By Mikael G. Holter and Jonathan Alpeyrie (Photos), in Siliguri, India and Kathmandu, Nepal
The prostitutes of Siliguri do their business behind the wall that runs down Vivakananda Street. The so-called red light district of this northern Indian city is a small, run-down slum surrounded by a trench that amasses sewage and garbage and attracts screaming scores of crows. The only way in from the main street is by crossing one of the narrow, wooden bridges that stretch over the foul-smelling waters and proceeding through a hole in the wall.
About 1,000 people live in this shantytown, and many of them are Nepalese. Siliguri, about an hour’s drive from Nepal’s eastern border, is known to be a centrifuge for the traffic of girls and women from the Himalayan kingdom, a shady business that accounts for 10,000 to 12,000 missing persons every year, according to Maiti Nepal, a NGO that fights human trafficking. A 2005 report by another NGO, Terre des Hommes, which interviewed Nepalese prostitutes and Indian customers in Calcutta and Mumbai, shows that Nepalese girls usually are between 14 and 16 years of age when they get to India and enter the sex trade. They are locked in and hardly see any of the wages they bring in for several years. “It’s contemporary slavery,” says Reinhard Fichtl of the Kathmandu office.
Puja for instance, is from Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’s capital area. She’s wearing tight jeans and a Stars-and-stripes bandana. The 22-year old chews tobacco outside her Siliguri brothel, waiting for today’s first customer. Puja’s dad was in the Nepalese army, and he was killed while fighting the Maoist rebels three years ago. While Nepal’s decade-old civil war has been on hold for a few months since the events that precipitated the return of democracy and a stable ceasefire between the central government and the rebels, the conflicts’ victims continue to suffer. The estimated 200.000 internal refugees are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Like many others, Puja had nowhere to go and no way to feed herself when her father died. So she came to Siliguri by her own will, she claims. And won’t offer any explanations about the burns on her arms. “Shit, man,” she just blurts, over and over again.
According to Terres des Hommes though, prostitution in Indian brothels is rarely a calculated choice by young Nepalese women, who are highly appreciated by local customers for their”fair skin, young appearance and honesty,” says the report. There are, by different accounts, between 100.000 and 200.000 Nepalese girls and women who sell sex in India. And according to the Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre, a fifth is under 16 years of age. Most were lured by promises of work, money, or even marriage. And about 25% were brought there and sold to the brothel owners by their own families, says Terre des Hommes.
Little Gita was only ten years old when her aunt took her to India. She thought they were going shopping in Kathmandu when they left their little village that morning, but despite her young age, she understood something was wrong when the trip took several days. On arrival, her aunt left her at a stranger’s house and said she’d be back in the evening. As the sun set, Gita asked a middle-aged women who looked to be in charge of the place when her aunt would be back. “She won’t,” the woman said. “You’ve come to a brothel. You’ll have to work, because we have bought you.”
The now 22-year old Kathmandu-based employee of Maiti Nepal recalls her first night at the brothel in Pune with unsettling sobriety. “They smeared my face with make-up and dressed me up in a mini-skirt,” she says. The little girl refused to let the strange men touch her that night, and was rewarded with her first beating, of which there would be more. The next night, two older girls held her down and stuck a piece of cloth in her mouth so no one would hear her scream as she was raped by a customer. At age ten, that was how Gita got to know men.
"The younger they are, the more money the traffickers get for them,” explains Sabin Gurung, a Maiti Official based in Kathmandu, who estimates the price at between 500 and 1,300 euros. But that’s an investment the brothel owners, who are often Nepalese and not infrequently former prostitutes and victims of the same trade they now indulge in, get back at least ten-fold by the time the girls have paid off the fictive debt their owner imposes on them.
No exception to the rule, Gita was barred from going out and worked shifts from 3 a.m. to 2 a.m. without pay. “We saw the sun only through the window,” she recalls, describing an environment of violence and abuse. “If we refused to have sex with the customers, we were whipped with wires, beaten with iron pipes and burnt with cigarettes. Once I was so badly beaten I couldn’t work for a month.” She made one escape attempt in the three years she spent in Pune, snailing down the pipe from the lavatories on the third floor of her building. But she was caught by a “guard” downstairs and transferred to another establishment where the treatment only got worse.
Gita was finally saved in a rare police raid in 1996. She now lives and works as an office assistant in Maiti Nepal’s Kathmandu complex. But she never went back to her village. Her mother died while she was in India and she cannot trust the rest of her family there, she says. Nepalese society is very conservative, and shame excludes taking back a family member gone astray. It’s just another injustice in Gita’s short life here on earth. She’s also HIV positive, because none of the customers she was forced to serve used protection.
But it’s not that bad, really, she says. At age 22, Gita’s done with men anyway. Her unnerving calm and acceptance in the face of fate is broken only by a dry, almost inaudible remark. “That brothel. I’d like to burn it to the ground,” she whispers with an odd smile.