bombs, bowling, and interviews with sex workers...just another day in Kathmandu

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Asia » Nepal » Kathmandu » Hadigaon
April 4th 2008
Published: April 6th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

I’m a little freaked out tonight. I was at dinner with a couple of friends when my Embassy friend got a call that there were 5 bombings throughout the city. And then as we were walking to find a taxi, we passed some other Embassy people who said we needed to go straight home. As far as I can tell from the news, the bombings were around election offices. No word on injured or killed. All I know is as the election grows nearer, I am getting more nervous.

I thought today was going to be another day filled with boredom, but it here turned out to be pretty exciting. I’d rather not have the excitement of bombs, but at least the rest of my day was good.

This morning Deepti and I went to another NGO called Raksha (Protection) Nepal. This organization trains women working in the sex industry on other skills that can make them an income, such as sewing (the women were sewing stuffed animals when we got there today), beauty salon skills, tempo driving, etc. The owner is a 25 year old woman with an MSW who received funding from the Global Fund for Women and her “godmother” in the U.S. to run the organization. She used to sing at a “cultural entertainment” restaurant, which was in reality a cover for a typical dance restaurant. She quickly learned how the women who worked there were being violated sexually, so she quit and became interested in starting an NGO to help such women. The women who use the NGO’s services still work their regular jobs until they develop the skills to allow them to go into a different occupation. We actually got 2 interviews with sex workers today. They were very tough interviews to do, as both women cried during them. But I have been working on this project for 5 months and am finally getting data from the people who live the stuff I’ve been hearing about.

The first woman was 22 years old and separated from her husband, to whom she was married at 15. She said he was an alcoholic and beat her regularly, even at the final stages of her pregnancy. So after her daughter was born and 9 months old, she left him and went back to her mother’s house. With no luck finding a job in the village, she left her daughter with her mom and came to Kathmandu to find work.

At first she was working in construction—moving sand from one place to another. But the money was not enough. And because she is illiterate and not educated, she has few options. So at the advisement of a friend, she started working in a massage parlor in Thamel. This one is mostly visited by Nepali men, some Indians, and occasionally a white foreigner. This place gives “sassages,” sex with a massage—sometimes just intercourse, sometimes intercourse and a blowjob. The customers pay 600 Rs (a little less than $10), and the women get 150 of it. Luckily, this particular establishment requires that customers wear a condom, or else the management throws them out. She said she sees about 2 customers per day.

The woman said she hates her job, but she has no choice right now because it is the best money she can make given the circumstances. She told us her dream is to finish the training at Raksha, go back to her village, open a tailor shop, and start sending her daughter (who is now 4 years old and still not speaking) to school. Her eyes were tearful during the entire interview, particularly when talking about her daughter.

The second woman we interviewed is a GRO (guest relationship officer) at a dance restaurant. Her job, as she described it, is to make the customers happy, as well as the manager. This means getting the customers to buy drinks and snacks, allowing them to touch her wherever they want, and allowing them to order her around and yell curse words at her without complaint.

This woman was 24 years old. She left her village a few years ago to avoid being drafted by the Maoists into their military camps. She’s been in Kathmandu ever since. Also illiterate and uneducated, her best option for income was getting a job at this restaurant. But she told us we can’t even imagine how terrible the work is, and she burst into tears.

The GROs at this restaurant make 2500 Rs per month. If they are late one day (which might happen fairly often with so many traffic jams in the city), their pay for that day is reduced by 25% or they are not paid at all (but still have to work). She also said she is often not paid on time every month. Since these women pay about 1500 Rs per month just to rent rooms, 2500 Rs is far from enough. And back in the village, her mother has asthma and requires expensive medication every month. So she is forced to engage in sex work a few times per week as well in order to survive in Kathmandu and be able to send money home to her mother. In this case, clients will pay 4000-5000 Rs to take her to a guest house and pretty much do whatever he wants to her—including sex without a condom. She said sometimes the women have to have sex with the manager first before he will allow them to go out with a customer. And sometimes the customer will fuck her, and then run away without even paying, or dump her on the street in the middle of the night in an area she doesn’t know and where she cannot find a taxi.

She also talked about how she had what the doctor thought was an STI at one point. So far she is clear of HIV and has not gotten pregnant. And she visits the gynecologist pretty regularly. But it sounds like she is constantly afraid of getting STIs and HIV…and who can blame her? This woman is also getting training at the NGO and hopes to return to her village soon.

We go back on Sunday to do a few more interviews. I am also going to be doing my sexual health program for the women there in a couple weeks—not to collect data for my research, but just to sort of give something back to the organization for allowing me to speak with this women. I was kind of numb during these interviews, and that made me a little worried. I used to tear up hearing such stories or get angry. I don’t know if I’ve become desensitized to the whole thing or if it will hit me later, maybe after my whole experience here is over. But it worries me that these women started crying and all I could do is shake my head in sympathy and hand them a Kleenex.

And then what did I do? I spent a lot of money wasting time yesterday. Money that could have easily prevented them from performing one extra sex act this month. And for a moment I felt guilty. But then if I allow myself to think like that all the time—how many kids could I be educating with this money I am spending, how many women could be fed, how many condoms could be purchased—I will drive myself into a pit of anxiety. I despise the fact that the world works like this, that just because of where I was born I have so many more opportunities. But I’m starting to realize that there’s only so much I can do without driving myself crazy.

So the afternoon was spent with Mari. We met at the Royal Hana for a Japanese lunch and then spent a couple of hours sitting in their hot spring. It’s this nice stone hot tub-like setup in the middle of a little bamboo forest they created. We sat in the tub until it got too hot, then laid on the wooden chairs staring up at the birds jumping around on the bamboo branches. And when we got cold again, went back into the tub. It was very relaxing. We had to wear lungis—these long pieces of cloth that cover from the top of your chest down to the middle of your calves—because women in Nepal do not walk around in bathing suits, let alone bikinis.

Late in the afternoon we met another friend at the one bowling alley in Kathmandu, and much to our surprise, it was actually pretty nice. Only 4 lanes, but it looked like someone had gone to the U.S., went bowling and loved it, and came back to Nepal to build their own bowling alley. Just like in the U.S. there was a bowling shoe rack, video games, pool tables, and even a dart board. The Nepalis there were not scoring very high, as I’m sure bowling is a new game to many of them. I was doing pretty well, and a Nepali guy sitting next to me asked if I had played the game before. I just smiled and nodded, but it was at that point I realized that most Nepalis probably don’t know what bowling is, while I’ve been doing it for fun social time since I was a kid.

Now I’m sitting here, waiting for more news on the bombings to come through. The next week during the few days before and during the election could be dicey.


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