or water," the report said.

After she refused to have sex for a fourth day, she was wrestled to the floor and her head was smashed against concrete until she passed out. When she awoke, she was raped. "Afterwards, she complied with their demands," the report said.

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