When Nepali Women Are Victims of Sex Trafficking, Their Kids Pay the Price, Too

Nepal is one of the few countries where citizenship can only be passed down through both parents. This means there's little hope for the children of single mothers who were victims of sex trafficking.

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Sep 11 2015, 9:20am

Nepali women at a protest for citizenship rights. Photo by Salim Ali

"If I could kill one person without being punished, it would be my husband."

Puja*, a former sex worker, speaks quietly, but firmly. "I'd bring a long knife..." she stops and throws a hand over her mouth. A slip of the tongue made her say the Nepali word for dick instead of "long," and she looks mortified.

Puja, 24, and another former sex worker, Dipa*, 30, are telling their stories over coffee and chicken pizza in the back garden of a café in Kathmandu. Both women fell into the sex industry when they came to the capital in their early teens to escape grinding poverty back home; a "friend" lured them here with promises of a job where "you can make great money and don't have to work hard!" Although Puja and Dipa overcame their initial terror at sleeping with men, customers would constantly tell them (after the job was finished), "You shouldn't do this work." Both trusted a customer who promised to get them out of sex work, and both were left by their lovers when they got pregnant.

Read More: In Nepal, Women on Their Periods are Banished From Their Homes

But Menuka Thapa, president of Raksha Nepal, a Nepali NGO helping women escape the domestic sex industry, hasn't just brought them here to talk about trafficking. That story is depressingly well written. Both women are here to talk about citizenship, and more specifically, the current impossibility of their young daughters getting it.

Citizenship has emerged as a key point of contention in the forthcoming Nepali constitution. The long-delayed document will establish the governing rules for the country as it transitions from the Hindu kingdom that ruled for the last two centuries until the end of Maoist-led civil war in 2007. Spurred by the April and May 2015 earthquakes that rocked the country and by the need for a budget for reconstruction, the constitution is finally due this month. But disagreements over key provisions—including citizenship—may prevent the government from meeting its deadline.

Many nations confer citizenship automatically through birth in the country, but Nepal belongs to a restrictive club (Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Myanmar) that requires both parents to be citizens for their child obtain a passport. This leaves around 4.3 million Nepalis (about 15% of the population) stateless. And while the provision might seem like an equal-opportunity offender against both sexes, single mothers like Puja and Dipa far outnumber single fathers—there are 900,000 children of single mothers without citizenship in Nepal compared to 71,000 children of single fathers. A centuries-old patriarchal system puts the women at the bottom of the totem pole.

Women have to humiliate themselves in front of officials and say, 'I had sex with many men and don't know who is the dad.'

Puja, from the Dalit, or "untouchable," caste, ran away from home in part to escape the discrimination she faced at home. (According the Hindu caste system, the "untouchables" are the lowest class of people, considered so ritually impure that they shouldn't touch people or things used by higher castes.) But without any education—not even first grade, she says—the 14-year-old had extremely limited job prospects. She left her job as a maid because despite long hours, she was barely making any money. Her new job at a massage parlor seemed better, until the boss told her she had to sleep with the customers.

After initially refusing, Puja says she then thought about how bad things were in her village. People who have power and money can do anything, she remembers thinking to herself. So if I earn money, I can get respect. Puja says she earned an average of 5000 Nepali rupees (about $50) a day, a huge amount for a young girl in a country where the average daily wage is closer to $2. "Most customers wanted young, cute. She was 15, and she's cute," says Thapa, who met Puja when Raksha Nepal did outreach at the brothel where she worked.

When a 25-year-old regular told Puja she could leave sex work behind by marrying him, she was skeptical. But he persisted, and four months later they were living together like a married couple, though they never filed a marriage certificate and she was never introduced to his family. When she got pregnant a few months later, her husband was not happy. "'Why would you think my family would accept you?'" Puja remembers him saying. "'Don't forget who you are. You're a prostitute and always will be.'" He said the baby wasn't his, and then he left.

