Child labour is rife in adult entertainment businesses in Nepal

As CLARISSA launches its campaign ‘Shift the Focus: The Small Business of Child Labour’ we are asking why this matters for Nepal? If Nepal is to make progress on its ambitious National Master Plan on Child Labour to eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labour by 2022 and all forms of child labour by 2025 the government must prioritise its focus on small businesses in the informal sector.

Here’s why. On average over 50,000 workers, including children, are directly involved in the adult entertainment sector (AES) in Nepal. While by law under 18’s is not allowed to work in the sector, it is fertile ground for children to be abused and exploited. The commercial sexual exploitation of children in the sector is not uncommon and particularly affects girls.

The reality is that AES mostly takes place in small businesses, within informal and unregulated venues, like dohori restaurants, massage parlours and dance bars. While, many children are attracted to this sector by the promise of jobs and opportunities, and are often recruited by relatives, neighbours or friends, once caught up in the AES they are extremely vulnerable. These venues are high-risk for children because of the high possibilities for sexual and commercial exploitation.

Does the adult entertainment sector comply with the law?

While Nepal has an extensive albeit incomplete legislative framework that theoretically protects children from the ‘worst forms of child labour’ it fails to respond to the needs children working in the unregulated informal sector. By law, in Nepal, adult entertainment businesses must be registered with the Department of Industry, Inland Revenue Department and Ward office. However, while many businesses register initially, they do not always renew their registration and there is little incentive or repercussion if they do not. And some are not registered at all. Unsurprisingly, businesses in this sector are often not compliant with labour laws – often employing workers without contracts and low pay.

The challenge is that many of the small businesses in the AES are in the informal sector. It is clearly difficult to apply laws to individual venues based on the legal status and ways of operating if they are operating informally.

Young girls often end up working in the sector at the behest of venue owners. Owners work on the basis that young girls attract more customers, and customers will pay more, to see and engage with young ‘pretty’ girls. Sadly, the ‘business’ in some cases is not limited to work in Nepal alone, according to the 2019 US Trafficking in Persons Report (pdf) “Police report an increasing trend of AES businesses recruiting Nepali female employees for work abroad in the same sector, which increases vulnerability to sex trafficking abroad.” The report on Trafficking in Persons from Nepal’s Human Rights Commission estimates that around 35,000 people, including 15,000 women and 5,000 girls, were victims of trafficking in 2018.

The pandemic

During the pandemic, jobs and livelihoods have been threatened by the economic fallout of the pandemic. In their efforts to contain the virus the Nepali government forced the Adult Entertainment Sector to completely close for almost a year in total (April-December 2020 and April to July 2021). Yet closing the sector down put children more at risk than ever – as activities in the sector did not stop but merely went deeper underground, leaving children without any protection at all.

Children working in those venues with no means of income were compelled to adapt and partake in other dangerous and exploitative forms of child labour such as internet-based sexual performances, bonded labour within AES venues for food and accommodation. Already working in extremely harmful settings, the pandemic further exacerbated the struggles of many of the girls in the AES. This inevitably has had life-altering and detrimental impacts. According to the president of the National Association of Lok-Dohori Entrepreneurs, 350 AES workers have died by suicide during two years of lockdown – after the government failed to provide food, shelter and clothes to those who need them most.

Time to shift the focus

If the government is committed to ‘eliminate all forms of child labour by 2025’ as it says it is, the first step is to shift the focus onto businesses within the adult entertainment sector. The new Labour Act endorsed in 2017 supposedly covers workers in both the formal and informal sectors, and explicitly prohibits forced and child labour. However, the small businesses in the AES are beyond the purview of laws and policies. The agendas of discussion forums merely talk about this small business within the informal sectors but the law enforcing government agencies, NGOs and AES business associations working with AES must work hand in hand to tackle child labour.

Fundamentally however, listening to children and raising awareness with their employers there may be immediate, and low-cost actions that can be taken to reduce the risk to them. Progress can also be made by listening to the voices of the small business community to understand the best levers and biggest constraints for meaningful and tangible change.

November 10, 2021
Ranjana Sharma & Kriti Bhattarai