Lost Daughters – An ongoing tragedy in Nepal

KAMALA SARUP, Nepal Correspondent with LYS ANZIA – WNN Features


WNN Nepal – “In recent years, millions of women and girls have been trafficked across borders and within countries. The global trafficking industry generates an estimated five to seven billion U.S. dollars each year, more than the profits generated by the arms and narcotics trades,” quotes a Feb 2001, Asia Foundation and Horizons Project Population Council report.

In the late 17th century, the brothel area of Kamathipura was first established to service British troops in what was then called Bombay, India. In 2004, the cost to buy a sex-trafficked girl from Nepal in what is now called Mumbai, has risen to 100,000 – 120,000 Indian rupees (approx $2,004 – 2,405 USD). Girls trafficked from Nepal are known as a “tsukris.” They are those who have been indentured (forced) to work under a “never ending” contract commonly found with human trafficking.

The industry in the trafficking of Nepali girls is a very lucrative business. It can include forced labor, domestic and factory work. Young girls who are teenagers are often used in the sex-trafficking industries, though, because of the extreme profit for traffickers and the very low incidence of law enforcement arrests against sex-industry racketeers.

Arresting the traffickers can be very tricky. In rural Nepal this is a constant challenge as adequate police enforcement is often non-existent. Seen only as an investment to brothel owners, trafficked girls, in addition to cooperating in the daily sex-servicing of clients, are used by the brothel owners as “virgins,” as owners attempt to sell a girl’s virginity over and over again. This insidious crime can be found throughout the back alleys of Mumbai today.

So, why are most brothel owners interested much more in owning girls from Nepal versus girls from India?

The answer is obvious. Sex sells and girls from villages like Ichowk, Mahankal and Talmarang in the Sindhupalchowk district in northern central Nepal are full of girls who are more than anxious for a better life.

Besides this, Nepalese girls are cheaper to buy, much more cooperative and much easier to control and enslave. Girls from the rural regions are known to be much more obedient and considered more attractive for brothel owners who may want to resell them. Nepali girls coming from the rural farming areas, because of their naïveté,  are much more easy to cheat and to force into debt bondage. This is because they have very little, if any, education and they usually do not speak any of the native languages of India.

“Annually, according to U.S. Government-sponsored research completed in 2006, approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders, which does not include millions trafficked within their own countries. Approximately 80 percent of transnational victims are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors,” reports the US Department of State in a 2008 study.

In an unending cycle of degradation, Nepali girls are forced each and every day into the sex-trades. And most often face vast cultural and gender discrimination if they return home.

In April 21, 2008, WNN correspondent, Kamala Sarup, organized a program on HIV/AIDS and Trafficking in the district of Sindhupalchowk, Nepal. Here she shares a first hand story about the sex-trafficking in Nepal:

Tamang used to come to Kathmandu at our house every year. He was a part-time tailor and full-time farmer who used to work in Kathmandu to make extra money to take home each year. He was a very poor man. When I saw him the first time he told me he wanted to send his daughter, Tara, to school. I felt very kind toward him, so I gave him a small room to stay at our big family home in Kathmandu. But my parents did not like my decision and our community criticized me because of his poverty and standing. This year, Tamang did not come to Kathmandu, so I went to see him and his family in his village.

According to The Asia Foundation, a human rights advocacy group for women, many Nepali communities “recognize the role of social and economic hardships in vulnerability to trafficking. They also blame the immoral character of the trafficked girl herself. Girls who seek independence, want exposure to the world outside.”

While girls are faced with desperate prospects in trying to “improve” their lives, they are many times “tempted by the prospect of gaining material benefits and are perceived as bad and more likely to be trafficked,” continued The Asia Foundation.

The daughter of Tamang was lost. But for Tamang, it’s not a new incident, because the loss of girls in Nepal is quite common in Sindhupalchowk. (Sindhupalchowk is a district of the Central Development Region of Nepal in the Bagmati Zone, 75 KM from Kathmandu).
80% of Nepal’s population lives in rural areas. It is a peopled by a majority of youth. The average age in Nepal is only 20. According to 2007 statistics from the UNDP – the United Nations Development Programme, Sindhupalchok district has a total population of 305,857. Literacy there is 46.5%. Infant mortality is 48 per 1,000 births. Child mortality is 61 per 1,000. It is an area wracked with very extreme poverty.

