Spirited Away

Violeta Santos Moura’​​​​​​​s poignant photo essay reveals the tragedy of Nepal's human-trafficking crisis – and the courage of those fighting back.

Spirited away

Violeta Santos Moura’s poignant photo essay reveals the tragedy of Nepal's human-trafficking crisis – and the courage of those fighting back.

The 1,758-kilometre border between Nepal and India, through which nationals from both countries cross without needing passports or visas, is one of the busiest human-trafficking gateways in the world. But since the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, which killed nearly 9,000 people and severely disrupted lives and livelihoods, it has been in overdrive. It is estimated that at least 20,000 women and children are now being trafficked every year.

The crisis has arisen from the compounded effects of a lack of human rights protections, natural disaster, poverty, gender inequality, widespread illiteracy and corruption. Hoping for jobs as domestic workers in a Gulf country, many end up being raped in brothels in Mumbai, New Delhi and further afield. The methods of trafficking are many: drugged and sold by strangers; duped by neighbours; sold sometimes – whether knowingly or not – by desperate family members or abusive husbands; lured by someone online by means of a marriage promise, a job opportunity or an offer of a role in a Bollywood movie just across the border. While women and girls are often sold for commercial sex, trafficking for forced labour and illegal organ harvesting in underground clinics in India includes men and boys as well.

But Nepal’s civil society is fighting back: every day monitors, some of whom are trafficking survivors themselves, try to intercept and rescue potential victims at border posts. Others raise their voices against the deep social stigma that pursues trafficking survivors upon their return to their communities.

Danger is also present at home with many victims never crossing the border. Women and girls are trafficked from rural areas to urban centres within Nepal with the promise of well-paid work. Instead, they end up forced into sex work in the hundreds of dance bars or massage parlours functioning as fronts for brothels in Kathmandu. According to UNICEF Nepal, an estimated 11,000 to 13,000 girls and women are working in the ‘night entertainment industry’ in the Kathmandu Valley alone, the majority of whom are underage. However, actual numbers are likely to be much higher since women and girls are coached to lie about their age and their situation to social workers or face reprisal by business owners and pimps.

According to the NGO Terre des Hommes: ‘The majority of girls and women are recruited by peers – persons from their own village who are working in the entertainment industry. Most feel that at the time they were recruited, they were deceived about the nature of the job.’ Often being trafficked into the local sex industry is the first step, before being lured abroad by false promises. These images shine a light on this essentially shady business and the human toll it takes. They were recorded before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in Nepal. The pandemic has led to a surge in joblessness and will likely provide many more desperate potential targets for the human traffickers. It has also made life easier for them as border monitoring booths set up by anti-trafficking NGOs have had to be closed.

Where did I go?’ N looks at a mirror  before going on stage at the dance bar – a  front for a brothel – in downtown Kathmandu  where she works. The cross tattooed on her  shoulder suggests that N (or her parents before  her) converted to Christianity, maybe hoping to  escape ‘lower caste’ status in the Nepalese Hindu  social hierarchy. The disadvantages, including  extreme poverty, of caste discrimination make  women and girls from these communities a prime  target for traffickers.
Where did I go?’ N looks at a mirror before going on stage at the dance bar – a front for a brothel – in downtown Kathmandu where she works. The cross tattooed on her shoulder suggests that N (or her parents before her) converted to Christianity, maybe hoping to escape ‘lower caste’ status in the Nepalese Hindu social hierarchy. The disadvantages, including extreme poverty, of caste discrimination, make women and girls from these communities a prime target for traffickers.

 

A client reflected in a mirror and a wall of garlanded deities at a Kathmandu ‘sassage’ parlour.
 L gives a tourist a massage, during which she will ask if he would like ‘extra service’, or paid sex, at a ‘sassage’ parlour in Kathmandu. The girls and women in such parlours earn much less than sex workers in bars or restaurants as they have no access to income from customer purchases of food and drink, and are dependent solely on their sex work. 
Rest your weary head: Sunita Danwar comforts T and covers her face, while posing for a portrait at Danwar’s home in Kathmandu. The two women, survivors of sexual trafficking, give each other, and others like them, strength. T survived abuse and enslavement in Kuwait. Danwar was kidnapped from her family at 14 and was rescued after four years from a Mumbai brothel. Danwar co-founded, with other women and girls rescued with her from India, the anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Samuha (Power Group). Barely literate, still coping with trauma and facing deep social stigma, Sunita succeeded in rebuilding her life, in spearheading the struggle against sexual trafficking in Nepal and in providing an education for her daughter in a country where only 53 per cent of women are literate.

: Saraswati Adhikari limbers up. She  was sold at nine by a neighbour to a travelling circus in  India, where she was not allowed to go to school or paid,  was routinely beaten and was married off at 14. She had  already given birth to three children by 17. After she and  13 others were rescued and returned to Nepal, they soon  realized they knew little else other than circus performance, a  stigmatized occupation. Guided by an NGO, they formed their  own contemporary circus company in an attempt to make  ends meet and to realize their vision of a modern, free and  educational circus.
Saraswati Adhikari limbers up. She was sold at nine by a neighbour to a travelling circus in India, where she was not allowed to go to school or paid, was routinely beaten and was married off at 14. She had already given birth to three children by 17. After she and 13 others were rescued and returned to Nepal, they soon realized they knew little else other than circus performance, a stigmatized occupation. Guided by an NGO, they formed their own contemporary circus company in an attempt to make ends meet and to realize their vision of a modern, free and educational circus.
Waiting staff mark time in a ‘cabin restaurant’ in a downmarket area of Kathmandu. Their job is to persuade male customers to purchase (bought-in) food and alcohol at inflated prices to pay for intimate company and sexual favours. There is usually a room in the back where clients can go with the staff for sex or, alternatively, to a guest house nearby for longer encounters. Most workers in such establishments are coerced into this activity by ‘threats of dismissal, harm, blackmailing or defamation’, according to the charity Terre des Hommes.

 

Photos and text – Violeta Santos Moura. Violeta is a freelance photojournalist from Portugal. Her reporting ranges from documenting the European economic crisis  To covering social and political strife in the Middle East and South Asia. Violeta's work in Nepal was supported by the Kim Wall Memorial Fund through the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF).

All photographs of trafficked persons were taken with their prior consent.

Local anti-trafficking organizations
Monitors the border with India; provides shelters and rehabilitation programmes for trafficked people.
Undertakes a wide range of anti-trafficking activities, including legal challenges.
Anti-sex trafficking NGO founded by survivors.