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India/Nepal: Rape for Profit

(New York) - In a report released today, Human Rights Watch, the New York-based human rights organization, charged that women and girls trafficked from Nepal into India for the purpose of prostitution are kept in conditions tantamount to slavery. Held in debt bondage for years at a time, they are raped and subjected to severe beatings, exposure to AIDS, and arbitrary imprisonment. Both the Indian and Nepali governments are complicit in the abuses suffered by trafficking victims. The human rights organization also called on government delegates to the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women to commit to improving international collaboration to stem the forced trafficking of women and girls, investigating and prosecuting traffickers and brothel operators.

The report, Rape for Profit: Trafficking of Nepali Girls and Women to Indian Brothels , focuses on Nepali trafficking victims in the brothels of Bombay, where nongovernmental organizations say they comprise up to half of the city's estimated 100,000 brothel workers. Twenty percent of Bombay's brothel population is thought to be girls under the age of eighteen, and at least half of them may be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Many of the victims are young women from remote hill villages and poor border communities of Nepal who are lured from their villages by local recruiters, relatives or neighbors promising jobs or marriage, and sold to brokers who deliver them to brothel owners in India. Their purchase price, plus interest, becomes the "debt" that the women must work to pay off -- a process that can stretch on indefinitely. Most women have no idea how much they "owe" or the terms for repayment. Brothels are tightly controlled, and the girls are under constant surveillance. Escape is virtually impossible. Owners use threats and severe beatings to keep inmates in line. In addition, women fear arrest if they are found on the streets; police are often the brothel owner's best clients. Many of the girls and women are brought to India as virgins; many return to Nepal with the HIV virus.

These abuses are not only violations of internationally recognized human rights but are specifically prohibited under the domestic laws of both countries. The willingness of Indian and Nepali government officials to tolerate, and, in some cases, participate in the burgeoning flesh trade exacerbates abuse. Although human rights organizations in Nepal have reported extensively on the forced trafficking of Nepali girls to Indian brothels, and even identified traffickers, there have been few arrests and fewer prosecutions.

In India, police and local officials patronize brothels and protect brothel owners and traffickers. Brothel owners pay protection money and bribes to the police to prevent raids and to bail out under-age girls who are arrested. Police who frequent brothels as clients sometimes seek out under-age girls and return later to arrest them -- a way of extorting bigger bribes. Girls and women who complain to the police about rape or abduction, or those who are arrested in raids or for vagrancy, are held in "protective custody" -- a form of detention. Corrupt authorities reportedly allow brothel owners to buy back detainees.

In Nepal, border police are also bribed to allow traffickers to transport girls to India. In many districts, traffickers exploit political connections to avoid arrest and prosecution. On return to Nepal, the few women who escape the brothels and appeal to the police for help, or who are returned by the Indian police, are shuttled from one police station to another as they make their way back to their home districts. Some remain in police detention for weeks until their guardians come and collect them. Women who have managed to survive the system of debt bondage frequently become recruiters to fulfill their owners' requirement that they find another girl to take their place. Women who escape the brothels before they have paid off their debts, who return without money, or who are sick and cannot work, are shunned by their families and communities. Many will return to India.

The report is based largely on interviews conducted with trafficking victims, most of them Nepali women in their twenties who were trafficked to India as teenagers or older women in Bombay who were still involved in the industry. In India, Human Rights Watch/Asia interviewed Nepali women still working in brothels, brothel owners, local doctors, activists, and lawyers in both Bombay and Delhi. Human Rights Watch also interviewed social workers, human rights activists and representatives of other nongovernmental organizations who work on trafficking and AIDS-related issues, in addition to government officials and police officers in Nepal and India.

While there has been some acknowledgement by government officials in both countries about the magnitude of the problem and the need for action, neither India nor Nepal has taken serious measures to stop trafficking. Despite a plethora of national and international legal instruments that address trafficking and abuses common in the industry, the trade continues to prosper. The burden of responsibility rests with India to stem the demand for new victims, and to protect the women and girls whose rights are violated on its territory. It must investigate and prosecute all those involved in trafficking and brothel operations, including police and other government agents who profit from the abuse. Nepal and India together should cooperate in police training for border operations. All reports of border police involvement in trafficking should be investigated and those responsible punished.

The international community also has a responsibility to see that both India and Nepal uphold their international obligations to prevent trafficking. Unfortunately, few governments have recognized this as a government responsibility, preferring to view the flesh trade as an unfortunate social evil with its roots in poverty. Trafficking in women and children has become an enormously profitable industry -- one that will not be stopped without international scrutiny and pressure.

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