For a long time, the popular discourse on Drayangs has been one of immoral areas where young girls are exploited for sex and lead unhealthy lives. This perception has now lead to the current government generally discouraging Drayangs to reopen and imposing tough new regulations on them if they want to reopen.
However, data from surveys done in two research papers that look at transactional sex, HIV and STI and state of the workers reveal a very different picture from that portrayed so far in the popular discourse.
Low Transactional sex
A research paper from Bhutan titled ‘HIV Vulnerability and Sexual Risk Behavior of the Drayang Girls in Bhutan,’ published in the ‘SAARC Journal of Tuberculosis, Lung Diseases and HIV Aids’ in 2019 shows low transactional sex and low HIV rates among Drayang women going against the popular discourse of a thriving sex-industry linked to Drayangs.
The authors are Khandu L of the National HIV /AIDS and STIs Control Program MoH, Zwanikken P of the KIT (Royal Tropical Institute), Vrije University, Amsterdam, Netherlands and Wangdi S of the District Health Service Program, MoH.
The research paper was itself first published in Bhutan in 2017 and it relied on a mass survey of 245 Drayang girls in 28 Drayangs in Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing done from May to July 2015. Consent was taken from the girls and full anonymity was granted.
The report said that findings from different qualitative studies and the reports in the local media on the issues of transactional sex among the Drayang girls has made many to perceive that these girls are at a higher risk of HIV and STIs infection.
“One of the interesting findings that the study revealed was the low prevalence of transactional sex as compared to non-transactional sex. Therefore, the assumption that all Drayang girls would engage in transactional sex was not supported as evident from the findings, though the answers were self-reported,” said the report.
The survey found only 28.2% Drayang girls reporting transactional sex. However, the low condom use in transactional sex in this 2015 survey indicated the existence of risky sexual behaviors among the Drayang girls at the time.
However, in subsequent years there has been high level of sensitization and interventions by RENEW, NCWC and the Ministry of Health.
The report said its finding was consistent with findings by R. Lorway (2011), SBNS (2011), FA (2015).
On the other hand, the general population itself does not stand on firm moral ground. The General Population Survey (GPS) of 2006 reported that one-fifth of all the married people have engaged in extramarital sex within a year. This was higher among the urban areas at 23% as compared to the rural areas at 14%.
The paper found multiple sexual partners among the Drayang girls with the non-transactional sex group. For example, 42% of the Drayang girls had engaged in multiple sexual partners with more than three partners within a month and the consistent condom use was 21.1% in 2015.
When comparing the findings with General Population Survey 2006 in Bhutan it was found that out of 788 urban females only 1.6% engaged in multiple sexual partners in last 6 months prior to the survey and the consistent condom use was just 23.3%.
The report said this illustrates higher multiple sexual partners with low condom use among the Drayang girls as compared to the general urban females thus making them more vulnerable to HIV and STIs.
On the other hand, a 2016 study (By Gurung, Wangchuk, Tshomo, & Y. Nidup) on irresponsible sexual behavior among 645 college students selected from eight colleges of RUB revealed high risk sexual behavior among male and female respondents, silent culture of ‘sugar daddies’, ‘sugar mummies’ and ‘sugar buddies’ as well as involvement in extra-marital affairs during their study duration. This shows that transactional or non-transactional sex is not just a Drayang phenomenon.
In terms of socio-demographic characteristics, the divorced and unmarried Drayang women are engaged more in transactional sex as compared to married women.
“We do not know the specific reason for their engagement in transactional sex but we speculate that it may be due to their financial hardship as a single bread earner,” said the report.
Respondent’s age was not associated with the engagement in transactional sex.
It said the R. Lorway’s qualitative study among the Drayang girls also cited that the financial hardship and difficulty in paying the soaring house rents in the urban cities as one of the reasons for engaging in transactional sex.
The study said that provision of free accommodation like hostels by the Drayang owners would ease their financial hardship and can contribute meaningfully to the overall growth of the Drayang business while preventing them from risky sexual behavior.
Intake of alcohol was significantly associated with engagement in transactional sex.
Low HIV and STI
Another popular assumption about Drayang girls is that they would have much higher rates of HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections.
However, here again, the study shows this is not true and actually finds a low level of HIV and STI not very different from the rates in the general population.
The study said the point prevalence of HIV is low among the Drayang girls.
The point prevalence of 0.82% was determined for HIV or only two was positive out of the 245 tested, 6.94% had hepatitis B and 2.86% had Syphilis.
At the same time the paper points out that in two years between 2015 and 2017 when the paper was first published, there were no new HIV cases from Drayang girls.
