Shy smiles greet us as we enter a small room at the drop-in centre in Kathmandu. The walls are filled with hand-written posters about life skills training to help girls manage their lives healthily, independently and self-sufficiently. The room exudes an aura of dreams, aspirations and confidence.
The drop-in centre in Kathmandu is a safe space for young girls who have worked, or are still working, in the adult entertainment sector. Many of them have survived physical and mental exploitation.
In the drop-in centre, they can talk about abuse, seek help from trained professionals, socialise with other girls who share similar journeys, read, cook food together and have fun. The centre also offers life skills training to help vulnerable young girls find alternative livelihoods to support themselves and their families.
“If I have a job, I could lose it someday. But if I have a skill, I will be able to survive anywhere in the world.”
The beautiful nail art on 23-year-old Srijana’s* hand glimmers with hope for a brighter future. She dreams of starting her own beauty parlour once her 16-month-old child starts going to school and is currently taking an advanced beautician course.
Sitting beside her, 24-year-old Kalpana* proudly shows us clothes she made in an advanced tailoring course. She dreams of becoming a professional designer and owning her own boutique. She can now stitch her favourite outfit, a traditional lehenga, from scratch, and is earning money selling them.
“The drop-in-centre staff encouraged me to enrol. Plus, the training is offered free of cost. I could never afford to pay for such professional courses” says Kalpana.
Srijana and Kalpana are the lucky ones. They were working in an unsafe place when they learned about the life skills training offered at the drop-in-centre. They are now able to turn their lives around.
Many young girls and women are not so lucky. They’re from poor families, rural areas and backgrounds of abuse or neglect and come to Kathmandu, the city of opportunities, for a better life and to feed their families. However, survival in a city of expensive lifestyles, spiking living costs and rising inflation is not easy.
With little to no formal training and education, most end up being lured to work in restaurants, dance bars, and massage parlours. While only earning minimum wage, these girls and women are forced to work long hours, late nights, and without any medical coverage and benefits. Most of these outlets are also fronts for sex trade with high cases of physical and sexual abuse.
To make matters worse, when the COVID-19 lockdowns shut the outlets, the young girls had no option but shift to guest houses and khaja ghars (local eateries). For months, many girls were confined in closed spaces and experienced traumatic abuse. In some cases, girls were trafficked to other parts of Nepal and even other countries.
The plight of young girls working in this sector is often overlooked by employers. Many girls don’t have ID documents, putting them at the mercy of their employers. Most opt not to speak out, from of fear of losing their jobs, social stigma and physical harm. They have no choice but to keep working despite, and in spite, of everything. Experts estimate up to 15,000 young girls and women, including 1,650 minors, are working in the adult entertainment sector in Nepal and trapped in this web of exploitation.
Srijana and Kalpana have a rare opportunity to redesign their futures in the drop-in centre.
The centre taught them about their rights and how to understand and report abuse. It’s also supported them to make informed choices about their futures. Most transformatively, it’s opened up a plethora of free livelihood skills training, to help them channel their hidden talents into a steady income stream. Once they complete their advanced courses, they’ll also be able to get support finding working opportunities or opening a business.
Today, Srijana and Kalpana are independent. They’re building their own professional networks and honing their skills. Other girls they once worked with now approach them for advice on life skills training. They’ve become role models amongst their friends.
“Abuse and exploitation can happen anywhere, even places we visit every day.”
Countries in South Asia need to invest more in young girls, so they can pursue their dreams — with enough support and without any risk. Teaching them life skills to help them generate income helps keep them safe, protected and empowered.
They are our future. It’s our responsibility to protect their futures too.
*The names of young women in this blog are changed to protect privacy.