The 1,758-kilometre border between Nepal and India, through which nationals from both countries cross without needing passports or visas, is one of the busiest human-trafficking gateways in the world. But since the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, which killed nearly 9,000 people and severely disrupted lives and livelihoods, it has been in overdrive. It is estimated that at least 20,000 women and children are now being trafficked every year.
The crisis has arisen from the compounded effects of a lack of human rights protections, natural disaster, poverty, gender inequality, widespread illiteracy and corruption. Hoping for jobs as domestic workers in a Gulf country, many end up being raped in brothels in Mumbai, New Delhi and further afield. The methods of trafficking are many: drugged and sold by strangers; duped by neighbours; sold sometimes – whether knowingly or not – by desperate family members or abusive husbands; lured by someone online by means of a marriage promise, a job opportunity or an offer of a role in a Bollywood movie just across the border. While women and girls are often sold for commercial sex, trafficking for forced labour and illegal organ harvesting in underground clinics in India includes men and boys as well.
But Nepal’s civil society is fighting back: every day monitors, some of whom are trafficking survivors themselves, try to intercept and rescue potential victims at border posts. Others raise their voices against the deep social stigma that pursues trafficking survivors upon their return to their communities.
Danger is also present at home with many victims never crossing the border. Women and girls are trafficked from rural areas to urban centres within Nepal with the promise of well-paid work. Instead, they end up forced into sex work in the hundreds of dance bars or massage parlours functioning as fronts for brothels in Kathmandu. According to UNICEF Nepal, an estimated 11,000 to 13,000 girls and women are working in the ‘night entertainment industry’ in the Kathmandu Valley alone, the majority of whom are underage. However, actual numbers are likely to be much higher since women and girls are coached to lie about their age and their situation to social workers or face reprisal by business owners and pimps.
According to the NGO Terre des Hommes: ‘The majority of girls and women are recruited by peers – persons from their own village who are working in the entertainment industry. Most feel that at the time they were recruited, they were deceived about the nature of the job.’ Often being trafficked into the local sex industry is the first step, before being lured abroad by false promises. These images shine a light on this essentially shady business and the human toll it takes. They were recorded before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in Nepal. The pandemic has led to a surge in joblessness and will likely provide many more desperate potential targets for the human traffickers. It has also made life easier for them as border monitoring booths set up by anti-trafficking NGOs have had to be closed.
Advertisements for shops, shipping services and currency exchange booths crowd the busy streets of downtown Kathmandu. They blend with signs for dance clubs and massage parlours, usually fronts for brothels, serving a mostly tourist clientele.
Photos and text – Violeta Santos Moura. Violeta is a freelance photojournalist from Portugal. Her reporting ranges from documenting the European economic crisis To covering social and political strife in the Middle East and South Asia. Violeta’s work in Nepal was supported by the Kim Wall Memorial Fund through the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF).
All photographs of trafficked persons were taken with their prior consent.