For commercial sex workers in Bhutan, getting caught by authorities is the biggest fear since the trade is not legal. That is why no complaints are lodged with police even if clients physically beat them up or refuse to pay for services rendered.
“Operating undercover they take a lot of risks to make a living,” said Tenzin, a health outreach worker. “Since commercial sex workers are not recognized in Bhutan they are often referred to as high-risk women by health authorities.”
He said the high-risk women generally consisted of school drop-outs, those earning low income and some were from rural areas. Clients are mostly a high profile Bhutanese, civil servants, businessmen and occasionally a foreigner.
While many operate in the capital and the border town of Phuentsholing some travel from district to district for the business.
They are also a high-risk group from a health point of view. “They shared with me that some clients refuse to use condoms despite their request,” outreach worker Tenzin said.
Some of them, until recently, never visited the hospital for check-ups. “A friend explained me the importance of regular checkups and I have been going for regular checkups for the past half and year,” said a 24-year-old sex worker based in Thimphu.
“I got into such business to make a living in Thimphu as I was left all alone after my boyfriend were sent to prison,” she said adding that she worked as a maid and was sexually abused by her employer.
“It is not an easy business because it’s against the law. Some customers don’t pay us and I have even been physically abused,” she said.
Similarly, a 22 years old girl who studied up to class xii said she took up the trade because of financial reasons. She said her adopted sister, a pimp, introduced her to the trade and it is now seven years as a sex worker.
She said she earns between Nu 15,000 to Nu 30,000 a month enough to meet her expenses and support her family. “People in this trade face many challenges from fear of being stigmatised by society and getting caught by the authorities to ill treatment by clients,” she said.
Outreach worker Tenzin said they can only give moral support, listen to them and advice them on importance of regular health check-ups.
“Some listen and go for regular check-ups while some never go. We distribute condoms in every place vulnerable to this kind of business. Some accept with the appreciation while some never cooperate with us,” he said.