However, when asked about any STIs in last twelve months 18.4% or 45 of them reported having experienced at least one form of STIs. Out of 45 who experienced STIs in last 12 months, 36 of them reported having experienced abnormal discharge from their vagina and 11 told that they had developed sore or ulcer in the genital region.
The study’s conclusion was that Drayang girls showed a low prevalence of HIV and STIs. However, the presence of high-risk behavior with low condom made them vulnerable to HIV and STIs.
Most happy with their work environment
A recent 2020 research paper titled ‘Drayang: Through the Lens of Socio-Economic Landscape of Urban Culture in Bhutan’ published in the international journal called ‘The Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera’ on 28th February 2020 did a survey of 113 Drayang female employees from 13 selected Drayangs in Thimphu.
The authors are Senior Lecturer Elangbam Haridev Singh, Lecturer Rinchin Dorji and Associate Professor Rajnish Ratna all at Gedu College of Business Studies.
The fourth author is Rajeet Sapam an Educational Consultant at Vishal Academy.
66% of the women had children and only 34% did not have any child. 36% of them are divorced, 35% are married and 28% are single in terms of their marital status.
Only 9% of them have completed higher secondary, 34% completed middle secondary, 20% completed lower secondary and 37% were illiterate.
The study found that most of them are satisfied with working in Drayangs and feel proud of their profession.
Based on mean statistics, women happy to work in Drayangs got highest mean scores of 4.13 which implies that they are happy with their profession.
79% of Drayang employees feel their Drayang is placed in a good environment. 78% of respondents feel that the Drayang provides them safety with fewer problems.82% of respondents feel the Drayangs are the safest place for relaxation. 53% of the respondents say that their male customers do not misbehave with the female employees. However, some of them do report cases of misbehavior by the customers.
All the Drayang employees have awareness of STD’s.
63% of the respondents believe they do not indulge in unnecessary activities but only entertainment for their customers.
53% of the respondents say that their customers do not associate them with STD as they work in Drayangs, but 33% of the respondents say society have a stereotype that Drayang employees have STD.
The knowledge and awareness of Drayang employees on STD and its prevention is due to their regular update through conference, meetings and programs related to health safety as well as monthly health check-ups at hospitals.
55% of the respondents admit that people consider them seductive and deceptive. 92% of respondents assert that they treated all customers equally.
75% of the respondents say they do not misbehave with their customers. Meanwhile 54% of the respondents assert they do not entertain their customers after working hours.
88% of the respondents agree that Drayangs create employment for them and are able to support their family. 96% of the respondents consider working in Drayangs as a means of livelihood for them. The respondents strongly agree that Drayangs create employment opportunities for those with low educational qualification as reflected by mean score of 4.51. The question on if they can support their families by working in Drayangs also gives a mean score of 3.99.
80% of the respondents believe that they are promoting and preserving Bhutanese culture and tradition through traditional dances and songs.
The study said that the Drayang employees’ despite being satisfied with their profession do experience lot of psychological stress as they are constantly subject to body labour which includes surface acting to make their customers satisfied and get maximum requests for better income. Most of the time they have to act polite even if some customers act rudely or humiliate them.
The competition among Drayang employees to be popular among their customers, outperform others to get maximum sponsors for songs become very stressful for most of them. They also have to do physical labour like cleaning the Drayangs before opening time, fetching drinks and food for their customers which sometimes they find tiring.
It says though skill training avenues have been opened by the government sector as well as NGO’s, there are few takers since their earnings in Drayangs are generally between Nu 10,000- Nu 20,000. The basic monthly salary of Drayang employees are Nu 8,000 per month which is subsequently raised depending on their performance.
It says most of the Drayang employees who are illiterate or having low educational qualifications makes them ineligible for vocational training programs. Moreover, they feel working in Drayangs is more profitable for them and their families for improvement of their lives despite the social stigma attached to it.
One of the Drayang employees expressed the desire to open up her own shop after her 4-5 years’ savings from working in Drayangs. In fact, some Drayang employees use the free time they get during daytime to learn new skills like tailoring or improve their skills which they would not have got otherwise if engaged in manual agricultural jobs in rural sector.
The study concludes that Drayangs are not prostitution houses though there may be sex transactions between the Drayangs employees and their customers after working hours. Most of the Drayang employees feel the Drayang is the safest place for relaxation.
It says the argument by Drayang employers, Drayang employees and RENEW to treat them as any other form of employment holds true. The issue of society giving them the tag of people of low moral character by society and their customers contradicts the behavior of those frequenting bars, discotheques and Karaoke bars because of difference in their socio-economic status.
The report says that it has to be borne in mind by policy makers, law enforcing agents and general population that consensual sex does not fall under case of prostitution by international standards of human trafficking.