A group of 49 Bhutanese sex workers have come together to form a network to protect sex workers in the country and overcome challenges faced by them. The network is taking the help of two registered CSOs too.
However, since sex workers are not recognized under law and their work is illegal, they are not yet ready to reveal the name of the network or the names of its members.
A social worker who has been in touch with the sex workers and who helped them form this organization said that this group was formed a few months ago to help sex workers. She said that within this time 49 sex workers registered with them, aged between 18 years of age to 35 years including a few gay sex workers.
The 49 sex workers are mothers, young girls, school going students and a few gay sex workers- and they have been forced to take up this profession due to their difficult socio-economic circumstances.
Through the association they want to protect the sex workers from getting humiliated and physically assaulted by their clients, to ensure they are paid for their services and to at least try and give them proper education on HIV and other related issues.
The social worker shared that they cannot ask those people to leave the job as they are doing it for their living. Through the association they are hoping that they can protect these people and give them equal rights.
The current problem is that no matter how risky their job is, they do not want to come out and share the abuse they undergo with others as they feel that they would be put behind bars if it is known that they are a sex worker.
They even do not choose to go and seek health services as they feel they will be down looked upon if they share the truth about their circumstances.
Sex workers in Bhutan are highly hidden due to social stigma and legal barriers, and so they do not expect legal protection and help from relevant agencies.
Sex workers are mothers trying to support a family, students trying to pay school fees and meet expenses, young girls who don’t have a job and are desperate and even the transgender out to make a living. All of them have been forced to take up the oldest profession out of sheer desperation and not for the lack of trying for other more respectable options.
Meanwhile the customers are generally more well off older men, married men and a few young men.
The social worker said they did not help form this group to encourage sex workers in the country nor to make them get into the business, but they are trying to help this group of people by understanding their situation, helping them in certain things and also in helping them overcome this profession at some point.
The social worker said, “They are not into this profession by choice but they are indirectly forced to do so, to make their living. No one will want to be a sex worker knowing that they are ill treated by their clients, will be discriminated in society and they know it is a crime. So people must know that they are only trying to make a living.”
Sex workers are fearful to even go and get health services as in some cases they were laughed at and called prostitutes.
The fear is that such stigma will only drive them more underground and then lead to possible transmission of HIV and other STI’s.
The social worker who talked to the sex workers said they are into this field under different circumstances.
Some are the sole bread earners in the family, some are victims of rape by their step-father and step-brother, some are forced into this and some are doing it to sustain themselves. There are also a few who are into the businesses seeking a more luxurious life.
She said that being a sex worker is not an easy job as they face numerous challenges like not getting paid at the end by the clients, some falling victim to physical assault upon failing to obey their clients and some being forced to have group sex with multiple people which is equivalent to gang rape. Some clients don’t even use condoms, the social worker said.
She said, “However, the victims (sex worker) cannot go and lodge a complaint to the police as they fear that they will be locked up if they happen to lodge a complaint.”
It was learnt that they are taken for granted by their clients, including high level officers and uniformed officers in the name of criminalization.
Though they are into this business for money they are forced to have unnatural sex and forced to do inappropriate things while in some cases a client pays for just one but calls their friends in a group.
She said, “To satisfy their clients and to react actively to their clients, they go to their clients high on drinks and drugs. Some client’s not only sleep with them but they also humiliate them in gatherings.”
Some of the sex workers work through pimps.
In an earlier interview with the paper, a young sex worker who did not want to be named shared that she was intoxicated by her client and was used not only by him but his friends in group and at the end instead of getting paid she was kicked out and left.
“I wanted to complain, but knowing that I would be criminalized, I couldn’t. I am disowned by my family, friends, societies and do not receive social support. I am not able to avail health services fearing personal and legal consequences,” she said.
Meanwhile, due to the pandemic, people who are into sex work are also being hugely affected.
The social worker said that sex workers along the borders have come to Thimphu due to the closure of border gates. They also have to negotiate for lower prices with more numbers of sex workers in the capital.
In addition, school going girls are operating from hotel rooms after school to meet their schooling expenses. The social worker said that some desperate school going girls took up the profession during the pandemic to meet up their expenses in the capital. Some operate from their homes and some from hotel rooms and they do not have a fixed rate.
These school students all come from very poor families. For now, all the registered members are being advocated on HIV and health issues.
They shared that the registered sex workers are now opening up whereby they can find a way to give them some protection from the abuses they undergo.
It has been few months since the network has been formed and they are expecting many more would come forward.