Thimphu City

Sex workers on the rise in Thimphu due to the Pandemic

Although selling sex is illegal in Bhutan, however, the number of sex workers (SW) is on the rise in Thimphu, and while there are a variety of reasons for people entering this field the main cause at the moment is the economic impact of the pandemic where people have lost their livelihood and jobs are not available.

The paper talked to a volunteer who works with sex workers to help them.

Apart from the numbers of SW going up due to the pandemic many SW have moved from the border towns of the country to the capital leading to a further increase in numbers.

The high numbers of SW in Thimphu has had a negative impact on the Thimphu based SW. These SW have said that they have had to lower their price, and work twice as hard to earn what they used to earn before the pandemic.

The clients, who come from all walks of life, negotiate the price, which is now as low as Nu 2,000.  The clients also dictate the terms on whether to use contraceptives or not. SW have no choice but to relent to the demands of the clients as they have to earn a living. Sometimes, the clients further reduce the rate to Nu 1,000 or simply refuse to pay after being served.

Many of the SW are also dependent on their clients to share their contact numbers and increase their networking with other potential clients. The clients call SW over the mobile phones to meet up in hotel rooms.

According to multiple sources, SW and their clients engage in sex in mainly hotel rooms. There are allegations that some of the hotels in Thimphu are intentionally leasing out their rooms for the prostitution business.

However, most of the hotel owners and managers that this paper interviewed deny the allegation.  They stated that the hotels do not ask its guests to give their reasons for booking the rooms. The hotels accept any person who can pay the room rent and charges after a standard verification.

The hotel owners further shared that the pandemic has severely impacted their business, and therefore, they do not turn away the few customers that book rooms in their hotels, as they have to earn revenue to cover their losses.

But a hotel owner in core town area shared that he has customers who call him to say that they are bringing girls, and they also directly book rooms from him.

“They would call me and negotiate the room charges since they would stay just for a few hours. Being a business, and knowing the difficulties due to the pandemic, I offer them a certain percentage discount on the room charges,” he added.

He said most of his customers are well off people. He has also seen many young women frequenting his hotel, and he has not asked them for their reason for doing so.

A 50-year-old man, who owns one of the hotels in Thimphu, said that it would be inappropriate for him to question the customers why they are taking a room in his hotel. He said he cannot ask them if they intend to operate a sex business. However, he said that he has seen young girls who have stayed in his hotel frequently.

“I do get customers from all the age groups. Some of the customers book rooms on an hourly basis.  Most of the bookings are done by adults, whereby, we don’t bother them by asking all weird questions,” he added.

A 36-year-old hotel owner said that she does not scrutinize the guests and demand them to state a reason for staying in her hotel.  She said it is common for couples or groups of people to rent rooms in her hotel.

“The guests can be anyone, and it is not in our mandate to do research on them. So far, I have not found anyone carrying out sex business in my lodge,” she added.

It is illegal in Bhutan to engage in sexual conduct for money or property. Under the Penal Code of Bhutan, the offence of prostitution is petty misdemeanour. The other aspects of sex work, like running a brothel, enticing a person into prostitution, soliciting a patron for a prostitute, procuring a prostitute for a patron, living off the earnings of prostitution, are graded as misdemeanour to fourth degree felony and third degree felony if children are made to work as sex workers. 

However, the criminalization of sex work has not stopped people from taking up the work. The source that spoke to this paper said that sex work is not safe. Most of the sex workers are sexually abused and face harassment, violence, and fall as victim to crimes, and yet they cannot report the crimes, as their line of work is illegal.

Meanwhile, the source said that the society must learn to accept SW.

The source said, “People think sex work is easy money. They (SW) undergo various tortures, emotional breakdown and mental issues as they are forced into many things. It is not something they want to do, but are doing with no other choice. The cope up mechanism they use is alcohol and drugs intake before meeting their clients.”

It was learnt that the client’s denial to use condoms makes SW more vulnerable to HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and most of the time they face violence from their clients, which puts their lives at high risk.

The source said, “When SW come to us to share their issues, we can only provide them with emotional support. We are neither here to promote SW nor do we have a right to stop them from doing it. We just want to ensure their safety by creating awareness. We encourage them to be bold so as to help them get out of emotional breakdown.”

The source said that people have a mentality that selling sex is a crime, but they forget that buying sex is also a crime. “If a sex worker goes to any of the stakeholders to report a crime, it would be nice if they look into the matter, giving equal rights to both the parties involved.”

SW have fears of getting targeted by the relevant authorities, like the law enforcement agencies and being penalized, and they are also worried about getting caught by their parents.

Director, Program and Services, RENEW Dr Meenakshi Rai that SW will not reveal their real identities and speak on the reasons they are into sex work as sex work is criminalized.

She said, “This is a broad topic to discuss on. We have no rights to find out who they are nor do we have the right to question them in their profession. Some are into this business – with no choice while some are into it – by choice. Whoever they may be, they might have their own reasons.”

With so many reasons, they do not want to come in front even though they are victim to various violence, and they do not want to seek support as the society stigmatizes and discriminates against them, she added.

Therefore, awareness on violence, human rights, reproductive health, unwanted pregnancies and prevention on HIV and STIs is seen as the way forward to educate SW.   

She said, “Education, sensitization and dissemination of correction information is important because, at the end, it is a person who has to take a critical decision. We look forward to work with everyone, irrespective of who they are or where they are from. If they come to us, then we would render our support.”

Dr Meenakshi Rai said SW have to report any violence against them to people they are comfortable with. RENEW does not comment on the legality of their profession as they all have their own reasons.

Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) said that they have not received any formal complaint on such a matter, however, they are arrested one girl, who was also supposed to be a pimp, a few years ago as she was involved in drug case.

It was learnt that SW now operate professionally with trusted list of clients who can ensure their safety. They are not as open as they used to be in the past years.

“We used to get information on sex workers in the past, but now, it has become difficult for us to even know who they are or how they are operating. They have become so professional now,” the source said.

“People look down on the SW community just because they give sex services. But what about those people who receive their services and for that matter how should they be judged.”

Given various factors, the number of SW in the network is expected to rise.

As for some reasons for turning to prostitution, some of the SW had a past history being victims of rape, runaways from abusive families, being illiterate with no job opportunities, and poverty. However, a few of the SW are into the trade to have a luxurious life. 

There are under aged SW to those in their mid forties. It was learnt that there are students who are into the business. There are also a few male SW in the network.

Clients or patrons are usually from an economically sound background. Most of the clients are above the age of 35 years, while there are a few clients who are below the age of 25 years.

The SW and clients agree on a price and are paid directly without having to go through a pimp as such.

SW work hard to sustain and to support their families, as whatever money they earn goes to their families back at home and to pay for their children’s education expenses. Sex workers do not want their parents to know about their trade or suffering. 

The pandemic has prevented the SW from travelling to the other dzongkhags, depending on the season when they can earn better. This has impacted their earning rate. The frequency of meeting their clients also been affected as the income of the clients are also affected by the pandemic.  

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