Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh, Nepal’s Federation of Female Sex Workers

Established in 2006, by former sex workers, Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh (JMMS) is Nepal’s national peer-led network for women working in the sex industry. As a national federation of sex workers with its headquarters in the nation’s capital, Kathmandu, Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh’s membership consists of 26 regional community-based female sex worker led organisations of various sizes. Through its advocacy efforts and in supporting its member organisations, Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh aims to address the social and health related issues impacting on female sex workers in an effort to reduce their vulnerability to occupational health and safety issues and to mitigate the impact of HIV/ AIDS on the sex worker community. Additionally, Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh is dedicated to building the capacities of its member organisations through developing and sustaining the leadership and advocacy skills of female sex workers from across Nepal.Every month Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh holds monthly meetings for sex workers to explore issues impacting on the sex worker community and the sex industry. On average, these meeting attract between 10 to 15 female sex workers. Sex workers who attend these monthly meetings explore issues surrounding gender based violence; occupational health and safety; access to health care options; strategies for Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh‘s member organisations in undertaking outreach, condom distribution, peer education and referral systems; the impact of policy and legislation on the sex worker community; and police harassment.

Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh ‘s Organisational Governance Structure and Representation Processes

Although Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh is recognised as a peer-led sex worker organisation, several staff members do not identify as being from the community. However, the organisation is led by a sex worker committee consisting of 7 to 13 executive board members, all of whom identify as current or former female sex workers. Board positions include: President, Vice President, Secretary, Vice-Secretary and Treasurer, with the remainder of the board made up of Ordinary Members.According to the Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh Constitution, a national General Assembly is held every 2 years. The process of engaging sex workers from around the nation in the General Assembly involves 2 female sex workers representatives from each of Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh’s member community-based organisations being nominated by their local constituencies to attend Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh’s national General Assembly as member representatives and regional advocates. The representatives from each member community-based organisation who are selected to attend the General Assembly are tasked with nominating and electing peers to the Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh governance committee. The governance committee, which meets every 3 months in Kathmandu, attempts to ensure that sex workers from across all regions of the country are represented within the organisation’s governance structure.The role of the Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh governance committee involves a number of responsibilities, including, identifying advocacy issues and appropriate responses which are within the organisation and its members’ capacity to deliver, developing the strategic direction of the organisation and overseeing the implementation of the organisation’s programs and policies.

Issues Affecting Nepalese Women Sex Workers

In Nepal, sex work is criminalised and sex workers have faced high levels of stigma and discrimination from broader society, health care providers, state authorities (including the police and military), and local vigilante groups. However, despite the criminalisation of sex work, sex workers are visible within Nepali society. Although there are no ‘official’ brothels or red light districts in Kathmandu, many sex workers with whom Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh engages operate from massage parlours, bars, night-clubs and the streets. The most visible sex industry in the capital exists in the tourist district of Thamel, central Kathmandu.However, despite the sex industry being visible, as sex work is technically illegal under existing legislation, many sex workers routinely experience police harassment. Sex workers report that whether or not they are harassed by police depends on the mood of the police officers. Due to local knowledge of the sex industry, local are aware of who is, and isn’t, a sex worker. Subsequently, some police officers will arrest individual sex workers and demand money from them in order to avoid being transported to custody and charged with sex work related offences. Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh also reports that police will sometimes demand free sex from a sex worker is she has no money to pay brides to police.

Sex workers are commonly arrested for alleged violation of “public order” and “obscenity” laws. Due to the social taboos surrounding the sex industry, female sex workers in Nepal often face difficulty in accessing sexual health and reproductive services. According to Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh, sex workers are often uncomfortable in discussing their profession and related occupational health concerns with health care service providers, due to both perceived and tangible discrimination. Many sex workers have also reported feeling harassed by health care workers due to the extreme stigma surrounding sex work and gender inequality stemming from cultural expectations of the role of women within Nepali society. Accordingly, many sex workers prefer to access private clinics in lieu of obtaining health care services from local, government funded health services, none of which provide sex workers with targeted and occupational sensitive health care provision options. As a result of these issues, sex workers opting for health care access through private clinics are commonly required to pay a significant amount of money for accessing a private doctor service. Some private clinics will charge sex workers a higher rate for service provision than other non-sex working patients. Similarly, some sex workers have reported being sexually harassed and treated in an inappropriate manner by private G.Ps and health care providers. Due to issues surrounding a lack of confidentiality within non-metropolitan areas, some sex workers also prefer to travel to different regions to undertake health care options. For these reasons, Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh advocates for sex worker specific clinics which provide a free, or low cost service, and in which staff have been sensitised to the specific issues affecting women sex workers and female sex workers are engaged as peer service providers.Although there are is a national mechanism for HIV prevention, education, and treatment, marginalised communities at risk of HIV, including sex workers, drug users and the GLBTIQ community, often face difficulty in accessing holistic treatment for HIV. Under national HIV policy, positive people can access ARV treatment for free at 45 sites across the country; however in rural areas, there is a lack of options for people wishing to test their viral load and CD4 count. Subsequently, positive people based in many non-metropolitan areas are required to undertake long, self-funded travel to Kathmandu to access these services.Due to the intense social stigma surrounding both sex work and HIV, Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh reports that HIV positive sex workers will commonly relocate to another district and discontinue contact with members of their local community if their sero-status is disclosed.

