01 January, 1999

NEPAL: Debating the Difference Between Trafficking and Prostitution

Trafficking - the selling of women and children for
monetary profit, most often leading to bonded
prostitution - is one of the most visible topics in
South Asia. The media is saturated with stories of
women and children sold into sex slavery, where they
are deprived of their most basic human rights. Social
movements in the sub-continent are now actively
working with this issue.
The debates, however, still see no clear-cut division
between trafficking and prostitution. As the
phenomenon of large numbers of women working as sex
workers in urban areas continues to increase, this
issue must be taken beyond the discourses of
trafficking to include larger issues of the economics
of migration and labor and the difference between
forced and voluntary prostitution.

For our first discussion on Bol!, we have invited
Meena Poudel, the Programme Coordinator of Oxfam Nepal
and a longtime activist, to discuss what the South
Asian activist networks have been doing on the issue.
We invite you to write and ask Meena questions and
respond to her comments.

Meena recently initiated a debate in a public forum
about the difference between trafficking and
prostitution that was answered with polemic by a
high-profile journalist in two Nepali national
newspapers. In the articles, he accused international
non-governmental organizations and individuals working
within them of acting as agents of trafficking due to
their positions regarding prostitution.
The choices of most Nepali women are perceived as so
limited that the idea of "voluntary" prostitution is
considered a paradox. People fear that
decriminalization and legalization will lead to
massive numbers of women who will have little choice
but to engage in sex work. As the recent response
indicates, the difficulties of addressing this issue
reveal that prostitution is still a long way from
being seen as an issue of work and health.
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Welcome to Bol!
Is poverty the main cause of trafficking?

Trafficking is due not only to poverty, but has
underlying political causes as well. The recent
market-oriented liberalization and privatization
policies of the Nepali government have opened up labor
markets and stimulated trafficking. The move towards
privatization, which started in 1987, has accelerated
since 1993. This has led to active recruitment of
women by overseas labor companies.

In a recent case, a Hong Kong labor company applied
for 300 girls under 25-years old who are semiliterate.
This demand was sent to the Labor Department! But
after the international Women's Conference in Beijing,
even governments have become aware. Fortunately, the
Labor Department sent that order to the Women's
Ministry, which halted the order.

The scope of trafficking is expanding, and not only
for purposes of prostitution. Women from South Asia
are now going as far as Eastern Europe as well as to
neighboring Burma, Thailand and the Philippines.
However, they still are primarily being contracted by
labor companies and taken to Japan, Korea and Saudi
Arabia, where they might work as domestics or factory
or factory workers.

Do the women recruited by these companies go of their
own free will, or are they being trafficked?

In the Nepali context, the phenomenon can principally
be considered trafficking. Even when the women go
through employment agencies, they don't know where
they are going, what they are going to do, how much
money they will be paid, or for how long. They don't
know. Finally, they end up in brothels, where there is
no way to escape. The end up in sex slavery.

Even if they want to come back, they cannot. Some
women manage to escape and come back but they are not
accepted by their community. Often, they have to
return or take up prostitution in their home country.
So is this really prostitution? Is it real
trafficking? The question is complex.

How do you define 'trafficking'?

We look at a number of factors when we decide whether
a person was trafficked: had she been told where she
would be going? Was she told what she would be doing ?
How much she would be getting paid for it? Is she
getting money paid for her work? Can she leave when
she wants to? Does she have the travel papers in her
hands?

What are the laws in Nepal regarding trafficking?

They have the Muluki Ain which says prostitution is
prohibited, and trafficking is a crime. But the legal
system doesn't support women - it supports the
traffickers. The law demands a lot of evidence that
women in this society cannot provide. Harassment by
the police and government lawyers doesn't encourage
women to resist. The police often use this opportunity
to rape them.

In addition, most women in Nepal cannot read or write,
and often the government officials assigned to help
them falsify documents in order to get commissions.
There's a lot of political corruption. They charge
high rates, even for women who have been rejected by
their families. Women cannot pay that amount of money
for lawyers and people who help to write the
applications. There are no standard fees.

What connection do you see between health and
decriminalization?

Prostitution has always been connected with
exploitation of female labor. Historically, women's
bodies have been sold by political powers. In Nepal,
trafficking has become a highly profitable business,
with high-profile political connections.

With decriminalization and legalization, prostitution
will be valued as labor that has to be paid. As soon
as it stops being a question of crime and starts being
a question of labour, we can turn the debate to
questions of rights, good working conditions,
sanitation, clean drinking water, medical care.

The Nepali government released statistics that said
that more than 51% of HIV/AIDS cases in the country
are linked to prostitution. With legalization, women
will have easier access to medical care; they will not
be perceived as criminals, raped by the police,
shuttled bad and forth from one organization to
another. But unless sex work is seen as work, things
will not change. The government remains unconcerned
about labor conditions abroad and at home...

Many people in Nepal are afraid that if you legalize
prostitution, it will come to be seen as the only job
option for many women who are not employed in a formal
economy. What are your thoughts about that?

We're not saying let's legalize all of the sex
industry, but make sure that there are certain
mechanisms that assure that women who are already
working in this sector get paid for their work, have
the right to work without getting harassed by the
police, the clients and the brothel-owners. If women
in this business have no other alternative, then they
should be allowed to continue, without police
harassment or state intervention.

There should be mechanisms to secure fair wages, their
social security, the future of their children. There
should be mechanisms to insure that they can get legal
citizenship. If families are not willing to recognize
these women as their daughters, how can they get
citizenship? The country should be responsible for
this situation. If they say, these are our citizens,
then they should have citizen's rights.

What steps have been taken at the regional level about
this issue?

India plays a vital role in South Asian politics
through SAARC. It dominates all of South Asian
politics. Nepali, Bangladeshi and Pakistani women are
trafficked to India, and again through India they are
trafficked to Eastern Europe and Saudi Arabia. India,
therefore, is both a receiving country and a transit
country.

We finally managed to get to SAARC included in the
Ninth Summit in Maldives in 1997. We met all the
leaders and got them to add an article about
trafficking to their convention. They finally decided
it was in their official agenda.

What steps are you taking at the international level?

We have three proposals. One is a regional court to
deal with the issue. Because trafficking is a
cross-border issue, one country can't deal with it.
Another is a regional convention: international
conventions are not working here, so we're calling for
a South Asian one. The drafting process of that
convention has already been initiated by an NGO from
Bangladesh, the Resistance group. We are asking SAARC
to hold a conference to draft the convention on a
regional level. The third proposal is to initiate
bilateral talks between country of origin and
receiving countries.

Meena Poudel, a Nepali activist, has a long history of
working for women's rights. She has been a member of
the Asian Women's Human Rights Council, where she
participated as a member of the task force on the
prevention of trafficking in women. She has worked as
an advocate against trafficking at the regional level
and has been active in many related activities in
South Asia. She is also a member of a South Asian
network, Resistance, based in Bangladesh.

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