Nepal is an early-to-bed country and Mahendranagar is no exception. By 8pm the majority of shops and businesses are shuttered up and a sleepy calm descends over the town. The stars often provide the only illumination, and one must be careful not to trip over sleeping dogs and cows.
However, after returning home late several evenings in a row, I was surprised to learn that there is one establishment that apparently stays open all night, every night.
Situated along the main east-west highway frequented by truckers, this “barbershop” boasts a conspicuously bright pink light, and a host of women sitting in its doorway who I’m guessing are not there to provide a late night trim and shave. While the trafficking of women is a huge problem in the region, the overwhelming majority are trafficked across the border into India. So who then are the domestic commercial sex workers in Mahendranagar?
In Mahendranagar, and generally throughout western Nepal, the answer to this question is most likely the Badi people. The Badi are an untouchable Hindu caste who (according to a report by ActionAid Nepal) first entered western Nepal from India in the 14th century to serve as dancers and singers at king’s palaces and feudal lords’ homes. In recent times, as the Badi lost more and more of their wealthy high-caste patrons and it became ever more difficult to earn a living through their traditional role as entertainers, many have turned to prostitution instead. Furthermore, the growing reliance on prostitution by the Badi people was encouraged in the mid-1960s by the eradication of malaria and new accessibility to rapidly growing Terai towns with a large expanding market for prostitution.
According to a Nepali article I read, over 50% of Badi women are compelled to earn their living as commercial sex workers. This inclination towards commercial sex work means that the Badi (already suffering from the untouchability and social stigma that other Dalit groups face) are at the bottom of the bottom rung in the rigid social hierarchy which permeates Nepalese society. As might be expected, the Badi are among one of the most impoverished groups in Nepal.
Only 46%* of Badi own land and a shocking 0.28% have passed the intermediate level of education. 81% of Badi give birth in their own homes and 5.25% of Badi have access to toilet facilities. I could continue to list appalling and depressing figures, but I think I’ve made my point.
In this context of abject poverty, is it any surprise that prostitution should continue to be an appealing means of livelihood for the Badi people? Moreover, how can a young girl fight the overwhelming social pressure from family members to enter the flesh trade? Shunned by the rest of society, the Badi community is one’s only home and refuge.
It goes without saying that the Badi community is at great risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and STDs, but reliance on this profession creates other problems as well. For example, it is exceedingly difficult for Badi children to obtain Nepalese citizenship as the law currently dictates that citizenship is obtained through the father. Given the nature of their work, in most cases it is impossible for a woman to identify the father of her child, and thus many Badi are unable to obtain citizenship or identity papers.
Some Nepalis I’ve spoken with claim that the Badi are prone to idleness due to their past history as singers and performers and that they alone are to blame for their current plight. Given the abject poverty and social ostracism that the Badi face, I don’t buy into this. Clearly education is critical to alleviating the situation of the Badi, but the Nepalese government could also take steps to assist them such as modifying discriminatory citizenship laws. While many NGOs are working on Dalit issues, there is much less attention given specifically to the predicament of the Badi people. Obviously more awareness needs to be raised, both inside and outside the Badi community.
Now when I walk past that single neon pink bulb at night, I can’t help but think about how caste and social exclusion have forced an entire community into this horrendous situation. Before coming to Nepal I thought I knew about the caste system and the plight of Dalits, but I find that the more time I spend here and the more I learn, the more there is to make one depressed.
*Facts and figures taken from a report produced by ActionAid Nepal
Posted By Jeff Yarborough
Posted Aug 8th, 2007