According to activists, many of the establishments that employ girls serve as gateways to the sex trade.
By some estimates, thousands of minors live this way, according to BBC journalist Geeta Pandey who reports from New Delhi.
When Rita migrated from her home village to the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, she thought she would escape poverty.
In her village, Rita (her name was changed for her protection) he lived with his alcoholic mother and his brothers. His father had moved to Malaysia to work, thus abandoning the family.
“At first he used to send us money, but then he stopped doing it,” says Rita. “We didn’t have enough land, so I came to Kathmandu when I was 12 or 13 years“.
His jobs in the capital were varied. She worked in a brick factory, cleaning and washing utensils in a house, in a hotel kitchen and as a sales clerk in stores.
They paid him little, the hours were exhausting, and quite often his co-workers were abusive they tried to touch and fondle her, remember.
At age 14, Rita got a job in a restaurant where she had to sit down to eat and drink with customers.
“Customers smoked hookah and drank alcohol,” he says. “They touched my hands, said vulgar things, but I couldn’t object. Some even wanted to kiss me. Used to escapeme saying he wanted go tol bathroom“.
Sharing her story with activists from the British government funded Child Labor Action Research (Clarissa) program, Rita detailed incidents in which she was forced to drink alcohol and was taken to boarding houses or rented rooms and offered money in exchange for sex.
The wrong approach
Activists claim that Rita is one of hundreds, possibly thousands, of Nepalese children, some as young as 11, who are trapped in the adult entertainment business, under a terrible form of child labor.
Danny Burns, director of Clarissa and professor at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex, criticizes that when it comes to child labor, much of the discussion focuses on large companies and global supply chains.
“But the worst forms of child labor are found in small businesses and in business relativesThe kind of places that employ girls like Rita, ”Professor Burns tells the BBC.
In Nepal, there are about 1.1 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 who are engaged in child labor and some 0.22 million of them work in hazardous industries, despite the fact that employing children is illegal in the country.
The plan to end child labor
The government is committed to ending child labor by 2025 and meeting the UN goal of ending all forms of child labor.
It also set an ambitious goal for finish with worst forms of child labor by 2022.
The Minister for Women, Children and the Elderly, Uma Regmi, told Binita Dahal, a journalist for the BBC’s Nepalese service, that “the government is determined to meet the target.”
“We are short on time, but we will make every effort to end the worst forms of child labor by 2022,” he added.
Activists believe that to do this, Nepal must focus on small businesses in the informal sector, especially those in the adult entertainment industry.
Pragya Lamsal, Clarissa’s researcher in Kathmandu, told the BBC that her organization had collected and analyzed the testimonies of almost 400 children employed in the sector.
“We found that in most cases, the girls had moved from rural areas to Kathmandu, were recruited by informal intermediaries such as friends, family and neighbors, and most of them ended up working in massage parlors, bars with rooms of dance, inns or sordid restaurants, “he explained.
From basements, corners and private apartments
Sudhir Malla, Clarissa’s director in Nepal, points out that most of the girls come from poor families or broken homes and in the city, they are hired mainly by “dohori restaurants” – establishments that claim to promote folk music.
“There are genuine establishments, but many smaller places in the dark underbelly of the city are seedy places and fronts for the sex trade,” he explains.
“They hire young women and girls to serve alcohol, wait tables, work in hookah bars, bars and massage parlors ”.
Many of these places operate off the radar: they operate from basements, corners, and private apartments.
“These establishments are required by law to register and renew their documents regularly and provide details of their workers to the authorities. Many register initially but do not renew their registration and there is little incentive or repercussion if they do not. Then there are the ones that just don’t register. “
The girls work without formal contracts and are not given any job descriptions or fixed wages.
Lamsal adds that most of the girls and young women who work in these places say they have met in exploitation situations.
“The girls were told that if the guests generated a large bill, their own tips would be higher,” she continues.
The pandemic has made the situation worse
“Most are young and lack formal education and, in most cases, they have no options because their families depend on the money they earn. They are very vulnerable and many of them fall into situations of exploitation ”.
Girls also have to deal with the stigma surrounding this type of work“, Explains Lamsal.
“Most do not even tell their parents, so in cases of abuse they cannot turn to their families or the police for help. Many also do not report the abuse for fear of losing their jobs.
And the covid-19 pandemic made the situation much worse, according to Malla.
“During the pandemic, the government forced the sector to shut down, but many simply went further underground,” he details.
“And the girls had to make very difficult decisions. It was about their means of subsistence, they had to pay the rent, they had to get food and they were the ones who earned their bread to support their families ”.
According to Professor Burns, the pandemic has reversed progress that had been done and now probably no country with child labor problems will be able to end it by 2025.
“For a long time there was a downward trend, but in the last year and a half there has been a significant increase in the amount of child labor in all countries where the problem exists,” he says.
“In the long term, it is essential focus on removing children from the worst forms of child labor. But there will always be children who will do this work because they are hungry. So in the short term, we have to improve their working conditions. That is the best we can do ”.
Minister Uma Regmi stated that her government’s “priority was to reach these children,” adding that those who need help “can contact us through our helpline numbers.”
“We are collaborating with various agencies to find out about children who work in dangerous situations,” he said.
“After we learn the facts, we will coordinate with the Interior Ministry to hold the illegal operators to account and punish them.”
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