Pressed into serviceA number of massage parlours have sprouted in major towns around Nepal in recent years. Their stated objective is to provide massages to clients who want to maintain good health, but sexual services are also being offered under this guise.
A number of massage parlours have sprouted in major towns around Nepal in recent years. Their stated objective is to provide massages to clients who want to maintain good health, but sexual services are also being offered under this guise. It is quite difficult to call someone who is working as a masseuse a prostitute. Who is a prostitute then? The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines prostitution as a process that involves a transaction between a seller and buyer of a sexual service. Whatever be the definition, there is great demand for the services of prostitutes, and the business is flourishing in the form of massage parlours.
In Nepal, massage parlours are neither legal nor illegal. Massage parlours, cabin restaurants and dance bars are often front operations for prostitution. Most sex workers prefer to work in massage parlours and dance bars rather than on the streets as it is safer and less conspicuous.
Poverty and unemployment in rural areas force individuals or families to migrate to the cities. No girl is interested in selling her body for money, but they end up being a prostitute as they have no option. The government does not have proper policies regarding prostitution. The Human Trafficking Control Act 1986 has been ineffective. Many young girls and women from rural areas are trafficked with promises of better jobs but end up as sex workers. Every year, around 5,000 to 10,000 girls are trafficked from Nepal to India, Hong Kong, Malaysia and the Gulf countries for prostitution. Studies show that 30-38 percent of the trafficked girls are HIV positive. India is the safest and easiest destination for trafficking as Nepal shares an open border with it.
There is no official data regarding sex workers. The Kathmandu office of the International Labour Organisation says there are 2,650 sex workers in the Kathmandu Valley, while sources at the Nepal Police and Health Ministry say there are some 30,000 sex workers in the Valley, and they are not only from the middle and low-income groups. They cut across ethnic and caste groups and geographical regions. Prostitutes from India and Tibet have also been found.
As part of my research, a close friend and I went to Thamel to check out a massage parlour. I met a girl who said she was from Sindhupalchok, and that she had lost her parents in the 2015 earthquake. She told me under condition of anonymity that she had originally signed up as a masseuse, but later her boss asked her to provide sexual services too. She said she thought of quitting her job but she did not because her options were limited. Eventually, she agreed to be a sex worker in the massage parlour to support her younger brother and sister.
She says she serves 10-15 guests daily. Her boss collects Rs3,000-5,000 from each customer, but she gets only Rs1,000 at the end of the day. She can’t tell anyone about the exploitation, and she doesn’t dare negotiate with her boss for more money as she may lose her job. She is just one among many girls and women in this business. Physical and economic exploitation is rampant. Sometimes, they are beaten up by their boss for failing to perform.
Clear cut policies
In the absence of clear government policies, sex businesses are operating under the guise of massage parlours, and innocent girls and women are being exploited and abused by their boss. There is no proper sex education on reproductive health, precautions and contraceptives. They do not get regular health check-ups either. Every day, girls and women are exploited, the money they earn is snatched away by their boss at the end of the day, and they are left with little money to support themselves and their families.
At the same time, people who want a real massage do not feel secure visiting massage parlours because of possible police raids. It is time to give serious thought to the situation so that operators of massage parlours and their customers can feel safe. Prostitution carried out through illegal means is a risk to society. Sex related crimes are rising and child prostitution is flourishing. Those who are in the prostitution business are mostly illiterate and unaware of the risks of being a prostitute.
Sex workers who join massage parlours definitely get short-term relief from poverty, but in the long run, they can suffer from social trauma, sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS and social stigma. So, it is the duty of the government of Nepal to clearly certify such businesses with a grading system so that real massage providers can operate and massage seekers can enjoy the service without fear of the police, and the masseuses can perform their job without fear of social stigma.
Pandey is a sociologist