The forced prostitution of teenage girls in Sindhupalchok is a ongoing hideous crime of deceit, deception and broken promises. In many rural areas, some girls leave home due to domestic violence and other personal problems. But there also exists many cases of missing girls who have left home purely in an attempt to better their life or to provide for family obligations.

Many sex-traffickers take advantage of these conditions as they falsely encourage girls to leave home.

Often these daughters are persuaded to travel with people who offer marriage and a better life, jobs or money. Many times, they and their parents are also promised education in the large cities of neighboring India. While this is not often the case, some parents who are suffering under severe economic hardship are also known to deceive their daughters as they sell them to traffickers.

“Trafficking in persons means the recruitment, transportation, purchase, sale, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by threat or use of violence, abduction, force, fraud, deception or coercion (including the abuse of authority), or debt bondage, for the purpose of placing or holding such person, whether for pay or not, in forced labor or slavery-like practices, in a community other than the one in which such person lived at the time of the original act described,” said Sri Lankan attorney and UN Special Rapporteur on Violence, Radhika Coomaraswamy, at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Watching Tamang enter his house after his day’s work he consoled his wife, Sunita, as their worry about Tara mounted. These are the moments when Tamang should be sharing his pleasures and pains with his wife. He loves Sunita very deeply. He remembered well how he had sung love songs while going to the market in his youth with Sunita. But now, how can he console his wife? Tara was missing and there was no one who knew where she had gone.
Tamang tries to control his hesitating and worried mind. He lights a leaf-wrapped cigarette letting his mind burn along with the dark stick of cigarette. “This life just goes on burning just like a cigarette!” he sighed in dismay.

Because most sex-trafficking in rural Nepal is often made through personal contacts and arrangements, up-to-date detailed accurate documentation and data of girls who have been forced into the global sex-industry in this region is still greatly lacking. Tragically, many missing girls from Nepal disappear deep into the brothel system of India without a trace. As time passes, they are often sold again and again, to one owner after another, only to settle deep into the degradation of life trapped as a young prostitute.

In 2007, the Interim Government of Nepal upheld sanctions against all human trafficking in Nepal.


29. Right Against Exploitation

(1) Every person shall have the right against exploitation.

(2) No person shall be exploited in the name of custom, tradition and practice,

or in any other way

(3) No person shall be subjected to human trafficking, slavery or bonded labour.

(4) No person shall be subject to forced labour.

The top destination for most Nepalese girls is to Mumbai brothels. Other common destinations for run-away girls leaving Nepal include the cities of Pune, Delhi and Kolkata, India. Calcutta, too, is an area where trafficking is a lucrative business. Areas outside of India include cities in numerous locations in the Middle East / Asia regions.

Tamang’s wife, Sunita, cast a quick glance towards Tamang. It was then he felt overwhelmed with love.
“What can you do now by crying?” he said to his wife. “Instead, let’s leave this village and go far away, tomorrow right away! Could it be that our daughter went to Kathmandu?”

Girls who are victims of sex-trafficking in Nepal often come from the very poorest regions of Nepal. Without education or opportunity they often live with their families on the poorest outcast edge of society. Often food may be scarce or clean water unavailable. Missing girls can be as young as 8 or 9, but are most often 14 – 18 yrs of age. They often come from the very lowest caste in Nepali society, where hardship is the norm, although current trends in trafficking are showing higher-caste girls who are also being bought and sold by traffickers.

For the last decade it has been estimated that  6,000 – 7,000 girls are trafficked out of Nepal each year. But these numbers have recently risen substantially. Current numbers for girls trafficked out of the country are now 10,000 to 15,000 yearly. This is compounded as the US Central Intelligence Agency states that most trafficked girls are currently worth, in their span as a sex-worker, approx $250,000 (USD) on the sex-trades market.

