Nepali Times
Maili, Sani and Zina


Maili and Sani have both ended up in the streets of Kathmandu with many things in common: poverty, illiteracy, drug use, commercial sex work. And HIV. Yet, they come from very different backgrounds.

Maili had a comfortable childhood. Her father worked as a driver, and her mother took good care of her. But they were illiterate and did not think it was important for Maili to go to school. So she played on the streets. By the time she was ten, she had learnt to smoke and soon moved on to drugs. Maili was always short of money, so she started sleeping around with the boys. She quickly and happily discovered that the money she earned gave her freedom. The day she turned 13, Maili ran away from her home in Gokarna and began a life in the streets of Kathmandu.

Sani\'s mother died when she was one year old. Her father brought her to Kathmandu from their village in Kabhrepalanchowk district. She grew up with him, begging around the Pashupati temple. When Sani was nine, her father also died. She sought shelter at the home of one of the older men around Pashupati. He made her beg, sell and use drugs, and sleep with him. Both were soon spending all their money on drugs, leaving nothing for food and clothing. So he forced Sani to sleep with other men, and worked as her pimp. He found clients for her, pocketed the money, and gave her food and drugs. If Sani demanded anything more, he beat her up.

One day Sani was arrested for prostitution and imprisoned for six months. Ironically, Sani felt a sense of liberation in prison. After she was released, she met women like Maili and many others.

For nearly ten years now. Sani and Maili have been working the streets of Kathmandu. They hang around the footpaths of Ratna Park, Jamal, Old Bus Park and Thamel. One thing there is no shortage of in Kathmandu: men looking to buy sex.

There are clients everywhere, on the streets, in the parks, in discos and in dance restaurants. Sani, Maili and three other friends work exclusively in the Ratna Park area. They don\'t encroach upon other sex workers\' territory. Sani is not considered good-looking and rinds it more difficult to get clients and spends most of the time baby-sitting for her friends while they work.

Maili finds her work risky. She often encounters clients who abuse her. They avoid policemen, who do not sleep with the drug-using sex workers but demand bribes instead. Many clients refuse to wear condoms, endangering themselves and often making the girls pregnant. Maili is not sure who the father of her son is, but it doesn\'t matter to her since she really loves her little boy.

The girls are "on call" at all times of day or night. There are clients early in the morning, at mid-afternoon, midnight and beyond. Usually they are tarkariwalas (vegetable vendors), garment workers, local shop owners and students. Their daily income varies (from Rs 300-1500) depending on the nature and number of clients.

Occasionally tourists pick them up, and this can be very opportune. Some tourists like to take two or three girls at a time. Even Sani sometimes gets to join in and make some money.

It is difficult to please the foreigners because they force the women to perform unusual sexual acts. However, they pay very well, as much as Rs 2,000 an hour. But the "real" money is made by stealing.

Maili and Sani were picked up by a Japanese man two months ago and were taken to a lodge in Bagh Bazar where he was staying. While Maili distracted him, Sani grabbed his bag and both fled. Later, they shared Rs 5,000 and about $I00 between them. They threw away the travel cheques because they "looked like bank drafts".

There are about 10,000 sex workers in Kathmandu. More than 17 percent of them are HIV positive. They service an average of three clients a day, mostly Kathmandu men in their 20s and 30s who are married or have other partners, but refuse to wear condoms.

For Maili and Sani, life is a daily struggle to feed themselves and the children. With HIV and medical bills, it is getting more and more difficult to earn enough to live.

Zina is 16 years old. She likes to talk and laugh, listen to music and dance. Now and again, when she is alone. Zina is riddled with fear and guilt and she breaks down and weeps.

She was barely eight and living in a rented room in Narayanghat when she was sold by one of her stepmother\'s relatives. A man whom her mother called "mama\'\' (maternal uncle) often visited their place. One evening she was asked to travel to Nepalgunj with \'mama\' to supposedly take care of an infant. Instead she landed up in Bombay.

"I was left with a fat woman we called Didi, who asked me to bathe and wear nice clothes. I was told that I\'d been bought for fifty thousand rupees," says Zina.

She worked 14 hours a day along with 15 other girls kept in an old house with five rooms. Other girls at the brothel could go to the movies but she was too young, so the madam, Nitu Tamang, would hide her under a bed.

She spent three miserable years with Nitu Tamang before being sold again to Tara Tamang from a brothel known as \'Pila House\'. By then, she was weak and sick and became sicker at the second brothel. She stayed there for a year and was eventually rescued along with nine other girls by an activist group called Deunar.They were kept at a shelter in Bombay where she developed severe fever and pain on one side of her body. She had to be hospitalised for a month. A doctor told her that she was HIV positive. She didn\'t know-much about this disease, and she didn\'t care either.

Zina remembers she had two brothers, but doesn\'t know where they are. The Nepali activist group, Maiti Nepal, sent letters to her stepmother but received no response. So she has chosen to spend the rest of her days at the Maiti hospice in Kakarbhitta in eastern Nepal.

The centre is near the India-Nepal border. Zina and her friends grow rice and other crops in the nearby fields. "I don\'t like to go to anywhere and I don\'t want to meet my stepmother and the others, but I miss my brothers. I will stay here till I die," says Zina who has witnessed the death of one of her friends at close quarters.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)