In a country often heralded for spectacular scenery and rich culture, the dark underbelly of human trafficking and domestic violence reveals a different picture of Nepal. Most importantly, these two issues often combine to create a desperate and horrifying situation for young women in the country. Denied an education, punished for menstruating, refused even basic citizen rights purely because of their gender in this patriarchal society, it is perhaps no surprise that many are tempted by the offer of a new life in Kathmandu, or maybe outside Nepal, where there are supposedly opportunities to make high salaries and wear only the finest clothes.
These offers are never what they promise. There are now an estimated 20,000 young girls employed in Kathmandu’s sex industry – a third of whom are minors – which could take the form of dance clubs, massage parlours, dohori bars and ‘cabin restaurants’ (brothels). In addition, over 300,000 women are transported annually to Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries, often without the knowledge of their families, to start new lives as domestic and/or sex workers. Assuming they reach their new lives, it often means long, hard days consisting of low pay, malnourishment and exhaustion. Denied the freedom to leave, these women often face rape and even death. 186 disappearances were reported to Nepali police in 2015 – the actual figure could easily be many times larger.
French photojournalist Lizzie Sadin focused on this trafficking of women and girls in Nepal for the eighth Carmignac Photojournalism Award which this year revolved specifically around the theme of ‘slavery and trafficking of women’. Sadin spent 100 days in Nepal between February and May 2017, travelling the country to capture words and images from those trapped in this abusive way of life. From going undercover in Kathmandu’s dance clubs, to following NGOs such as KI Nepal and Maiti working with police on the 2,000-mile India-Nepal border (across which an estimated 15,000 women and girls are taken illegally every year), she shines a spotlight on this grim and deeply-engrained aspect of Nepal’s highly gender-unequal society.
Sadin’s photographs include significant numbers discretely taken using a hidden camera showing small wooden booths in cabin restaurants where male clients take their chosen girls. She also dips into the colourful, yet murky insides of garish dance clubs, where bosses simulate rape with dancers in order to ‘excite’ their male audiences. It’s a dark and disturbing glimpse into a world of abuse and powerlessness.
Perhaps most fascinating are those photos Sadin was given permission to take by establishment bosses (sometimes by women as well) who dug their heads in the sand and refused to think of their business as anything to do with gender-based human trafficking, eventually relenting to her polite requests to document the activities occurring at what they claimed to be reputable business establishments.
Sadin’s work on the Indian border, showing the quizzing of potential traffickers (and the potentially trafficked girls themselves, travelling unescorted but convinced that they are on their way to a better life) is the only glimmer of hope in the exhibition’s narrative. Suspects are asked separately about their relationship and travel plans to determine whether or not trafficking is occurring, while phone calls are made to relatives to confirm these details.
The central role of former trafficked women in these questionings is crucial since they intimately understand the way the trade operates and are often driven to keep other young women from the experiences they had to endure. Unfortunately, they will usually have only a few minutes to determine whether the relationship is genuine or not. Recording the details of the young girls in question will at least help with the search for them if their family later reports their disappearance.
The awarding of this year’s €50,000 Carmignac Photojournalism Award to Sadin follows the art organisation’s aim of funding the investigative photo reportage on human rights violations around the world, which in previous years included Libya and French Guiana. While the results may be shocking and the scale of the problem truly horrifying, the more light is shone on these issues, the more chance of stopping the abuses suffered by these women and girls.
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