Sharing lives: A different shade

Kathmandu

Ram Kumari and Harimaya (names changed on request) are sex workers. They say they have faced domestic abuse at the hands of their husbands and they took up this life as they had no other option left. They are both in their thirties and reside in Western Nepal. The beginning Ram Kumari feels that education is important not only to answer questions about life, but for a promising and secure future. Had she realised the importance of education, she says she would not have quit studies after Class V.

With remorse in her eyes, Ram Kumari recalls how her dreams shattered, that of a happy family life. She met a man and eloped at the age of 17, but her marriage didn’t go as she had expected it to. “My mother-in-law used to fill my husband’s ears with so many things, and both of them used to beat me. They didn’t give me food to eat. I could not stand all that, so I returned to my father’s house,” she said. “As I was an only child, my parents accepted me. But it was difficult to make a living as we didn’t have any means of survival. Along with meeting the basic everyday needs, I now had the responsibility to educate my child.”

So Ram Kumari started washing clothes and dishes in her surrounding areas. The money earned from those chores did not even meet her basic needs let alone fulfil the dream of educating her child.

Then “I came in contact with other sex workers and entered the profession,” she said.

As for Harimaya, she was taken care of by her grandmothers, one of who was visually-impaired. When she turned 16, her grandmothers married her off but life didn’t go as she wished it to. Her husband married another woman, left her and their two-year-old son.

“I used to work at construction sites after my husband left me. Those who used to give wages used to ask me to come and take my wages when there would be no one else. But they gave my wages only after I had sex with them. As I had no one to turn to and had to survive, I kept silent,” Harimaya said adding, “I was sexually exploited in homes where I washed dishes. Even after working hard, if I had to sleep with men for my wages, then why shouldn’t I not just sell sex? This is how I became a sex worker.”

She married again, but her husband died of jaundice and high blood pressure. Stigma and discrimination         Selling sex is an offence and illegal. However, there are thousands of sex workers in the country. A report by the National Centre for AIDS and STD Control Teku, Kathmandu reveals that there are 92 males, 1,276 females, four transgenders — a total of 1,372 sex workers — infected with HIV as of July 2016. This is 4.8 per cent of the total cases of HIV infected group.

For those involved in this profession, it is difficult to live because they face stigma and discrimination in society. The two women have taken care to hide what they do for a living as they fear discrimination from family and society.

“I haven’t told to my children about my profession because I am afraid about how they will feel after knowing the truth,” shared Harimaya.

“People start gossiping when they see me. They utter very offensive words in public spaces. I have even been forced to leave my work (as domestic helper) once people got to know about my ‘work’,” Ram Kumari shared.

They said that even those working in the health sector discriminate against them. “When we go to health centres for check-ups, they look at us differently. They will not even listen to our problems,” shared Ram Kumari.

Harimaya has a more bitter experience. Once she became pregnant and wanted to abort the child. She went to a local health centre where the health practitioner told her that if she came to the centre again, he would rape her.

The women too are not happy in the profession they have chosen. “I drink, smoke and shed tears ... what I am doing isn’t good. I share my feelings with my friends but they start gossiping,” Ram Kumari said. Their clients But their clients are men who are considered acceptable in society. The age of their clients range from 18 years to 80 years. Both women find it difficult to handle the young men because “they come taking various kinds of drugs and it is more painful with them. And they want it for free too”.

However, some aged men come just to chat and for “a little romance”. Some clients keep coming back, while some disappear after the first time. Even those living abroad are their clients. Virtual sex happens with such clients via smartphones. Danger of multiple partners Sex with multiple partners is risky behaviour. Both are aware of infections that they might catch and visit health centres regularly. They suffer from white foul water discharge, lower abdominal pain and irregular menses, but they visit hospitals immediately. They also undergo the test for HIV every three months.

Do their clients use condoms? They answered, “People are aware about HIV infection, and when given, they use it.” But with those who refuse it, they do the “act” without using them. “The condoms break at times. So we have to test ourselves regularly,” they said.

Along with their health, their future is also at risk. They say they usually charge Rs 500-600 per client (but the rate is not fixed and they take whatever money is given to them — sometimes they are not paid at all). Their monthly earning is not fixed and both have no savings. But given an opportunity, they are willing to leave this profession.

“If I am provided training, either stitching or beauty parlour, then I would leave this profession,” said Ram Kumari.

As for Harimaya, if there is funds for her to open a shop or to work on any project that works for women’s rights, she would immediately leave this profession.

Not only their own health and future, there are problems regarding the future of their children. Birth registration of their children too hasn’t taken place.

However, Shanti Tiwari, Programme Officer of Jagriti Women Federation, Battisputali who is working to help such sex workers with their problems feels, “Selling sex is an easy way to earn money. They will say that they will leave the profession, but the day they leave the profession, they will find that they face a hand-to-mouth situation. Leaving is possible only if they can get work that gives them immediate money. Only then will they leave the profession, which I hope they do.”

Red light KATHMANDU: The authorities concerned have tried to ban sex trade, but we cannot deny that prostitution thrives in our country. And it is not going to get banned any time soon. While different countries have ‘red light’ districts for sex shops, strip clubs, adult theatres in their urban areas for sex oriented businesses, this is not the case in Nepal.

“The country has not felt the need that such areas should be separated for sex-oriented businesses. There aren’t any policies for separation of such areas,” informed Bal Krishna Panthi, focal person at Ministry of Home Affairs.

“Such acts are considered an offence. One cannot dance naked or be involved in such intimate acts in public places. At times people involved in such acts in residential areas, hotels and restaurants are arrested, and the owners too,” shared Sarbendra Khanal, Senior Superintendent of Police, at Metropolitan Police Crime Division, Teku.

If anyone is found involved in such acts, then s/he will be charged for a Public Crime offence. If proven guilty, the person will face imprisonment of one year and a fine of Rs 10,000, or a year of imprisonment, as per Yoga Raj Rajaure, Non-Gazetted First Class Officer at District Administration Office, Babarmahal.

However, the question that arises is — should there or should there not be a red light area if people are going to buy and sell sex irrespective of whether it is banned or not, or deemed illegal?