Beyond ‘The Helambu Girls’: The Trafficking of Women and Girls for Sexual Exploitation in Nepal

Human trafficking, especially of women and girls for sexual exploitation, is Nepal’s biggest crime.

SOME HISTORY

In Nepal, the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation has a long history and reportedly dates back to the Rana Rule (1846-1951). During this time, young girls from the hilly districts surrounding the Kathmandu valley were brought to the palaces as maid servants (susaaray) and concubines (bhitrini) to provide sex for the members of the Rana regime. The region of Nepal that is most often implicated in the trafficking context is Helambu, in the district of Sindapulchowk. However, some say it also included the neighbouring districts of Nuwakhot, and the districts of Kavrepalanchowk (Kavre) and Dhading. Collectively however, the women and girls became known colloquially as ‘The Helambu Girls’ and ‘owning’ them became regarded as a mark of high social status.

The people who lived in the Sindapulchowk district were members of one of three Tamang clans who called themselves, ‘Lamas’, ‘Yolmo’ or ‘Helambu’ (Sherpa). Notably, sometimes these surnames are used interchangeably, but the women and girls with these names are often grouped together and reported collectively to be Tamang girls. The Tamangs are a Buddhist ethnic minority group with Indian and Tibeto-Burman roots who have had a long history of isolation and cultural entanglement with the Hindu elites of Nepal. Men and women were involved. One of the ways this occurred for women was through the system of keti basne (or nani susarey) in which women were imported from the Tamang hills for all kinds of chores, some of whom served as concubines and this is said to have started the trend towards prostitution among poverty-stricken Tamang communities. It is even then thought to have become a ‘Nepali custom’ to deliver women and girls into the hands of brokers for these practices, indicating a social acceptance of trafficking. The brokers were believed to be people who were usually known to the women.

After the Ranas were overthrown, many fled back to neighbouring India taking some of the women with them. Once they were no longer needed, many turned to prostitution out of economic necessary. In 1950, not long before the end of the Rana Regime, India and Nepal also signed a treaty of peace and friendship. This resulted in the development of an ‘open border policy’, which enabled Indian and Nepalese citizens to move freely across borders without passports and/or identity documents. Thus, people who whose movement was restricted during the Rana Regime were then able to travel and migrate outside of Nepal without personal identification. The open border is then said to have facilitated the establishment of the notorious India-Nepal trafficking pathway, which is often reported as one of the most intense human sex trafficking industries in South Asia or, indeed, the world. The severity of the problem is related to the large number of women and girls involved in the industry* and the nature and extent of accompanying violence.

RAPE- A FACT OF LIFE

However, in recent years, trafficking into the entertainment industry, which acts as a front for the sex industry in Nepal, has become an equally concerning issue. In 2014, the National Human Rights Commission (Nepal) reported that 50,000 women and girls were working in this industry. While the number of trafficked women and girls was not illuminated (because it was not known), they say that the young age of the women and girls – under 18 – is the indicator of trafficking. Moreover, girls as young as eight or nine have been found working in the female-dominated industry. In 2010, Terre des Hommes, a Swiss child relief agency, who undertook a study on trafficking and exploitation in the entertainment and sex industries in Nepal, reported the following on the context:  

“Although comparative research has not been conducted, informal observations indicate that violence against women and girls in Nepal’s entertainment industry exceeds that of similar entertainment industries in many parts of the world, including Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, India and Western Europe.”

(Frederick, Basynet and Aguettant 2010 p. 49).

To illuminate this issue, for many who conduct sex work, by choice or coerced, rape is accepted as a fact of life.

While the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation in Nepal began with ‘The Helambu Girls,’ women from all ethnic and caste groups – from all 75 districts of Nepal – are now believed to be involved in trafficking. In 2017, the National Human Rights Commission (Nepal) reported that 95 out of 100 victims of human trafficking in Nepal are female and nearly half of them belong to minority (caste) groups. As a result of its history, trafficking is also considered part of a larger social acceptance of violence against women and girls in Nepal.

*Trafficking researchers Patricia Hynes and Janine Raymond (2002) claim that 7000-12000 women and girls were trafficked annually at this time. This statistic and similar estimations have been repeatedly quoted by researchers conducting trafficking research for the past 20 years. However, the number of women and girls trafficked every year is largely unknown

REFERENCE

Frederick, J, Basynet, M & Aguettant, L 2010, Trafficking and exploitation in the entertainment and sex industries in Nepal: a handbook for decision-makers, Kathmandu, Terres des hommes Foundation, retrieved 2 August 2017, <https://www.tdh.ch/sites/default/files/study_trafficking_tdhl_2010.pdf>.

*Originally published on Asha Nepal’s blog