issue 260 - October 1994
Bombay brothels evict sick Nepali girls
PETER & LUCY HOLLIDAY
Maya squats on the floor in a women’s shelter near Kathmandu, her sunken eyes staring out from her face. Her head bowed, she mumbles a story of inhuman conditions and suffering. As if shocked by her own words, she nervously presses her painfully thin fingers to her lips. Maya was a prostitute in an Indian brothel and now she has AIDS.
At the age of 14 Maya was taken from her home in the hills near Gorkha, West Nepal, and imprisoned by an Indian brothel owner. ‘I had gone to the cinema with my friend,’ she recalls. ‘A man approached me and said he would take me to Bombay to earn lots of money as a film star.’ Maya says she was kidnapped and remembers nothing of the journey to India. The man sold her to a brothel in Bombay’s Belahouse district.
Induction into brothel life was swift. Maya was starved, beaten and raped until her resistance was broken. She spent the next 15 years of her life in the brothel, living in a cramped room where she and other girls received up to 10 clients a day.
Maya’s story is typical of thousands of girls who are traded across Nepal’s open border with India to satisfy the clientele of red-light districts in Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta. As increasing numbers of Nepali prostitutes return home with the AIDS virus, their plight has begun to draw the attention of international aid agencies.
According to the Indian Health Organization there are approximately 100,000 girls from Nepal in India’s brothels, a third of whom are the victims of forced prostitution. As many as 7,000 join them every year.
The roots of the trafficking network lie in Nepal’s remote hill villages, where agents, often local people, earn commission on the sale of girls to the Indian brothel owners. It is big business. The profits are reaped by the leaders of the trafficking gangs who have other interests in Nepal’s hotel and carpet-manufacturing industries. Despite strict anti-trafficking laws few arrests result in conviction and accusations of police collusion and political corruption abound.
When they become too ill to work the girls are no longer of use to the brothel owners and are sent home. Maya was thrown out of the brothel two years ago when she was discovered to be HIV positive. She had no choice but to return to Nepal, leaving her four-year-old daughter in the hands of the brothel madam.
Routine testing of prostitutes for HIV by the Indian health authorities has led to an increasing number of girls being sent home to Nepal. World Health Organization figures confirm that half of the prostitutes in Bombay – of whom 40 per cent are from Nepal – are HIV positive.
Some advocate the legalization of prostitution in Asia as the only means to control the trafficking. Others believe slow progress can be made by increasing awareness of the issue. For Maya, there is some hope that her daughter will be found and brought to join her in Nepal. At least one little girl, perhaps, can then be spared the life of degradation suffered by so many.
Evidence of massacres in Guatemala
Just outside the small village of Plan de Sanchez, a two-minute climb from the dirt road, lies the site of a massacre. It took place on 18 July 1982 at the height of the Guatemalan Army’s counter-insurgency campaign.
Today a team of forensic anthropologists is unearthing the remains of an estimated 200 people who were murdered here.
The Equipo de Antropologia Forense de Guatemala was established in 1992 by a group of students and young professionals on the model of the Forensic Anthropology Team that investigates disappearances in Argentina. This is the most recent exhumation in a total of eight carried out so far.
‘People are still suffering 12 years later,’ whispers one man whose wife and family lie in the grave. ‘Until the bodies have been dug up and we are able to have proper burials we will not be able to live in peace or experence any kind of tranquillity.’
More than 100,000 people have been killed and 40,000 ‘disappeared’ during an attempted genocide of the largely Mayan highland peoples of Guatemala by Government forces. Civilian groups have called for a Commission that would name those responsible. A recent accord in Oslo between the Guatemalan Government and the rebel alliance agreed to set up a ‘Truth Commission’ to establish ‘institutional responsibility’ rather than name individuals.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu is critical of the accord, saying that there are ‘frequently-mentioned surnames in the history of Guatemala who are implicated in the repression’.
The Oslo agreement was reached under heavy international pressure, in particular from the ‘Group of Friends of the Negotiations’ (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, the US, Norway and Spain). The Guatemalan Government has been offered financial inducements to create ‘stable’ conditions in the country. There is no prospect of a military victory for the rebels. But a lasting peace is unlikely to be established unless those responsible for mass murder are brought to justice.
The brigands are back
The scourge of the seventeenth-century Caribbean has returned to haunt Port Georgetown. Armed pirates are staging almost daily attacks on ships entering the harbour and shipping companies are buying extra insurance to make up for losses.
‘The ships are actually coming prepared to be pirated and vandalized,’ says Harbour Master Steve Thomas. Sometimes almost all the vessels entering the port each day are attacked, including fishing boats and even a coast-guard vessel robbed earlier this year.
‘This indicates the extent of the problem. The ship was a military vessel, but they could not care less,’ says Thomas.
About 22 ocean-going ships call at the port each week from New York, Miami, London or the Netherlands to unload cars and other consumer goods. Georgetown is the export point for local products, including rice, bauxite, wildlife, sugar and rum.
Thomas worries ships will be reluctant to come to this South American country because of its renewed ‘seventeenth-century trade’. Port Georgetown has been singled out in international shipping bulletins and ship owners forced to buy special coverage for the Guyana leg of any voyage.