Puja figured he'd calm down and return in a few days; she had enough rice and potatoes to last that long. When he didn't turn up, the pregnant teenager felt she had no choice but to return to prostitution.

Puja's husband (she still calls him that) never came back. "I say he died when people ask me," she says. Though Puja left sex work two years ago with Raksha Nepal's help—she now runs her own tailoring shop—the effects linger; to apply for citizenship for her nine-year-old daughter, she'll have to tell government officials why she has no husband. Without any identification for him, calling herself a widow won't cut it. "It's not easy," says Meera Dhungana, a lawyer with the nonprofit Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD). "Women have to humiliate themselves in front of officials and say, 'I had sex with many men and don't know who is the dad.'"

Protesters on bikes at a rally for citizenship through mothers. Photo by Salim Ali

And even if Puja and Dipa could establish that the fathers of their children are Nepali, they have another big problem. Neither woman has citizenship herself.

Nepali law prohibits applying for citizenship before age 16. Child brides like Puja and Dipa, who married before 16, are expected to get their citizenship from their husbands, not their parents. There's a bit of a vacuum in the law on this point, and though it's not explicitly outlawed, local authorities typically refuse to accept citizenship by descent for married women. And by societal standards, paperwork notwithstanding, both Puja and Dipa are married. "I'm married," Puja explains. "I have a baby as evidence."

When Thapa, of Raksha Nepal, took Dipa back to their shared home district to apply for citizenship with local authorities there, the official laughed in her face and told her to apply through her husband. Dipa's parents (who both hold Nepali citizenship) came, too, but that didn't matter. Puja and Dipa must rely on their runaway husbands both for their daughters' citizenships and for their own.

I'm married. I have a baby as evidence.

A 2014 study by two Nepali anti-trafficking organizations, Shakti Samuha and the Women's Rehabilitation Center Nepal, found citizenship concerns for trafficked women and their children to be one of the biggest hurdles in reintegrating survivors back into society. Advocates like Thapa see rises in trafficking now that the earthquakes have destroyed normal society and economic options. The worst-hit districts were already some of the poorest and most rural, and they have the highest rates of trafficking.

Charimaya Tamang, founder of Shakti Samuha and a former trafficking victim herself, says sexual exploitation of female migrant workers in Gulf countries is increasing, too. "Many return pregnant. Some marry with a hope of improving the status of their child, while others leave their child for adoption so they can return back to their own society," she says.

For years, activists like Dhungana have pushed for a change in the constitutional provision stipulating citizenship through both parents. To a rallying cry of "OR not AND," the activists fight to change the clause requiring citizenship through the mother and father to qualifying with either the mother or father. But as of the most recent draft of the constitution, the and looks unlikely to change. Dhungana and FWLD take individual cases to court, but most of the women who need their help live in remote areas and can't access it, or even know it exists.

Why is the Nepali government putting up such a big fight against citizenship through mothers?

Some marry with a hope of improving the status of their child, while others leave their child for adoption so they can return back to their own society.

"India," says Seema Dhami quite simply. The women's rights lawyer explains that conservative politicians fear that allowing mothers alone to bestow citizenship on children will open the floodgates of Indian men pushing an Indian political agenda by conceiving future Nepali citizens. There is little concern about Indian women doing the same.

Puja hopes the tailoring business will stay afloat so she can keep paying her daughter's school tuition without having to sell her body. The door to most jobs is closed without citizenship, and you can forget opening a bank account to save any money. But what's most concerning to the young mothers is that a birth certificate (a similarly impossible document to get without a father's involvement), is needed to enter the eighth grade..

During the sensitive parts of her mother's interview, Puja's daughter, Chori, happily slurps down ice cream at a table out of earshot. The third grader, in a magenta party dress and light pink Mary Janes, later rejoins the group to dutifully answer questions about school: Her favorite subject is social studies. Things are good for now, but without documentation, Puja fears in a few years Chori could wind up down a path frighteningly similar to her own.

*Names have been changed