Understanding Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Nepal

23 October 2018
Research Innovation

Yuki Lo  | Senior Research & Evaluation Officer, Freedom Fund
Christopher Zoia  | Communications Manager, Freedom Fund

A shocking one million children around the world are exploited in the commercial sex industry. In Nepal, the adult entertainment sector is recognized as a high-risk environment for girls where sexual exploitation is known to occur. It is estimated that a majority of the 13,000 people in the sector began working as children under the age of 18. The adult entertainment sector in Kathmandu is made up of a complex web of venues that includes restaurants, massage parlours, dance bars and guest houses. Many of these workplaces have become a front for commercial sex, and working in these venues can lead girls to a gradual or forced immersion in the sex industry.

Even though the commercial exploitation of children in Nepal is widespread, it is a largely hidden crime because underage girls are coached to lie about their age when questioned by police or social workers. This makes accurate measurement especially difficult. At the Freedom Fund, we place great importance on research to track how the adult entertainment sector is changing, and understand the range of exploitations that children face and the impact on their mental and physical health. To this end, we’ve recently commissioned two reports on the issue; the first one identifies what services and systems are needed for girls to speedily, safely and permanently leave the adult entertainment sector. The second studies the attitudes of the owners, customers and managers of venues where exploitation takes place. The findings from this research have helped shed light on a crime that has been poorly understood.

Storefronts in the Thamel neighbourhood of Kathmandu, where adult entertainment venues are common. Freedom Fund/Orla Jackson

Measuring and collecting evidence about the commercial sexual exploitation of children involves a host of methodological trade-offs. Children working in the sector cannot be easily found, and victims often face social stigmatization or are in fear of reprisal by their employers. In the Freedom Fund’s experience, a well-designed sampling strategy and protocols on ethics recruitment and research are necessary but insufficient. The quality of this type of research relies on having sensitive, empathetic and well-trained field researchers who can cultivate access to illicit networks and marginalized individuals. This includes gaining the trust of gatekeepers, such as venue owners and managers, as well as the child respondents themselves.

In our first report, Pathways for children to exit commercial sexual exploitation in Kathmandu, respondents were identified through referrals from community-based organizations supported by the Freedom Fund. The aim was to ensure a diverse sample of respondents, including those who had experienced extreme cases of exploitation. Interviews were conducted in a private space within the corresponding partner’s drop-in centre, at a time that was suitable for the respondent. All identifying information was coded to further protect their anonymity. A total of 87 responses were completed by women who started work in the sector as a child. Of the 87 young women surveyed, 62 had exited the sector and 25 were still working in it.

The research received approval from the Nepal Health Research Council and Griffith University’s Ethics Committee for Human Research. A letter of consent was also issued by the Central Child Welfare Board describing the conditions and protocols that the research team had to follow. All the interviewers were Nepali females with previous experience working with girls and boys to safely exit situations of sexual abuse. The interviews typically took between two to three hours, allowing the interviewers to really connect with each respondent as individuals, in order to deepen our understanding of the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the pathways that lead them into harmful situations and how we can support them in safely exiting. Respondents described the various coercion mechanisms and disclosed their own experience with different forms of exploitations. Across the 87 interviewees, 66 per cent reported being bullied and sexually harassed by customers, and 27 per cent reported engaging in explicit sexual activities. Workers in the adult entertainment sector found it difficult to access support services because they faced restrictions on where they can go during non-work hours.

Measuring and collecting evidence about the commercial sexual exploitation of children involves a host of methodological trade-offs.

Those respondents who exited the industry noted that decently paid work is scarce outside the adult entertainment sector, making it harder to leave. And respondents who have left the sector said that support services need to focus on both building economic skills and restoring emotional health.

In our second report, Minors in Kathmandu’s adult entertainment sector: What’s driving demand?, our researchers faced similar challenges when studying people who employ or use the services of children. They conducted in-depth interviews in an attempt to engage respondents directly in a conversation in order to generate nuanced, non-judgemental and authentic accounts. Participants were informed that they could withdraw from the study at any time, and they were assured that their identity would not be disclosed to anyone outside the core research team. The long-form interviews revealed some surprising findings. While respondents broadly agreed that sex with children is morally reprehensible, respondents shifted the blame for child sexual exploitation onto others. They created narratives to excuse the use of minors in the sector, supported by cultural factors that have made the sexualization of girls acceptable. Those who use the services of children are able to normalize their behaviour and distance themselves from the harmful implications of their actions.

This research can help us formulate more targeted policy and programme interventions. By understanding the different ways in which children are coerced and exploited, we can help survivors safely and permanently exit the sector. Similarly, our research shows that the narratives that normalize, justify and excuse the sexual exploitation of children must be challenged.

Yuki Lo is the senior research and evaluation officer at the Freedom Fund.

Chris Zoia is the communications manager at the Freedom Fund.

This article has been prepared by Yuki Lo and Chris Zoia as contributors to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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