Past midnight, four teenage girls huddle against the Kathmandu cold, making their way to a cheap rented room they call home.
Their eyelids are covered in bright-pink dust and lined with kohl. Their trousers are thin and their frayed jackets stretch against chests that are just beginning to take shape. Their fingers and toes are swollen with sores from exposure to extreme cold, and their colourful nail polish is chipped.
‘My father used to drink and beat my mother and me.’
Samjhana and her friend Sarita left their village in Lamjung district, with an acquaintance who promised jobs in Kathmandu.
‘We thought it might be the end to the beating and poverty,’ she said. But the unwitting girls were unprepared for the true nature of the job: they are employed as sex workers in restaurants.
‘Traffickers usually lure the village girls to the city with new clothes, jewellery, shoes – things they have never had in the village,’ said P Pradhan of Change Nepal, an organization working to combat human trafficking.
With the start of the Maoist insurgency in the mid 1990s, nearly 30,000 people became internally displaced, which was also the time sex tourism boomed in the country.
‘The village girls became an easy target for traffickers in 2003-4 when the Maoist insurgency was at its peak, as parents would send their children to the cities in exchange for a small sum of money, to protect them from the insurgency in the villages,’ Pradhan explained.
Fleeing the prospect of conscription into the rebels’ ranks, many girls who landed in the capital ended up in the teeming prostitution business masked by dance bars, where scantily-clad girls dance for the customers, and cabin restaurants, where diners eat in cubicles.
Although the girls do not feature on the menu, sex is as available as food and drink.
‘These are places where the girls undergo extreme exploitation,’ Pradhan said. ‘Forced exposure to alcohol and gang rape is not uncommon.’
Change Nepal has been offering classes to rehabilitate the girls into different vocations since 2003, including literacy and health instruction as well as psychological counseling.
Government figures put the number of dance and cabin restaurants in Kathmandu at over 1,200, employing 50,000 people. Eighty per cent of those are women between 12 and 30 years of age.
‘It’s not that I didn’t want to go to school, but I never had enough money to buy books or a school uniform,’ Sarita said. ‘My parents think I work as a maid for some rich people in Kathmandu.’
The conversation is punctuated by long silences.
‘We didn’t know what the job actually was at first, as we were told to work as waitresses,’ Samjhana said, explaining her shock when the employer and the customers began groping her.
Every month, the girls earn 5,000 rupees (66 US dollars), a large sum for many who had left home with barely a few hundred rupees. They often find it difficult to return to normal life because of social stigma.
The government recognizes the restaurants as legal because they are registered as eateries.
Police sometimes raid the establishments and make arrests, but the customers are usually released on bail, while the girls are subjected to inappropriate examinations and worse, Pradhan said.
‘Sometimes they have even been sexually abused and photographed undressed, which only makes things worse for the victim,’ he said.
According to Nepal Restaurant Entrepreneurs Association, there are around 30,000 women employed in Kathmandu restaurants, most of them illiterate. Although the association said its members do not employ women under 18, anti-trafficking activists said there are girls as young as 10 working as prostitutes.
The women’s rights organization Maiti Nepal pressured the government in 2003 to abolish cubicles in restaurants and said the girls should not be forced to drink with clients. The government formed committees to study the employment conditions in the industry and listed recommendations, but there have been big lapses in implementation.
‘We do make arrests but it is not a permanent solution,’ police officer Haribahadur Pal of the Kathmandu Metropolitan Commissioner Office said.
‘The government needs to seek a long-term solution to remove the root causes like unemployment, poverty, illiteracy and the lack of skills which trap the girls in this trade.’ (-Deutsche Presse-Agentur)