Nepal in the grips of caste-virus
Durpati Nepali hides her face in shame as she recalls how she was forced to return to work as a prostitute after her husband was killed during Nepal’s 10-year civil war.
The 35-year-old mother of five says she resorted to prostitution — an occupation she first took up aged just 14 — in desperation after the food stall she set up failed because customers were abusive and refused to pay.Nepali was victimised because she is a Badi, a caste of so-called “untouchables” living mainly in western Nepal whose women have traditionally earned their living as sex workers.Once high-class courtesans and musicians, the Badi are now among the poorest and most downtrodden groups in Nepal, where discrimination on caste grounds remains rife despite being outlawed more than four decades ago.Many are disadvantaged from birth because they carry the surname Nepali, often used on the birth certificates of children where paternity is unclear, making them vulnerable to persecution.”When my husband died, I had no option but to go back into prostitution to feed my family,” said Nepali, whose husband died eight years ago, a victim of the civil conflict that ended in 2006.”Even when I wasn’t working as a prostitute, people treated me like one. But it has brought many problems,” she told AFP in her tiny mud hut in the village of Bankhet in mid-western Nepal.”Last month, more than 20 villagers came and threatened to burn down our home if we did not leave the village.”
Activists say that a lack of education and continuing caste-based prejudices in majority-Hindu Nepal often make it difficult for Badi women to earn their living any other way, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and social rejection.Nepali’s mother was a sex worker, and now her two youngest daughters — one aged 14, one 16 — have followed her into prostitution.”I had high hopes for my daughters, I wanted them to marry into good families. But they say they want to look after me like I looked after them when their father died,” she said.”I’m not happy that they have become prostitutes. But if they had not, there would be no food on the table.”Mahesh Nepali, director of the advocacy group Social Awareness for Education (SAFE) Nepal and himself a Badi, said the community faced discrimination even from other “untouchable” castes, and were viewed as the “lowest of the low.””Even among the untouchables, Badis are seen as the most untouchable,” he said.”As a result they have no sense of self worth. On top of that, they are very weak economically, so it is almost impossible for them to change their destiny without outside help.”
In 2007, hundreds of Badi women travelled to the capital Kathmandu where they held a series of rowdy protests to demand government help, some stripping off outside the parliament building.Some help is now available in the form of government funding for the rehabilitation and rehousing of vulnerable Badi women, although the implementation of such programmes has been hampered by political instability.The Badi — estimated to number around 40,000 across the Himalayan country — have also benefited from a recent change in the law that for the first time permitted fatherless children to obtain citizenship.But Sapana Pradhan Malla, a renowned women’s rights lawyer who last year became a member of Nepal’s parliament, said the government needed to do much more to help the Badi people.”Because of the social stigma they have not been a political priority,” she told AFP.”I urge the government to ensure justice for these people. After all, they are our sisters and mothers. How can we treat them differently?”A handful of women have managed to change their destiny, among them Kalpana Nepali, 23, who grew up in a hostel for the children of Badi sex workers.”My father died when I was two and a half, forcing my mother to go into the sex trade,” said Kalpana, who now runs a small cooperative bank for her community.”One day my mother and some other women sold all their jewellery to fund a hostel for the children because they did not want them to grow up in that environment.”As a result, most of us managed to finish high school. But if it had not been for the hostel, I’m sure we would also be doing sex work.”But there are many more who have received no such help, such as Durpati’s 14-year-old daughter Binita, who left school aged just 12 and went into the sex trade.”I miss school. Sometimes I wonder why I left,” she told AFP.”I dreamt of becoming a doctor or doing some other honest job. But what can you do? We have no money so I cannot fulfil those dreams.”
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