2005 data from case records documented by six rehabilitation centers in Nepal of sex-trafficked women show that most (72.7%) rural girls who are trafficked are Hindu by religion. 59.9% are unmarried. 46.5% are 16-18 yrs of age and 77.2% have none to little education.

Tamang wanted to speak but  he felt an unbearable pain in his heart. He thought it not at all proper to cry in front of his wife.
“I had suggested that we should get Tara married in time,” said Sunita. “You heard my words in one ear and let it go through another ear. Now, who knows, someone could have taken her away and sold her!”
Tamang’s heart was broken in two as his wife spoke. He felt as if someone had smeared his burning chest in salt and red chilies.

The odds for a girl to escape her life in the brothels, once she is there, is very slim. Only a dismal percentage (6.9%) of brothel owners will voluntarily release one of their girls. 73.7% of all girls trapped inside the brothel system must be rescued if they are ever to reach the outside world again.

Maiti Nepal, a 20 yr old rescue organization,based in Kathmandu, is one of the organizations that today manages ongoing rescue of Nepali girls from the brothels of Mumbai. Going up against organized crime in India is not an easy matter though. “The criminal elements that ‘deliver’ young girls are a ruthless enemy and have political connections at the highest levels in India and Nepal. Maiti Nepal’s main office in Kathmandu has been destroyed twice and Maiti workers must travel with a bodyguard when overseeing rescue missions in India,” said the sister organization of Maiti Nepal, called Friends of Nepal.

As Tamang got up abruptly he thought of the young man, Harka, who grew up in his village. In fact, he had heard rumors from time to time about the intimate relation of his daughter with Harka. Maybe his daughter was taken away by him. “Harka is not a good man. I don’t trust him,” thought Tamang. “He was under police custody for seven days when he was involved in a squabble in the village.”

Most sex-trafficking (59.4%) in Nepal is carried out through “Dalals” or brokers who falsely guarantee good work to girl-children who are willing to travel to other country locations. At times, the some Dalals even pretend to marry girls who come from families with little resources, as they sell them in the brothels. The real tragedy is that most, if not all, trafficking victims fall into forced prostitution because of false promises made by someone “familiar” to them.

“It is estimated that 50 percent of Nepalese sex workers in Mumbai brothels are HIV positive,” says a World Bank 2004 report. The youngest victims of sex-trafficking are those most likely to be directly exposed to HIV/AIDS. There is an “increased risk among those trafficked prior to age 15 years,” says a 2007 JAMA – American Medical Association report.

Coming home with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis causes most trafficked girls to suffer intense judgement. Often Nepal society blames the victims of sex-trafficking, not the traffickers, for choosing a “life of immorality.”

Tamang couldn’t get a wink of sleep the whole night. On one hand, he was extremely worried at the thought of his missing daughter. On the other hand, his wife didn’t allow him to fall asleep because of her nightlong weeping. Seeing his own cold bed he was angry and disgusted. “What is the use of such a life which is full of so many wants?” he said. Even if Tamang worked hard through the year, he could not afford sufficient food for the family nor could he spend more than a few rupees in front of his friends and relatives. And now, on top of it all his daughter, Tara, is lost.


On top of the discrimination thrown at them for being “sex-workers” many trafficked girls also end up dealing with rejection by others because they have HIV/AIDS. In 2007, JAMA outlined statistics that prove a direct rise in HIV/AIDS cases in the youngest section of girls trafficked from Nepal. These girls are usually 9 to 14 yrs of age. “Within this high-risk group, risk for HIV was increased among girls trafficked at 14 years or younger (60.6% HIV-positive) to those trafficked to Mumbai (49.6% HIV positive) and to those reporting longer duration in brothels,” the JAMA report states.

These problems are wrapped deep inside the structure of Nepal and Indian society as a whole. Girls and women in Nepal are usually only given status according to the economic and social standing of their fathers and/or brothers. A majority of Nepali women are expected to live according to “traditional” Nepali standards that leaves little opportunity to build any self-esteem.

