Research Professor Meredith Dank Addresses the Exploitation of Minors in Nepal’s Adult Entertainment Sector

Research Professor Meredith Dank Addresses the Exploitation of Minors in Nepal’s Adult Entertainment Sector

Research Professor Meredith Dank Addresses the Exploitation of Minors in Nepal’s Adult Entertainment Sector

With a goal of shedding light on the victimization of minors in the adult entertainment sector (AES), John Jay Research Professor Meredith Dank, Ph.D., has partnered with The Freedom Fund to release a report titled: Prevalence of Minors in Kathmandu’s Adult Entertainment Sector. On June 12, Dank spoke about Central Nepal’s AES problems, specifically in the region of Kathmandu. “The commercial sexual exploitation of children is a well-known problem in Kathmandu, Nepal. In a study done in 2008 by the Nepal Ministry of Women, Children & Social Welfare, they estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 females were working in this sector,” said Dank. “This study is more than 10 years old.” Joining her was Erin Phelps, Strategic Partnerships Manager of The Freedom Fund; Muna Basnyat, The Freedom Fund’s Program Advisor for Nepal; and, Kelly Gleason, Ph.D., Data Lead Scientist for the United Nations University and the Data Science Officer for the International Labour Organization.

“Despite the seriousness of this issue, until now, there’s been fairly limited evidence on the true scale of the problem.”—Erin Phelps

The Freedom Fund’s Mission
Understanding that not everyone in the audience would know about The Freedom Fund, Phelps took a few moments to speak about the mission of the organization. “For those of you who aren’t familiar, The Freedom Fund is a leader that fights to identify and invest in the most effective front-line efforts to end modern slavery in the countries and sectors where it is most prevalent,” she said. Focusing on The Freedom Fund’s Central Nepal efforts since mid-2015, Phelps said, “The Freedom Fund’s Central Nepal hotspot in Kathmandu aims to reduce the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Kathmandu’s adult entertainment industry. And it has made significant progress over the past few years,” Phelps said.

Erin Phelps addressing the audience
Erin Phelps addressing the audience

“Despite the seriousness of this issue, until now, there’s been fairly limited evidence on the true scale of the problem. And while there have been several attempts to estimate the number of workers involved, these estimates have varied widely,” said Phelps. “This is why we are very excited to be working with John Jay as a research partner of this study, bringing much needed data to the conversation and implications for future work.” To do this, The Freedom Fund has established three main goals: preventing children from entering the industry, removing those in the industry from the situation, and ending the recruitment and use of minors in the AES.

Origins of the Problem
Adding to Phelps, Basnyat first defined the term “hotspot” so that the audience had a better understanding about the importance of their work in Central Nepal. “The word ‘hotspot’ refers to geographical locations that have high incidences of modern slavery.” She then highlighted that, “modern slavery takes place in many forms.” And, in terms of Nepal, where slavery was abolished in 1984, modern slavery still very much exists. “AES is where different establishments—dance bars, restaurants and massage parlors—have young women working who are subjected to exploitation,” said Basnyat. “You might not think about this as slavery, but for these young women and girls, it is.”

Muna Basnyat explaining the origins of Kathmandu’s AES
Muna Basnyat explaining the origins of Kathmandu’s AES

But, what shocked the audience was when Basnyat spoke about the origins of the problem, which dates back to the mid 1990s. “Going back to how it started, it was from 1996 to 2006, when Nepal witnessed armed conflict. Due to this, many people migrated out of the agricultural areas to Kathmandu and other major cities,” said Basnyat. “There weren’t many jobs, and since people had left their regions to come to the city, young women and girls had to take up employment in these venues to help their families. And then, these establishments started to flourish and become bigger and bigger.” Basnyat also mentioned that the lack of opportunity for higher education played a role in minors entering this sector. “The easiest place to get work when they come to these major cities is in these venues because they don’t need any qualifications or any recommendations. They usually don’t know what type of work they are supposed to do, but gradually they start to learn about the expectations.”

