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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Combating Girl-Trafficking and Sex Slavery

Without domestic action and international cooperation, girl-trafficking and sex slavery in Nepal cannot be curbed effectively, writes RAJU ADHIKARI

Here are the key facts many of us are aware of for many years: Between 7,000 and 12,000 young girls, aged 9 to 16, are trafficked each year from Nepal, mainly to India. There are today more than 200,000 Nepali girls in the Indian brothels.

The news media report these facts again and again, and government- and NGO-sponsored reports, more or less, confirm these facts. In the worldwide multi-billion dollar human trafficking industry, Nepal is also contributing significantly. No doubt, trafficking has become one of the worst evils of modern-day Nepal.

However, there is need for a wider debate on how to improve the situation. In this paper, I spell out some recommendations to that effect. But before I do so, I describe the history and current status of girl trafficking and sex slavery in Nepal. I focus mainly on the domestic sex slaves and the trafficked victims [See a large photo] who mostly end up in brothels in Indian cities. I then discuss social and economic problems created by girl trafficking and sex slavery.

Marginalized women

Clinched between two large countries, India and China, Nepal shares its open border with India in west, east and south. Because of cultural and lingual similarities, Nepal’s economy, social structure and politics is highly influenced by India. There are a total of 23 million people (Census 2001, Central Bureau of Statistics) and the country has a sex ratio of 99.8 (See note 1). Though women make half of the population of Nepal’s current population, the females are part of the oppressed group and they are sexually discriminated. Their status, however, varies among the more than the 60 caste/ethnic groups that exist in the country today. The life of the Nepali women in most of these communities is governed by traditional cultural values, and in many ways, such values as a barrier in the holistic development of women (See note 2).

The Constitution of Nepal has guarantee the right of equality to women, however discrimination and problems against women manifest in a number of ways. Age-old patriarchal value system, social and cultural practices have crippled the women in many ways. In many cases, they are regarded as commodities, and second-class citizens, and they suffer discrimination in social, cultural, economic and political fronts as well. The trafficking of women is deeply rooted within such oppressive culture (See note 3).

Despite the growing information exchange and heavy investment in education sectors, the women population is still not getting enough benefits from the programs from the government, international organizations and other volunteer groups. Many hinterlands, especially in the hilly and western regions are still in almost zero literacy in women groups. The easily accessible educations in some parts of the country is also not making enough use of it because of religious and culture reasons putting the women groups behind their male peers.

Not a new social vice
The history of sex slave in Nepal goes back to the Rana regime that lasted 104 years since 1846 A.D. Though there are some reports of sexual harassment of women during earlier periods of Nepal’s modern history, vivid examples of the sex slavery can be found during Rana rule. According to some authors who draw on history (See note 4), there used to be formal and informal wives (concubines) of Ranas in as many numbers as they wanted. The women in the durbars (palaces) were treated as things of luxury. If the Ranas spotted beautiful girls, the Ranas forced such girls to serve at their palaces. If the girls refused, they were physically battered and their family members would also suffer (See note 5).

Some cultural systems have also helped create the atmosphere for forced sex-slavery. The Badi community in western part of the country, especially in Dang district, has made sexual subservience as a way of life, since history. Young girls from this community serve other groups. This has become a tradition and a means of livelihood. Many girls, even if they are unwilling, are forced to serve as sex slaves.

Another form of sex slavery exists in the relationships among the feudal lords and the low income and low caste women who are mainly employed to work in the homes of the landlords’ as bonded labors. The Kamlahri (See note 6) system is one is one such example of bonded labor. The Kamlahris are kept in the landlords’ home to do household chores. They are often raped and sexually harassed by the landlord and their sons. These cases are hardly noticed and no exact data is available for such slavery.

The fall of Ranas in 1950s forced many of them to flee to neighboring India with their belongings and concubines. Because of economic hardship there in India, they were not able to afford their previous lifestyle. For economic security and livelihood, their women were forced to sell sex outside their own homes. Some of them even ran the brothels and started to recruit women from their areas of origins from Nepal. That started the girl trafficking from Nepal to India. The most affected areas by such recruiting are Makawanpur, Sindhupalchok, and Kavre districts. This has now extended to many parts of the country.