According to JAMA, “Sexuality is a taboo in Nepal; discussing sex and sexuality is beyond the social morality,” states a FWLD – Forum for Women Law and Development (Kathmandu) report. “Sex work is considered ‘deviant’ behavior and is unacceptable (in Nepal). As a result, sex workers retain highly marginalized status in the society.”


Kay Chernush US Department of State
Young women used in prostitution wait for customer/exploiters in Mumbai’s red light district. They face routine violence from pimps and customers and a wide range of diseases and adverse health effects — from sexually-transmitted diseases and tuberculosis, to rape, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, and murder. Image: Kay Chernush US Department of State

Drug use, too, among girls who have been in the brothels for extended periods of time causes many problems as these girls are returned home to families and home communities. Girls who have received no assistance with drug rehab often try to return to their life in the brothels because of their intense addiction.

“Injection drug use appears to be extensive in Nepal and to overlap with commercial sex. Another important factor is the high number of sex workers who migrate or are trafficked to Mumbai, India to work, thereby increasing HIV prevalence in the sex workers’ network in Nepal more rapidly,” says World Bank Asia (2008).

Predominant drugs abused by trafficked girls working in Mumbai brothels includes cough syrup, cannabis, heroin and propoxyphene (Darvon), along with alcohol and mild tranquilizers. Addiction in the brothels is common among the young prostitutes there.

The next morning as Tamang walked slowly on the street of his village, he went to talk to his good  friend, Murali. Many years ago, there was a severe famine in the village and Tamang’s field had no yield. It was Murali who proved himself and gave Tamang 48 lbs of corn and 32 lbs of rice for the season. It was Murali who didn’t accept any repayment of the loan. Tamang had never forgotten such generosity.
As Tamang walked the village street he saw a crowd had gathered as a rising noise came from a stream of people. Tamang was startled. He had seen this kind of crowd and uproar only once before at the time of the election in Nepal. What kind of unexpected calamity had fallen in the village? Tamang headed straight toward the house of Murali.


The average stay for most girls in a brothel is not short. Brothel stays for girls who have been rescued average 12 – 36 months inside the brothel system. Unfortunately, those who cannot be rescued are trapped for many more additional years. Even with current ongoing attempts to rescue girls by rescue agencies, countless girls fall desperately through the cracks.

At the border between Nepal and India rescue agencies attempt to inspect cars for young girls who appear to be trafficked. But even with this, girls and traffickers do make it through. These car searches and border interviews are usually done without the assistance of police or Nepal government agencies.

As Tamang walked closer to Murali’s home people began shouting. Then, through a break in the crowd Tamang saw his friend, Murali’s daughter laying on the ground. Her dead body was on the edge of the street. She was filled with death. Had died of HIV/AIDS and someone had thrown her body there. 

“The poor soul!” cried an old woman in desperation from the street. “Who was the one who killed this girl at such a young age?” she asked. “She never spoke a bad word to anybody. Such a good girl who has now become a victim of such an evil fate!” 

“The high rates of HIV infection seen among these survivors of trafficking, indicates a need for greater attention from the public health community to this population and to prevention of this violent gender-based crime and human rights violation,” said the 2007 JAMA report.

“In Mumbai and Pune, for example, 54% and 49% of sex workers, respectively, were found to be HIV-positive (NACO, 2005). A large proportion of women with HIV appear to have acquired the virus from regular partners who were infected during paid sex. HIV prevention efforts targeted at sex workers are being implemented in India. However, the context of sex work is complex and enforcement of outdated laws often act as a barrier against effective HIV prevention and treatment efforts. Indeed, condom use is limited especially when commercial encounters take place in ‘risky’ locations with low police tolerance for this activity.”

“Controlling trafficking has been compounded by the conflict of the last ten years,” said Dr. Arzu Rana Deuba, Executive Chairperson of Samanata Institute for Social and Gender Equality in Kathmandu in a September 2008 interview with photo-journalist Mikel Dunham. “The communities (in Nepal) became poorer and some of them had no recourse but to try to find a means for a livelihood. During and after the conflict, there was a lot of displacement, a lot of women came to the urban centers, and most were not equipped to get into jobs. They were not educated–no skills. So a lot of them became ‘dancers’, you know? So now, it’s like a phenomenon. Every town you go to, you have all these dance bars. It’s just a front for brothels,” Dr. Deuba added.

