By Shilu Manandhar, Senior Reporter
ITAHARI, NEPAL — Soft morning light seeps in through the single window in the small room which Bibina Meya rents for herself and her 2-year-old daughter, Swastika.
Kohl outlines Meya’s eyes. Her lips are a bright shade of orange. Some of the color is smeared on her daughter’s cheeks.
Meya, 21, a sex worker, is preparing to meet a client in Itahari, a city about 5 kilometres (3.10 miles) from where she lives in Khanar in Nepal’s southeastern region. Itahari, host to a highway that connects Nepal and India, which share an open border, is a boom town for the sex trade. The town is a popular destination for Indian traders who want to hire prostitutes.
Meya says she has been working in the town’s sex industry since she was 14 years old. She stopped working when, in 2013, she married a man she met at the hotel where she worked. The man was not a client of her or any other sex worker. But he left when Swastika, his daughter, was three months old. That’s when Meya decided to return to the industry. She meets customers during the day, when a neighbor looks after Swastika, because she tends to the toddler at night.
She earns between 2,000 rupees ($18.71) to 5,000 rupees ($46.77) a week. That’s more than she would earn as a cleaner in a house or hotel, the only other type of work she can find. With just an eighth grade education, Meya, who lives with her daughter in a rented room, says she has few options.
“It is not because I like it, but I am compelled to do this work,” Meya says.
The sex trade is globally denounced for its ties to sex trafficking and forced prostitution, but in Itahari, a major transport hub in Nepal, the trade is booming because young girls with little education and few job options choose to work in it.
The sex trade isn’t legislated in Nepal—it’s not mentioned in the law so it is neither illegal or legal—but it is thriving, especially in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Sunsari and Kailali, says Narayan Prasad Kaphle, joint secretary of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare.
There have been no national surveys on the sex trade in Nepal, but one 2011 estimate by the National Centre for AIDS and STD Control put the number of female sex workers in the country over 26,500. Another survey conducted by Swiss relief agency Terre des hommes in 2010 estimated that between 11,000 and 13,000 girls and young women were working in the entertainment industry in the Kathmandu Valley.
Many of the girls and young women in the trade, like Meya, come from troubled backgrounds. Meya says she ran away from her home in western Nepal’s Dang district at 12 years old, after her parents separated. She went to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, where she found work in a hotel as a dishwasher, earning about 300 rupees ($2.81) a month.
Two years after she arrived in Kathmandu, a friend told her that she could earn more money by working in a factory. But when Meya agreed to the plan, the friend took her not to a factory, but to the hotel in Itahari, and left her there.
“I was scared,” Meya says. “I felt lost. The place was new and I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know what to do.”
The hotel owner gave Meya a choice: Leave the hotel, or stay and become a sex worker. After two weeks, she agreed to become a sex worker.
Meya was 14 years old.
The young teenager was popular with customers. Many men waited for spots in her schedule. There were five other sex workers in the hotel, but they were all between 20 and 25 years old. The hotel isn’t a brothel—it’s a standard place of lodging, but in addition to the ordinary services of a room in which to sleep and food to eat, the hotel also offers Meya and other sex workers, housed on site.
Meya’s story is a common one, says Bimala Malla Thakuri, president of Mahila Sahayogi Samuha, an Itahari organization that promotes awareness of the sex industry and helps sex workers get education.
In some cases, Thakuri says, the girls are even younger than 12.
Nepalese girls are popular with Indian clients, Thakuri says. Some clients pay up to 20,000 rupees ($187.07) a night.
“The sex trade generally pays well,” says Bijaya Dhakal, president of Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh, a sex workers’ federation based in Kathmandu. “The number of sex workers will keep increasing.”
Dhakal says that poverty and family problems usually drive girls and young women into prostitution. Some of the girls are barely literate, she says.
“I went to work in a hotel by choice,” she says. “I did it for money. I have to eat and I have to pay rent.”
She says she earns up to 18,000 rupees ($169) a month.
But Sunita Danuwar, founder and executive director of Shakti Samuha, an organization that fights sex trafficking, says girls who enter the sex trade before they’re 18 years old can’t be assumed to have made a rational decision.
“Girls below 18 years are not sex workers,” she says. “They should be considered as trafficked.”
The lack of family protection leaves them with few options, Danuwar says.
“No one wants to sell their body,” she says. “They do it to survive.”
Kaphle, the joint secretary of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare says education is the key to curtailing the sex trade, especially for young girls. The government provides free education up to grade 10, he says.
But Danuwar says free education is not enough. Access is a problem, she says.
“Students in villages have to walk for three to four hours to go to school,” she says. “Girls are made to do household chores at home. There are child marriages and domestic violence at home.”
Meya says she has realized the importance of education, and is determined that her daughter will complete school and, one day, become a doctor.
“I can’t do this always,” Meya says of sex work.
She wants to connect her daughter with an organization that can support her.
“Then I can look for other jobs,” Meya says.
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated all interviews from Nepali.
This article was originally published on Global Press Journal.