The picture today
Though there is no exact record of all those involved in sex slavery in and outside the country, the number could exceed 200,000. The Badi community is still doing its business in some areas of the country. Though prostitution is illegal in Nepal, many hotels and restaurants are engaged in such services, underground. Many massage centers and beauty parlors are also doing this illegal business, to earn easy money. The business is relatively less risky and the investment is almost naught from the beginning. This industry reportedly has links with high ranking officials and even political leaders. It has been reported that many westerners travel to Nepal in search of sex (including child sex) in massage centers (See note 7).

The sexual exploitation in the villages by feudal lords continues even after several program initiated by government, NGOs and volunteers. The status of girl trafficking is even worse. Globally, the total estimated number of the human traffic is around 800,000 in each year (See note 8) and Nepal’s share in that remains between 7,000 and 12,000 (See note 9).

The conventional model of trafficking that took into account only some specific ethnic community with economic reasons at the top has now been replaced by new approaches. These new approaches take into consideration many background variables, namely, social, economic, political and administrative ones (See note 10). The trafficking of young girls and women is linked to their low cultural status. Since they have limited economic opportunities, girls are especially vulnerable to being trafficked unknowingly and unwillingly.

The two types of trafficking, “soft” and “hard,” commonly occur in rural villages in the southern Terai region of Nepal. “Soft” trafficking is when a young girl goes to India or other regions (the lure of employment in gulf countries and Hong Kong is increasing recently) under the pretense of finding employment or arranging a marriage. “Hard” trafficking is when a girl’s parents knowingly sell their daughter to a trafficker, garnering a price anywhere from US $200 to $600 (See note 11). Girls as young as 13 are taken from villages and slum areas by traffickers who are men, and sometimes women. These traffickers lure them away with the promise of well-paid jobs in the country’s capital, Kathmandu, or in the big cities of India and the Gulf states (See note 12). Even if they manage to escape or get rescued from the brothels, their families and communities often refuse to take them back because of the social stigma attached to such a practice.

The dimensions of the problem

Though many countries, including India, have legalized prostitution, Nepal still regards prostitution illegal and a cultural taboo. Girl trafficking and sex-slavery have created many social and economic problems.

The social problems have been devastating. For many trafficked women and girls, forced prostitution has proved fatal, leaving them with the HIV virus which causes AIDS. Many studies have shown in recent years that more than 70 percent of the trafficked women have been infected with HIV or other STD. Child prostitution is under threat of HIV/AIDS. For example, in Thailand, awareness of AIDS among potential customers has led the industry to seek young girls from remote villages believed to free of HIV.

Nepal’s tourism industry has also been a factor in the increase of forced or amateur prostitution in major cities across the country. Though the growth of tourism may be seen as profitable, the social problems created by this could weigh more than the profit made by the tourism. Tourism has also brought with it other social vices, such as drug addiction and pedophilia.

Once they become useless for sexual activities, many of the trafficked victims are forced to become beggars. Children are more prone to such victimization. For example, many beggars on the streets in some Indian cities are reported to be such victims. Many of the victims who are able to escape this trap are prone to mental and physical problems because of the mental and physical torture they received while they ware in brothels. They are never able again to return to a normal social life. The future workforce of the country is lost in this way.

The victims who return with HIV and other STDs can transmit (and are transmitting) the disease, knowingly or unknowingly, to many others. The health situation of the country has been affected in that way.

The economic implications are disturbing, too. Trafficking has flourished in poor areas which has high unemployment rate. In such regions, to feed themselves and their family, women readily accept work elsewhere. They easily fall into the trafficking net through advertisements for work.

Some may argue that prostitution may be related with economic boom in some regions of the world. The boom creates demand for young girls. The fact is, the trafficking and prostitution is often created by the lack of economic opportunity and poverty. So, as a whole, the economic problems created by prostitution and sex trade are more serious than what some individual gains.

According to a study by Human Rights Watch report, many victims are caught in a merry-go-round of threats, violence and forced prostitution. Since passports or identity cards may be confiscated or torn up, women live in constant fear of arrest. Conditions are often unsanitary, with women living and working in the same tiny rooms. Often, they are kept locked up or physically tortured - sometimes with cigarette burns, knives and electric shocks. Many victims work as prostitutes for years in "debt bondage," the so-called contracts which force women to pay back astronomical transportation costs from their countries of origin before they can go free. Often they must work off the steep fees that brothel owners have paid to traffickers. The report also explains the problems created by so called ‘solution’ in economy of individual.