Findings of the Study
When Dank spoke to the group, her goal was to tell the audience about her findings in Central Nepal. To do so, she began by mentioning the past estimates about the AES. “In 2009, Terre des hommes, a Non-Government Organization [NGO], estimated that up to 13,000 women and girls were working the AES in Kathmandu. In 2008, Shakti Samuha [NGO] estimated that about 33 percent of workers in the AES were minors. But a 2004 study done by the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal, puts the figure at 16 percent,” said Dank. “Altogether, the estimates range anywhere from 1,760, to 13,200 women and girls in the AES of Kathmandu, but again, most of these estimates are from 10 years ago.”

Providing recent approximations, Dank stated that a sample of 600 workers from Kathmandu Valley’s adult entertainment sector were surveyed, and 50 in-depth interviews were conducted. The collection of this data took place over three phases. The first phase had 203 individuals recruited. The second phase selected 397 individuals from a different location from the first group. And, the last phase made venue-based observations to individuals who were previously unreachable. What they found was “a current population of minors working in Kathmandu Valley of about 1,650 with a margin of error plus or minus 23. The current proportion of minors working across the adult entertainment sector as a whole is 17 percent,” said Dank. “The majority of the workers, 62 percent, began working in the sector when they were under 18.”

Meredith Dank presenting her findings
Meredith Dank presenting her findings

“The current proportion of minors working across the adult entertainment sector as a whole is 17 percent. The majority of the workers, 62 percent, began working in the sector when they were under 18.”—Meredith Dank

Of those working in Kathmandu’s adult entertainment industry, Dank said that, “91 percent of the sample identified as female.” And while men do participate in the adult entertainment sector, she pointed out that it was much harder to find them. Of these females, Dank noted that, “45 percent of the sample was under the age of 18, while 55 percent were between the ages of 18 and 21.” But, she said, this did not mean that these were the ages in which they started in the AES. Showing the audience a graph detailing the age these young women and girls were when they entered the sector, Dank said, “At 44 percent, most young people enter the sector between 15 and 17 years old. But there is 18 percent of those who enter at 14 years and younger, and 37 percent who enter between the ages of 18 and 21.”

After sharing this data, Dank acknowledged that too many young women were entering this industry, and she explained in depth their experience with violence. “Minors working in the AES often have to endure wide range of violence at the hand of their employers or guests. Overall 72 percent of young workers have experienced violence,” she said. Breaking this information down a bit, she mentioned that “63 percent were made to talk, joke, or flirt verbally. Twelve percent had wages deducted against their will. Five percent were punched, kicked, dragged or beaten up, and three percent were threatened with a gun, knife, or other weapons.”

Muna Basnyat, Meredith Dank and Kelly Gleason
Muna Basnyat, Meredith Dank and Kelly Gleason

Limitations and the Future
During a panel discussion moderated by Gleason, she asked Dank to detail the limitations she faced when conducting the study. In response, Dank said that the sample came from 915 known venues in Kathmandu Valley, but that this number could be higher. She also mentioned that “the physical abuse reported in surveys, differs from the physical abuse reported in the in-depth interviews.” And to further improve this issue, Dank offered up some recommendations. “Law enforcement should make more frequent monitoring visits to the AES venues to detect minors,” she said. “And, there needs to be increased efforts to prosecute owners and managers who employ minors, especially in the adult entertainment sector.” In terms of future research, Dank suggests that research continue on the sexual exploitation of minors outside of the adult entertainment sector, since there has been increasing raids and attention in this area.

“We are working on the ground in Nepal. We are working with our partners, and we will continue fighting to end this modern slavery.”—Muna Basnyat

The good news is that in 2018 The National Master Plan on Child Labour was enacted, prohibiting children in a number of sectors like the AES. And, since 2008, there has been pressure on local government and law enforcement to increase the number of inspections of these venues. “Since our work started in Nepal, we have seen a decrease in youth unemployment, and a decrease of minors in the AES,” said Basnyat. “We are working on the ground in Nepal. We are working with our partners, and we will continue fighting to end this modern slavery.”