The Tragedy of Nepal's Badi Women

Four years ago, Taruna Badi, 38, a member of the Badi community, one of the most marginalized groups in Nepal, thought her days of prostitution were over.

In 2007, she and dozens of other Badi women travelled from Kailali, a district in the far west of Nepal, to the capital Kathmandu, located across the country, to join in protests by Badi activists seeking government help to lower longstanding economic and social barriers. For many women, this meant coming up with alternatives to prostitution.

The government agreed to study the Badis' situation and to provide aid in the form of land grants, employment training, free education for Badi children, health services, citizenship with the caste of their choice, and a declaration of the end of prostitution within the community.

That was then. Today, many of the Badi women say they've barely received any support and have gone back to the only work available to them.

"What else to do?" Taruna asked in desperation. "Prostitution is the only means of earning so far for us." Badi women say they earn between 70 cents and $2.75 for a sexual encounter.

To assess the situation, Binod Pahadi, who has travelled across the region as the member of a government group, concurs with Taruna's account of the administration's failure to uphold its agreement with the Badi community. "We roamed across [the] nation," Pahadi said. "Nowhere is it implemented."

Taruna says Badi women need government help because of their lack of education and inferior social status. A government study estimates the Badi population at just more than 8,000, almost all of whom live in the western part of the country. Nepal's 1853 civil code categorized the Badi community as the lowest among the socially and economically disadvantaged Dalit caste.

"We haven't had education and hence can't get any work," Taruna explains. "If we try to start a business with the help of loans, customers ostracize our establishments on the grounds that they are run by 'untouchable' Dalits. What is an alternative then for means of survival?"

Food is a necessity, she adds. "Children need to be fed," she says. "There is [not] another source of income. This is the only source of income for us."

Few Badi people own land. They live instead in rented cottages by the roadside, on riverbanks and on the forest edges. Maya Badi, 32, from Doti, another western district, says she left prostitution after the 2007 protests but has since returned to it.

"We have no wealth or property and a family of eight to feed," she says. "It was all right when government and non-governmental organizations had provided aid [in the form of stipends]. [But once that ceased] we have to see to our own survival."

Now men have once again started queuing outside the houses of Taruna, Maya and their female neighbors. Mina Badi, 24, Maya's neighbor, says she has returned to the work and has stopped finding prostitution difficult or uncomfortable. "What is the use of shame?" she asks.

She says that since her parents live with her, she goes out into the village to look for customers. "My parents are old," she says. "Therefore, I roam in the village the entire day, eat out and return in the evening."

Various local governmental and non-governmental organizations in the Badi-inhabited regions have banned prostitution, which nonetheless has been openly practiced for the past five decades. Nirmala Nepali, a member of both the National Badi Rights Struggle Committee and a government committee formed after the 2007 protest to assess Badi rights, says women get around this by going to other villages without such restrictions.

In the absence of other employment opportunities, Maya says the ban worsens women's lives by making it harder to earn any living. "The state had agreed to rehabilitate the Badi community and provide employment, but these assurances have been limited to paper alone, and the flesh trade flourishes once more in almost all the Badi-inhabited areas," says CB Rana, another member of the National Badi Rights Struggle Committee.

A number of NGO groups have been advocating for Badi rights. One such group, Save the Children Norway, a child's rights advocacy and development assistance organization, has been working to carry out the government's free education initiative for Badi children.

Some say that although tuition may be waived, some institutions are still making it hard for Badi children to attend school because they charge fees for integral programs such as sports and using the library.

Non-Badi women's rights activists have also spoken up. Both Mira Dhungana, a lawyer, and Mina Sharma, a women's rights activist, urge the government to fulfill its 2007 promise. Sharma says that if there is no action soon, women's rights activists will get more actively involved.

"No woman joins the flesh trade out of mere choice alone," Sharma says. "If the government does not provide the opportunity for Badi women to lead honorable lives like any other Nepali citizen and make necessary employment arrangements for them, we, all women['s] rights activists, are ready to actively engage in a renewed protest movement for them."

By arrangement with Women's eNews. For original story, log on here.