Not only the individual economy but also the economy of the country is affected by this situation. The resulting health problems force the nation to invest more on health related issues such new hospitals, medicines, more health workers, their training, prevention methods, social awareness etc. This is the waste of national capital caused by the trafficking and illegal sexual activities. Moreover, the young generation, considered the most productive population, is also wasting additional time and money in such sexual activities.

At another level, drug trafficking and consumption is also highly associated with human trafficking and prostitution. The productive land which could be used to produce grains for nation’s population is used to produce marijuana and other narcotics. The country then has to import the grains on high price creating possible trade deficits of the country.

Coping with the situation

The legal means are invariably important in coping with any human-made problem. Though there are numerous laws in the country, they have not bee able to alleviate the problem of trafficking and sex trade. Human Trafficking in Nepal is apparently less risky than smuggling drugs. Traffickers ferry large groups of girls at a time without the hassle of paperwork or threats of police checks. The procurer-pimp-police network makes the process even smoother. According to Human Rights Watch, police and other government officials are in collusion with traffickers at various points along the routes, but little has been done to investigate charges or punish those responsible. Sometimes, police officers ignore the situation because they are bribed by brothel owners. Girls may not leave the brothels until they have repaid their debt, at which time they are sick, with HIV and/or tuberculosis, and often have children of their own (See note 13).

The human trafficking and sexual activities have been going on for years, and is likely to continue for years to come. The exploitation of Nepalese women and girls may never end. For many traffickers, this is an easy way to earn a lot of money with a little risk. Family vulnerability, which directly relates to child vulnerability, is impacted by many factors, such as low education levels of parents (mother more than father), insufficient household income, mistreatment and physical abuse, alcoholism, lack of food, mental torture, multiple marriages, and remarriage associated with large family size. Certain aspects of Nepali culture may work unintentionally as catalytic forces for trafficking, such as unmatched marriage, patriarchy, and child marriage as well as excessive spending at times of feasts, festivals and funeral ceremonies that can economically strain many families. Some researchers have cited gender decimation as a cause of trafficking in girl children (See note 14).

Because of some of Nepal’s social and cultural values, as well as poverty, open border with India and lack of education, the possibility of stopping trafficking at the moment seems almost impossible. The government’s indifference and the involvement of officials and politicians in the trafficking chain have made the issue more difficult to solve right away. Traffickers and related criminals are often protected by political parties and, if arrested, are freed using political power. As a result, there is an underlying distrust of the police that has led people not to file cases against traffickers.

Though several attempts are initiated by many organizations, their efforts mostly appear to be ineffective to tackle the problem. Unless the whole population of Nepal is highly educated and people can feed themselves by finding jobs around the country, these activities will be continued.

So, if not in the short term, the problem has to be resolved in the long term. The question is: How?

The Nepali government has been addressing the issue of sex slavery and girl trafficking for a long time now, but the efforts have largely been superficial. Though human trafficking is banned by law, specific strategies to tackle the problem are lacking. The returning trafficking victims and sex workers face hard times to adjust into the society because of the stigma they carry and the physical and mental problems they possess after returning. In many cases, governments and human rights organizations alike have simply judged the woman guilty of prostitution and minimized the trafficker's role. Also, many women are immediately deported to their homelands before they can give evidence against traffickers. Trafficked victims suffer, rather than traffickers (See note 15).

I believe that there are two possible ways to curb the trafficking and sex slave condition in Nepal. Nepal itself should find a better way to deal with the situation and make laws and policies accordingly. The United Nation and other international organizations can help to cope with the situation internationally.

Domestic action
The most important part of the solution should come from the government. The law against the trafficking and sex slavery should be strictly enforced into action, not only in paper. As the lack of education and poor economic situation are the root causes of these activities, the government should primarily focus on these two issues. Increasing the literacy and elevating the life standard of the people is equally important. The current education system should be modified to increase the awareness of the people.

People who are really fighting to curb human trafficking and sex slavery should be awarded and protected by government so as to encourage them and attract more people into the group. It has been reported that some policeman who caught criminals were soon found dead after the criminals were freed. The criminals had used their political influence to do their will.

The government should make sure to punish the criminals and treat the victims sympathetically. The returnees should be given equal opportunity in society to develop their future. As some are victimized by cultural values such as early marriage, marriage with relatives etc., the government should make laws to address such issues and take action against the law-breakers. Empowering women and giving them equal opportunity may help to cope with the situation. Many women choose to become the victim because of mistreatment by parents or by husbands. If they are legally secured and they are aware of their rights, they will at least have a legal recourse to avoid any victimization.

