Sex is cheap on Nepal's highways. Demand is high, but it's the supply side that pays the price. Hundreds of women and young girls are risking their health and lives in the poorly paid but highly exploitative trade.
Poverty is the push factor here, but there are also other reasons that drag women into the trade. Renuka's is a typical story. Married off at the age of 13 to a widower 20 years older than her, she lost her husband when she was 21. As a young widow, she was watched closely so she wouldn't inflict the insult of "infidelity" upon her dead husband. Her life changed four years later-at 25, she eloped to a highway township along the Hetauda-Narayanghat section of the East-West highway on the border with a truck driver, a man already married once with a son. Renuka's second husband died when his truck collided with a bus three years ago. She was left with two children-a daughter of her own and a son from her husband's first marriage-and no source of income.
"Nobody respects a widow, for them a widow is as cheaply available as a prostitute," she said in unprintable language, giving vent to her disgust. "It was not even a month after his death that my husband's colleagues suggested to me that I have sex for money." Renuka sold her family home and held out against these suggestions for as long as the money lasted. Now she is active in the sex market, and uses her teashop beside the highway as her point of contact with new clients. Her combined income from the teashop and the trade ranges between Rs 3,000 and Rs 4,000 a month. She sets aside Rs 1,600 towards rent and electricity, and the rest goes for food and clothing.
Several of Renuka's neighbours are commercial sex workers (CSW) as well, serving transport workers in particular, and the local farmers, who sometimes blackmail the women into giving them free sex. A little shanty town has sprung up where they live, with far too many teashops for such a deserted looking place. Most of the residents here are migrants from barren places in the central hill districts, in search of manual labour. The rest are subsistence farmers evicted from their lands by recurring monsoon floods. Local men are a pretty rare sight though as they travel to towns in search of work. But towards evening, the settlement is abuzz with drivers and their helpers flocking the teashops. "As sundown approaches, this place comes to life," says Nir Bahadur Wagle, field co-ordinator of the General Welfare Pratisthan (GWP), an NGO working with CSWs and their clients to create awareness about HIV/AIDS.
This is a market that has been created by demand. And yet the rate of payment is fixed by the clients, because the CSWs lack the confidence to fix their own rates. In general, a single sexual encounter costs anything between Rs 100 and Rs 300. Most of the sex workers here say they feel guilty about their profession. If this weren't enough, the majority also carry the trauma of having been deserted by their husbands, usually for another woman. They all seem to be haunted by pessimism about their future, as prospects for settling down again and starting new families appear increasingly impossible. It isn't just the fact of being a sex worker: they also already have dependent children. Despite the failures of their previous marriages, they seem unable to identify themselves or consider a satisfying future without a man in their lives. This works at many levels-CSWs with sons appear, at least outwardly, more secure about their future than those with only daughters.
"I was criticised and beaten by my husband for failing to produce a son. Out of sheer frustration, I took to drinking," said a childless sex-worker who lives and works in a squatter's settlement on the banks of the Narayani river. She still lives with her carpenter husband, but refuses to share her income with him-she needs it for alcohol and cigarettes. An alcoholic and a chain smoker, she realises her beauty and youth are fading away. "It's different now, my clients hesitate to pay me even Rs 50 for my service," she said.
This woman is something of an anomaly. Most home-based CSWs have little control over their income. All of their earnings are used for their families, usually controlled by a father or a brother. They claim their family is unaware of their real source of income, although they live at home with their families. They operate independently of the market, with hardly any interaction with other CSWs.
Sex workers with high mobility on the other hand often form informal networks among themselves, which they use as a forum to discuss clients, rates, and family and health problems. These CSWs are concentrated in towns and run their businesses from rented rooms and frequently, for a higher charge, they will travel with clients. This class of sexual workers approaches their clients through pimps, who are usually migrant workers-or even clients themselves, who may trade their brokering service for free sex. The hotels and lodges located in areas busy with trucks, buses and other forms of transport are the main contact points for pimps, sex workers and their clients.
A lodge near the busy Pokhara Bus Park at Narayanghat serves as a popular pick-up spot. The owner, Shalini, works as a madam, and frequently travels with select high-paying clients. "I have 11 girls on contact, and they are very mobile. But I take care to make sure that at least six of them are at my lodge at any given time," she said. "My girls are expensive but I have clients who pay well, from Kathmandu to Raxaul, and Pokhara to Kakarvitta." On "good days", a girl working for her will service up to 16 clients. Shalini says her clients are Indian tourists who can often be charged as much as Rs 10,000 for a night, or Nepali professionals like bankers and engineers, and government employees stationed away from home.
Her clients pay a fixed amount of Rs 500 for each "contact" they make at the lodge reception, which she runs herself. They can then go and pick one of "her" girls. Other brothels in the neighbourhood also rely on mobile sex workers for their business. "I provide a safe place and take my share, but I do not keep track of the girls," says a 65-year-old former sex-worker who is now a madam, targeting mainly low-paying clients like transport workers, low-ranking policemen and manual workers.
The highway towns in east Nepal are also witnessing a boom in commercial sex. ABDA, an NGO run by medical professionals working for HIV/AIDS awareness, estimates that there are 750 CSWs in its project areas of Sunsari, Morang and Jhapa. And many of the lodges at border towns like Kararvitta not only provide sex for their guests, but even arrange week-long package tours on behalf of their regular Indian customers. On these trips CSWs travel to Siliguri, Darjeeling and Sikkim in India and to tourism hubs in mid-west Nepal like Pokhara.
Although some of the town-based sex workers are now habituated, in some sense, to their profession and remain in the trade for extra money to buy luxuries, a majority are driven to prostitution by broken families, alcoholism and other addictions. Research conducted by the AIDS and STD Prevention Network in 1993 revealed that over 50 percent of Kathmandu-based sex workers had only a "moderate" relationship with their families-that is, they visited their families, usually subsistence farmers constantly short of food, only occasionally.
The Behavioural Surveillance Survey in the Highway Routes of Nepal, conducted by New ERA, a Kathmandu-based research institute, identifies migrant workers, policemen and soldiers who are frequently stationed far from home, and highly mobile transport workers as the major part of the CSW clientele. According to the study, about half of all truckers and 15 percent of migrant labourers regularly visit CSWs in Nepal, and five percent travel to Indian border towns as well for sex. The researchers assume that their 'high-risk' behaviour can pose a threat to public health through the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), since most CSW clients also maintain regular sexual contact with their wives and female friends.
Public awareness about HIV/AIDS, and also the use of condoms as prophylactic measures has increased, but sex workers and their clients remain at high risk. New ERA's research found that regular condom use during encounters with sex workers had jumped to 51 percent among truck drivers last year, up from 33 percent ssin 1997, and 32 percent among migrant workers, up from 23 percent in 1997. But it isn't all rosy-data also shows that sex workers remain at higher risk than their clients, due to lower levels of awareness, and the common perception that only men are protected by condoms. Last year, only 40 percent of sex workers said they used condoms consistently. Alcoholism among sex workers is seen as another reason for relatively low levels of condom use.
"Awareness about the use of condoms has definitely increased, but they are not aware that by having multiple partners they are risking their health," said Meena Neupane of GWP.