Inconvenient truth

The ongoing stir in Kathmandu of Badi women from western Tarai has brought the world’s oldest profession into focus. Badi women have jumped on to the bandwagon of countless agitations that followed the April Uprising. They descended on the capital in dozens, and have been protesting for the past week in various ways, including their novel “semi-nude” demonstration in front of Singhadurbar last Wednesday. They have threatened to protest by stripping off fully if their demands are not addressed. In yesterday’s demonstration outside Singhadurbar, more than a dozen Badis were injured in police baton-charge. They are demanding an alternative to the sex trade they live by. They want the government to give them land and their children free education. A number of Badi women, though unmarried, have children and, in many cases, the fraternity of their children has remained unknown.

The government ought to do what it can to rehabilitate the willing among the Badi sex workers in other more respectable occupations. Badis are a special community with a history, many of whom have plied their trade as something of a tradition handed down from one generation to the next. After all, they have been doing nothing different from what tens of thousands of other girls or women across the country are doing — selling sex willingly, under compulsion or under coercion. There is no clear-cut legislation on prostitution. The law has neither recognised prostitution as legal, nor categorically made it a punishable activity with clear penalties. That is why those arrested on prostitution charges are booked under the Public Offences Act. The accused are released soon, often after some time in police cells. This state of affairs has gone on for decades. In this legal vagueness, malpractices have flourished against women. And these malpractices often happen to be more punishable than the accused women’s offence.

Sadly, others often go unpunished while sex workers find themselves at the receiving end. This state of affairs must end. Unscrupulous policemen often take undue advantage of the fact that female sex workers are on the wrong side of the law. Besides, many others also play on these women’s vulnerability. As tens of thousands of the “weaker sex” continue to receive ill-treatment at the hands of men, and even women who live off their earnings, it is deplorable that clear legal provisions do not exist. This profession has existed from time immemorial in the most regimented regimes as well as in deeply theocratic societies prescribing harsh punishment for the sin. So, unsurprisingly, this trade goes on, perhaps even more briskly, in societies that are more tolerant. On top of that, prostitutes also fill a biological, and some say, a social need. These realities call for a clear law for governing the profession. It would appear sensible to consider permitting the willing to practise it, of course, with reasonable restrictions and safeguards. And these safeguards should include a legal deterrent against anybody else who may try to exploit women for their selfish ends.