On the grisly sight of Marali’s daughter Tamang thought of his own his daughter and wife. He thought of the conditions of his family, of his life, his home. He was paralyzed with grief. He fell over the body of the young girl and started crying. Now we have to live a pathetic life here,” he said. “We are in Sindhupalchowk, as thousands of young girls who are living in the rural areas are the victims of trafficking!”


The 1999 “Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation” states that over 200,000 Nepali girls exist to supply the world as sex “products” for sale. Along with India, China, Eastern Europe, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other regions, many nations have also been areas that receive and use Nepali girls in the sex-trafficking and porn industries. In 1999, the city of Hong Kong was the second largest destination for trafficked girls from Nepal.

Along the 1,740 mile border between Nepal and India, smuggling a girl is still very easy today.

The district of Sindupalchow is not the only district guilty of smuggling girls. The rural districts of Makwanpur, Dhading and Khavre are also very involved in the ongoing trafficking of girls in sex-exploitation.

“The government has made stringent laws, but again, the problem is enforcement. Most of the traffickers are very rich. They buy the lawyers. They have money to hire top-class lawyers. They may be even paying bribes to come out of it. And the other thing we have noticed is that most of the women who are trafficked are poor. So even if they come back and they file a case, eventually, they’re pressured by their family, who are paid off by the traffickers to keep quiet. And the legal system in Nepal takes forever for a case to be resolved. That has been one problem… When the traffickers are caught, very few are brought to justice,” continued Dr. Arzu Rana Deuba, as she outlined the ongoing problems of enforcement against trafficking in Nepal.


In an emmy award winning film, Executive Director of Apneaap Women Worldwide, hero Ruchira Gupta, works with the brothels of Mubai that continues the degradation of the children of women who have been trafficked from Nepal to serve in India’s sex-industry. This is a 6:29 min film excerpt.


For more information on sex-trafficking in Nepal link to:

Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation – College of Arts and Sciences, University of Rhode Island and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), Norway

Fallen Angels – photo essay by Thomas L. Kelley

Trafficking and Human Rights in Nepal: Community Perceptions and Policy and Program Response, 2001 – Horizons, Population Council & The Asia Foundation

Litigation, Girl Trafficking in Nepal – INTS 4945 Human Rights Advocacy Clinic, Jennifer Aengst, 2001

Interim Constitution of Nepal 2063 (2007) – UNDP, United Nations Development Programme

HIV Prevalence and Prediction in Nepalese Sex-Trafficked Girls – JAMA, American Medical Association, 2007


Sources for this article include: Friends of UNDP – United Nations Development Programme, Maiti Nepal, CIPA – Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, FWLD – Forum for Women Law and Development (Kathmandu), UNDP – United Nations Development Programme, The Asia Foundation, US Department of State, JAMA – American Medical Association, University of Denver – Human Rights Advocacy Center, UNODC – United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, The World Bank – HIV/AIDS South Asia Report, Nepal Branch of Statistics Offices – Central Bureau of Statistics, photographer, Mikel Dunham, WILPF – Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Human Rights Watch, Opportunities and Choices Reproductive Health Research Program, Southhampton, UK, 1996-2001 and Terre des hommes Foundation – Kathmandu.


WNN correspondent, Kamala Sarup, specializes in reporting and writing stories on peace and anti-war issues, women, democracy and development. Some of her other publications include: Women’s Empowerment in South Asia, Nepal; Prevention of Trafficking in Women Through Media; Efforts to Prevent Trafficking for Media Activism.

2007 Pushcart Prize nominee, humanitarian journalist and award winning playwright, Lys Anzia, is founding director for Women News Network – WNN. Lys is strongly dedicated to bringing issues of global women’s equality and human rights to the public through the use of media.


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