Armed groups of mostly young Guyanese men in small boats move up alongside the ships, in both the Atlantic Ocean and the Demerara River, which runs seven miles from the harbour into the Atlantic.
The pirates board the vessels, usually at night, and steal everything from radar equipment to sailors’ personal belongings. In several cases pirates have entered a captain’s cabin and tried to break into the ship safe. They sell the bulk of the loot on the streets locally.
Albert Smith, traffic manager of the state-owned Guyana National Engineering Corporation, which does a lot of shipping, says the pirates board the ships using rods with hooks attached to pull themselves up onto the bow. At least two have been killed in the last five years, shot by guards. There have been no reports of injured sailors and the pirates apparently never attempt to take over the ships.
Most of the security measures taken by importers and ship owners have failed, including hiring security firms to protect vessels in the harbour. The port is vulnerable to piracy because Guyana’s marine police do not have enough vessels and its coastguard is more concerned with drug trafficking and illegal fishing.
Bert Wilkinson A/P
Almost a quarter of the 400 parliamentarians in South Africa’s new National Assembly are women – a higher proportion than in the UK or the US. There are equality clauses in the new Constitution and in the country’s first Bill of Rights. Politicians from Mandela down routinely stress the need for ‘gender sensitivity’ and every promise to end racism includes a pledge of non-sexism as well. Despite significant legislative changes and programmes aimed at improving the economic and social position of women, especially in the rural areas, the inner sanctum of political power is still elusive. There are only two women in the 27-strong Cabinet.
LOOMIS DEAN / CAMERA PRESS
The Rose of Morocco
Orna and Yossi Yishi have won a nationwide contest in Morocco to select the most beautiful rose grown in the country. The surprising thing is that they are from Israel, a country with which Morocco is still technically at war. However the farming technology crossover from Israel to Morocco is not so surprising – Israeli farmers have battled with similar arid conditions as the Moroccans and have evolved seeds which produce crops geared to the export market. Farmers in Morocco are exempt from paying taxes which has actually led to some Israeli advisors setting up shop in the country. Does this mean that there is in reality peace between the two countries? ‘Not peace – just a pleasant atmosphere,’ according to Moroccan Tourism Minister Serge Bardago.
Since last year the BBC Marshall Plan of the Mind (MPM) has been making programmes for Radio Russia which explain to baffled Russians how to live in the world of democratic capitalism. One series explains how to run a business, another talks about how a free market is supposed to work, describing privatization, bankruptcy and that essential of the new Russian economy, inflation. With three-and-a-half hours of broadcasting time a week ‘How Business Works’ is attracting huge audiences of 5.5 million people.
The Economist, Vol 332, No 7872
Pesticides poison Colombian workers
‘It’s a contradiction,’ says the doctor sombrely. ‘Work is meant to embrace your well-being. But here the more people work the worse their health gets. The future looks bleak for these women.’
Dr Emilio Reyes (names have been changed to protect anonymity) stands outside the small regional hospital where he has practised for the past five years. He has seen all the illnesses the area has to offer, particularly those of its main employer, the flower industry. In the background a woman arrives, helped to the hospital door by two colleagues. She is trembling, unable to speak clearly, her face very pale.
The doctor says she is one of up to five a day who arrive acutely poisoned at work. Pesticide poisoning: this is the price, for some workers, of Colombia’s flower industry, the second largest in the world and the second largest exporter of flowers to the UK after Holland.
In the plastic-sheeted greenhouses which line the broad, fertile plains of Bogotá’s savannah, dozens of pesticides – some of them banned in Europe and the US – are routinely sprayed to give the flowers the perfect look they need for European or US markets.
Some of the larger, more modern companies do claim to protect their workers. But, according to the women who do most of the work, poverty wages, pesticide poisoning, chronic and severe health problems are faced by the majority of Colombia’s 70,000 flower workers.
Flower companies are present in 25 out of 27 of the main municipalities in the savannah plains and are major job creators and contributors to local taxes. But a single large company may consume as much water as a community of 20,000 people and the level of the water table has fallen sharply. Pesticides also pollute water supplies and contaminate milk and meat. Wages average $30 a week and one estimate suggests some 300 children are illegally employed in the industry.
Campaigners outside Colombia are not calling for a boycott of the Colombian flower trade, since working women would be the first to suffer. But they are asking importers to buy only from responsible employers under a new verification system. The idea of a fairly-traded flower is being pioneered in Germany.
For further details of the fairly-traded flower campaign contact Christian Aid, PO Box 100, London SE1 7RT
Pride and privacy
In Australia a Federal-Government-funded privacy-advice kit for school children is causing a furore. The kit, which advises students they can stop teachers searching their bags and lockers for drugs, has angered teachers and some politicians. On the one hand, the writers of the kit wonder if children are being persuaded to be unaware of their rights in case it encourages rebellious behaviour. On the other, teachers argue that their position of responsibility requires that they ensure that schools remain safe, even if this means inspecting lockers and bags.
‘Change is within the land, as if the Earth were pregnant,
full of this new life, and the time has arrived to give birth.’
Elda Broilo, Movement of Landless Rural Workers, Brazil.
Courtesy Anders Corr, Santa Cruz, California.