Thamel is a busy tourist hub in Kathmandu. Its streets are lined by numerous shops, massage centres, bars, pubs, hotels, restaurants and even strip clubs, popularly known as dance restaurants. Life in Thamel begins with nightfall. This nightlife used to continue throughout the night. But not any more. A new directive by the home ministry requires that all night businesses should close by 11 pm. The ministry says its prime reason for doing so is to curb the sex trade.
Prostitution is illegal in Nepal and punishable by imprisonment. Yet, Kathmandu has around 5000 sex workers according to an estimate by not for profit organisation New ERA [http://newera.com.np/]. Yes, it is an open secret that sex is sold in Thamel and many other parts of Kathmandu. And like many other commodities in Kathmandu, bargaining is allowed!
It is also well known that these sex workers in Kathmandu work under cover of other legal businesses such as the massage centers, cabin restaurants, hotels, and dance restaurants. So, it may seem plausible that by shutting these businesses early, the home ministry is making it difficult for sex workers to find customers. On the other hand, there have been arguments that not all of the girls involved in these businesses are prostitutes. There are waitresses, dancers, and other girls who earn their living through their work there. By shutting these businesses early, they have less opportunity to earn their living and hence are being indirectly pushed into prostitution.
At a time when there is a news article in studentBMJ on decriminalisation of gay sex (http://student.bmj.com/issues/08/12/news/430.php), the opposite seems to be happening in Kathmandu. The home ministry thinks of prostitution as a law and order problem only and is taking its actions to the next level by even targeting girls and customers in legal bars and restaurants. Nowadays it is quite common to see police barging into dance restaurants and arresting the dancers, strippers, and the customers. What is worse is that there are media reports saying that police ask for sexual favours from girls there in return for releasing them.
My question is, “Is prostitution a legal problem only?” We cannot ignore the underlying causes that force girls into prostitution. Most of these girls are into sex trade because of unemployment, limited work opportunities, and poor salaries in other jobs. Hence, the argument that the recent targeting of girls in other legal business by the police will only push them further into prostitution may seem to hold true.
The health aspect of this problem seems to have been totally neglected. Last week during the World AIDS Day celebrations, the health ministry said that one of its challenges was reaching the sex workers. Well, how can we reach them when on one hand we give them this legal scare and send police to look for them, and on the other we ask them to come and talk to us about their health problems? How well can these contradicting policies work? I am not capable of analysing policies in depth but on the surface, something seems to be out of place in the way we have been handling the sex workers and HIV situation in Kathmandu.
There have been strong voices for and against the legalisation of the sex trade in Nepal. Whatever their legal status, we cannot ignore the existence of sex workers. About 20% of those infected with HIV in Nepal got it from sex workers. To address the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, there is a need to bring them within the reach of our health services so that interventions aimed at them can be effective. The need to work together among various ministries and organisations in line with an overall national policy cannot be overemphasised.
The streets of Thamel are quiet after midnight these days. The dance restaurants, bars, pubs, and massage centres are closed. But sex is still being sold: the places have changed, sex workers have become cleverer at hiding their identities, and customers are more careful. Sex trade in the city continues. The spread of HIV continues.
Siddhartha Yadav is a medical student in Nepal and former BMJ Clegg Scholar.