09.09.134:45 AM ET

Inside Nepal's Sex Trade

Demand for sex workers is increasing in Nepal due to an influx of businessmen from India and elsewhere—and many young women are finding themselves forced into prostitution. Joseph Mayton talks to sex workers in Kathmandu about their hopes of leaving the life.

KATHMANDU: Pratiya is a soft-spoken 19-year-old Nepali girl. She is energetic and excited as the conversation turns from Nepali politics to the upcoming World Cup. She wants to be a nurse and help others. But she doesn’t go to school, and the stack of books on her table belie her reality: she is a sex worker. For the past three years, Pratiya has been what she describes as a “servant” to a number of Indian businessmen who regularly visit Nepal.

“It is really difficult to find a way out,” she said. “I just want to take the money and go be a university student and be like the rest of the girls.”

Her ordeal began when she had just turned 16 and her family was on the verge of losing their tiny wooden shack along Kathmandu’s Bagmati River. She said they had no money and no job prospects. Pratiya was in high school at the time. But her parents pulled her out of school when an Indian businessman asked for her hand in marriage.

Her family quickly accepted the small sum of money, some $1,000, for the arrangement and off she went to her new life in Calcutta. It didn’t last long, however, as there was never a wedding. Pratiya was instead forced to work at a local brothel, first in Calcutta and then back in Kathmandu, where demand for sex workers continues to increase among foreign businessmen in the Nepali capital.

“It has been horrible. I thought I was getting married and going to have a good life, but instead I have been working in this industry for years. I just want out,” she said.

But getting out is a difficult endeavor. Her earnings have not been given to her despite promises from her handler in Nepal. According to Pratiya, she should have enough money to go to school and move forward with her life. But the powers over her haven’t lived up to their promises and she remains a sex worker.

“I have a steady stream of clients and they come in, look at us girls and then choose one of us, pay the money and we have sex,” she said. “It is what we do. Some money still goes to my family, who thinks I am still in India, happily married.”

Being forced into the sex industry is not a new problem for Nepali girls. Thousands of young women have become sex workers in the country to meet growing demand, and many of them have been forced against their will to continue to work in the sector.

Raya, a 24-year-old mother of two, believes that her failure to leave the industry left her with two children, little money and very few options for the future. She was a sex worker for seven years, from age 15 to 22. She had her first daughter when she was 18 and then became pregnant at 22 before she was able to escape the life.

“It is a really hard thing for women to be forced to have sex with people for money. It is a business and we are treated like a product to be used and bought whenever. I don’t feel like a person anymore,” she said. “We face so many risks, but the government doesn’t do anything really to crackdown on this right now.”

The official numbers of sex workers in Nepal is unknown, although estimates put the number in the thousands. Businessmen from India are the number one customers and keep the demand for working women going strong. Raya says that for women to try and leave their “slavery” it is hard because there is so much money involved.

“The owners of our houses where us girls are kept make a lot of money and they don’t want to lose us, so they do all sorts of things to make sure we stay. My family was threatened that if I leave they wouldn’t receive any money and they could be hurt, or worse.”

But both Pratiya and Raya have spoken out and reached out to local NGOs and international organizations for help. They have joined other sex workers across Asia in calling for the end of the criminalization of the sex industry in order to see the implementation of regulations and health services for the girls and women involved.

“I know a lot of girls who have gotten HIV or other diseases because the men don’t want to use protection,” said Pratiya, who has been able to get regular medical check-ups. “I’m lucky because I have connections and a little money, but for the other girls, the situation is bad and they have nothing to fall back on.”

United Nations officials say that globally, sex workers are 14 times more likely to acquire HIV than other women of reproductive age—yet fewer than one in five has access to HIV prevention, treatment and care.

A 2012 report released jointly by the UN Development Program (UNDP), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNAIDS pressed for the decriminalization of sex work in many countries so that HIV prevention and treatment programs reach sex workers more effectively.

Blue Diamond, a non-government advocacy group in Nepal, has also been pressing for a review of existing laws and policies, especially for transgender sex workers. They have reported repeatedly on the lack of oversight and government action against sexual slavery, demanding that more action be taken in order to free women forced into the industry, like Raya and Pratiya. While they have been making inroads in recent years, there is still much work to be done before women in Nepal are able to choose their own destiny and create a life for themselves.

“I don’t want to raise my children in one of those homes and that is why I escaped and am planning on going to India or somewhere else. I think women in Nepal are not happy and this is because we have no rights over our bodies or our lives,” said Raya.