Domestic action also involves activities of Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) and other volunteer groups. These groups are playing a major role to address girl-trafficking and sex slave issues. The NGO action can make more contribution to solve the problems before trafficking, during trafficking and after trafficking.

The project "Combating Trafficking of Women and Girls in Nepal," started in 2001, is an example of community-based initiative. The project focused on a prevention module on human trafficking. It identified interventions using the rights-based approach-- prevent human trafficking by address the greater concerns for women's legal rights, status and rising aspirations. This involves both reducing the occurrence of trafficking and improving care and support for trafficking survivors. Five partner NGOs are involved in the project: Center for Legal Research and Resource Development (CeLRRd), Agro Forestry and Basic Cooperatives Nepal (ABC Nepal), NGO Federation, Maiti Nepal and Women Rehabilitation Center (WOREC) (See note 16).

These NGOs are providing awareness training and education. They organize campaigns, meetings, gatherings in different parts of the country as well as show documentaries. The participants of such events are less prone to be trapped by traffickers. They are also rescuing trafficked girls from different brothels (mainly in India) and help them to return back to Nepal. In 2005, Maiti Nepal, one of the most successful organizations in addressing this problem, rescued 52 girls and women from brothels in different parts of India. The rescued are either reintegrated into the family or given trainings and employment opportunities.

According to Maiti Nepal, prior to reintegration, survivors require both occupational and social preparation. Occupational preparation for survivors of trafficking in Nepal poses significant challenges: lack of employment opportunities, general absence of females in the workplace, stigma and possible abuse of survivors, lack of skills and education of survivors, and the potential of sex work because of higher wages than other employment. The organization has launched a project to address these challenges. The project is based on a strategy of providing occupational skills according to comprehensive assessment of job and craft markets, individualized occupational training according to survivor's wishes and abilities, the mobilization of support networks in the private sector, marketing of crafts and occupational placement by professional staff, and both social and business training for potential small entrepreneurs.

There are several shelters and rehabilitation centers run by various Katmandu-based NGOs. Rehabilitations is not easy. Relatives of the rescued girls generally don't want them back and Nepal's government is worried about the spread of HIV, as many of the trafficked girls have contracted HIV while enslaved in India (See note 17). Still, there has been some progress in rescuing and rehabilitation in the past few years.

International cooperation
Girl trafficking and illegal sexual exploitation are international problems, and Nepal is a small part of that big picture. Rights activists regard human trafficking as one of the greatest human rights abuses.

The United Nations has cited human trafficking as an international crime. The world body estimates that this illegal trade generates more than US $12 billion worldwide. More than 800,000 people are trafficked annually and forced into prostitution and threatened with death should they attempt to escape the clutches of their captors.

Human trafficking is often a cross-border phenomenon. The trafficked girls from Nepal and Bangladesh are sent to India and the Gulf countries. Many Burmese women suffer inside the brothels in Thailand. Many cities in Germany and other western European countries are hosts to prostitutes from eastern Europe. So without the cooperation of the international community, domestic action alone is ineffective. It will not yield promising results. Already, the UN and its agencies, Amnesty International, Human Right Watch, Interpol etc. working in this front. There are several international laws and treaties aimed at curbing this problem.

Nepal shares its open border with India. And without the help of its southern neighbor, Nepal alone cannot successfully resolve the problem. Some sexual activities that are illegal in Nepal may not be illegal in India. Such legal incongruities, which are there also in other regions of the world, will hinder a smooth implementation of any strategy to combat trafficking. That is why there is a need of common international law to address the issue. Once the concerned countries all ratify the common international law, they can work together.

Right now, there is only one specific UN instrument that addresses girl trafficking— the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. Though Nepal ratified the convention in 2002, the convention does very little to protect women from the human rights violations committed in the course of trafficking or to provide remedies to them. Other UN conventions (ICCPR, ICESCR, the Rights of the Child, CEDAW) are all additional means that can be utilized on an international level.

The relationship between prostitution and trafficking is the crux of the problem in adopting the anti-trafficking legislation. Whether prostitution is criminalized, legalized, or regulated in a country influences how that individual country responds to international trafficking conventions (see note 18).

Nepal has signed the Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on May 14, 1991. According to this law, the girl trafficking is illegal in a country that signed the treaty.