Many of Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh’s member organisations undertake outreach and provide peer support services to local sex workers; however, according to peer educators from within the network, HIV positive sex workers are often difficult to engage with due to their fears of being ‘outed’ as positive. Peer educators report that in addition to fearing ostracisation from the broader community, HIV positive sex workers also face marginalisation from within the sex industry and are subject to gossip, innuendo and stigmatisation from other sex workers, who know of, or suspect, their sero-status. Discrimination from within the sex industry towards HIV positive sex workers can manifest as existing or potential clients being told of a worker’s sero-status, which can result in a loss of income for the worker, potential violence perpetrated against the worker, and the worker’s family members facing social ostracism. Due to these issues, peer educators from the Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh network recognise that it is extremely difficult to implement effective networking and coordination strategies with sero-positive sex workers.Reproductive rights are also an issue which impacts on female sex workers. Although condoms are available locally, many low cost condoms are not of a high quality and peer educators report that many sex workers commonly complain of condoms breaking during sex. Similarly, water based lubricant is not readily available or affordably priced. According to sex workers, some clients may request anal sex services; however, other substances are commonly used in lieu of water-based lubrication.

Abortion is illegal in Nepal and due to social and cultural norms, many women feel impelled to bear children if they fall pregnant. Terminations are provided by ‘underground’ practitioners, some of whom charge a relatively high price for their services and many of whom are not familiar with appropriate methods of safe and effective abortion and may use ‘home remedies’ to attempt to induce a miscarriage. Resultantly, women who access ‘underground’ abortion services are at a high risk of complications arising from the procedure, and may suffer from long-term health issues, including infertility.Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh has identified that one of the major issues impacting on women sex workers involves citizenship rights.

As of 2015, Nepal does not have a national Constitution, subsequently; women’s rights are recognised or protected. Under current Nepalese policy, in order for a child to attain national citizenship, the birth of the child must be registered by the child’s father, or the husband of the child’s mother. Unmarried women or women who do not have contact with the child’s father are unable to independently register their child with relevant authorities in order for their child to attain citizenship. Children without citizenship rights are not issued with national identity cards are not able to access the same rights as citizens. Similarly, unmarried women who engage in pre-marital sex, and particularly those who bear without being married, are subject to extremely high level moral condemnation and marginalisation. The children of unmarried women and the children of sex workers are similarly discriminated against and are commonly restricted from interacting with other children and/ or attending school. This institutional bias towards unmarried women, sex workers and their children perpetuates the structural inequalities which exist within Nepal as a result of the caste system, gender bias and financial inequality.

Advocacy Efforts and Issues

A major advocacy issue for Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh relates to the rights of women to be able to register the birth of their children independently, and for their child to attain full citizenship rights, equal to others. Currently, there are no peer-led provisions for sex workers and/or unmarried woman who bear children who are deprived of their citizenship rights. Whilst Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh is limited in the amount of direct law reform work it can undertake, due to conditions in the organisation’s funding arrangements, the network works closely with women’s groups to affect legislative and policy changes, which they hope to have reflected in the country’s new Constitution. In addition to the implementation of equal rights for women in attaining citizenship for their children, the organisation is also advocating that the inclusion of access to basic women’s health and reproductive rights are also included in the Constitution.Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh also undertakes advocacy in relation to health care services for sex workers. The network would like to implement peer-based rapid Blood Borne Virus (BBV) testing facilities within its member organisations. Similarly, as there is no access to social security for sex workers, Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh advocates for the establishment of care homes for sick and/or ageing sex worker s, or those simply needing respite from the industry. Subscribing to a “by and for” model of community development, the organisation advocates for capacity building programs amongst the sex worker community in relation to alternative income sources, access to education, leadership and advocacy skills, participation in policy development, and the rights of HIV positive sex workers.In an attempt to challenge police attitudes towards the sex industry, and to sensitise police towards the issues affecting sex workers, Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh, has facilitated workshops and training for police officers. Although the organisation reports that there were positive outcomes to their sensitisation events in that there were tangible reductions in the numbers of sex workers harassed, bribed and arrested by police, it has been difficult to sustain work with local police. This is due to national policing policies which require police officers to work in different wards, districts and regions on a rotational basis. The rationale for this policy is ostensibly an attempt to reduce police corruption and influence over specific areas by requiring police to transfer between working environments every 6 months. Subsequently, the organisation has identified that police sensitivity training needs to be an ongoing priority.Although the organisation undertakes policy based advocacy within NGO, civil society forums and with government, due to issues surrounding stigma, discrimination, social exclusion and fear of persecution, the network does not undertake public protests or engage in high visibility media work. Rather, the network has identified that it is more effective and culturally sensitive for them to attempt to change public perceptions about sex work by directly engaging with individuals who can who can enact change in their own communities. The organisation is one of seven national peer networks which focus on highly marginalised communities at risk of HIV, and subsequently Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh participate in World AIDS Day events as a self-identified sex worker network. The network also supports capacity building amongst its membership in relation to undertaking HIV related advocacy by supporting sex worker representatives to participate in ongoing treatment literacy programs supported by the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC).  Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh members participating in ITPC, Treatment Literacy Training, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh’s Message for the Sex Worker Movement and Broader Society

Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh extend their solidarity to the international sex worker movement and for sex workers in other countries to recognise that the organisation is dedicated to actively promoting the “My body, my rights” discourse. The organisation actively supports and participates in 17 December International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers events.The network also wants broader society to recognise that community attitudes toward sex work, which are based in prejudice and discrimination, need to change in order for sex workers to attain their full range of human, health and occupational rights. Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh promotes the evidence based theory that social exclusion and legal frameworks impact on sex workers’ susceptibility to HIV, and continues to push this agenda in a number of forums and advocacy activities. The organisation also wants Nepalese society to recognise sex workers as active contributors to society, as care givers, and as citizens with rights equal to those of others.In deeming social attitudes towards sex work as ‘reactive’, Jagriti Mahila Maha Sangh, aims to work towards a society in which sex workers are awarded a full range of rights, and to implement changes within the way the local sex industry is organised to ensure that workers are choosing the profession of their own volition and have the means and support to practise holistic self-care.