Nepal also ratified the Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) on May 14, 1991. According to this law, children and young persons should be protected from economic and social exploitation. Their employment in work that is harmful to their morals or health or dangerous to life or likely to hamper their normal development should be punishable by law. States should also set age limits below which the paid employment of child labor should be prohibited and punishable by law.

Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is another significant convention that Nepal signed on January 26, 1990. The trafficking of young Nepali girls violates five articles of the CRC: the illicit transfer of children abroad (11), economic exploitation (32), sexual exploitation (34), sale and trafficking of children (35), and the torture, inhumane and degrading treatment (37).

Nepal has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on February 5, 1991. It states: “State Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.”

The above mentioned laws and conventions are the basic laws that should guide the signatories. As the situation of each country varies, some have signed the treaty, while others have not. The UN and other international organizations should lobby to convince the countries to sign such treaties so each country is committed to tackling the vice of girl-trafficking and sex slavery or prostitution.

Final words

The condition of girl trafficking and sexual slavery is very grave in Nepal. If not addressed promptly and properly, it will bring more social and economic problems to the country. Though the root cause of the problem is lack of education and poor economic condition, cultural values are also playing a catalytic role in this process.

The government has initiated several measures to combat the situation but, it is not able to control the situation by its own. The existing laws have to be adopted without fear or favor and the country must also sing and adopt all related international treaties, including CSTPEPO. The link between high-ranking officials, political leaders and traffickers has made it difficult to solve the problem by simply using police and court as means of solution.

Some NGOs are playing a very important role to improve the situation. From creating social awareness to rescuing and rehabilitation, they are providing services (and relief) to those that need the most— the likely victims as well as rescued ones. The number of such organization is increasing and some of them are working together to address the problem collectively in the different stages of the trafficking chain.

The international community is also concerned about solving the issue worldwide because of its global nature. The UN and other organizations are working with national governments to solve the problems. There are several conventions addressing the problem, not all countries have signed all such treaties. Many countries, even after ratifying the conventions, are not fully adopting the regulations for various reasons. Since almost all countries are suffering from human trafficking (mainly girl- and child-trafficking) and illegal sex slavery, the whole world must work together to eliminate this human vice.


Raju Adhikari is working on his doctoral in business management at the Department of Business management, Sun Glorious School of Business and Management,Donghua University Shanghai, China. He can be reached at


1. The sex ratio given here is the official data according to 2001 census. According to 2003 data there are 104 males for each 100 females in Nepal.
2. Niraula, Bhanu and Luitel, Samira, Economic Reform and the Status of Women in Nepal, International development research center, 2000
3. Chudal, Kumar, Women Trafficking in Nepal, Center for social research, 2001.
4. Diamond Sumsher Rana in his several historic novels (e.g. Basanti, 1951) has pointed out this fact.
5. Acharya, Bidhan, Review of the studies on Trafficking in women and girls, Asmita, 2001
6. Kamlahris are from Tharu community of Nepal and the system is prevalence in Dang district. They are forced to work in landlords’ home for at least one year with minimum salary and can not leave within the year of contract. The main reason of the bonded labor is poverty and lack of education.
7. Kathmandu Today, Feb 15 2007
8. Hough, Lory, Stolen Lives: Trafficking of women, Harvard Gazette, March, 2005
9. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report , U.S. State Department, June, 2006
10. Acharya, Bidhan, Review of the studies on Trafficking in women and girls, Asmita, 2001
11. Aengst, Jenifer, Girl Trafficking in Nepal, Human Right Advocacy clinic, March 2001
12. Kirton, Kate,, May, 2004
13. Wadhwa, Soma, For sale: childhood, Outlook India, February, 1998
14. KC, Bal Kumar; Subedi, Govind; Gurung, Yogendra Bahadur; Adhikari,Keshab Prasad, Nepal Trafficking in Girls With Special Reference to Prostitution: A Rapid Assessment Central Department on Population Studies (CDPS), TU, November 2001
15. United Nations Department of Public Information DPI/2098, February 2000
16. Dahal, Anjan Kumar, Communities at Work: Combating Trafficking in Nepal, Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center ,HURIGHTS OSAKA, September, 2004
17. The Fact book on Global Sexual Exploitation, Coalition against Trafficking in Women, 1998.
18. Aengst, Jenifer, Girl Trafficking in Nepal, Human Right Advocacy clinic, March 2001

Posted by Editor on June 26, 2007 5:28 PM