From the Inter Press Service, writer Sudeshna Sarkar describes the effort.
Every time Bijaya Dhakal goes out to meet people and tell them what she does for a living, the simple task becomes an act of courage requiring nerves of steel. Dhakal is the founder of Nepal’s first and only organisation of women sex workers now trying to make the state and society listen to a community long hushed by poverty and discrimination.
A widow who had not completed school, the 35-year-old mother of two became a sex worker after struggling to raise her family on the meagre wages she earned in a factory. For almost eight years, she led a double life, working in the capital Kathmandu and returning to her village sporadically, with her family believing she worked for a non-government organisation.
"Sex workers suffer at the hands of the police and, at times, their customers who beat them up or rob them. Yet they can’t complain because the moment people learn what they do, a change comes over them," Dhakal says.
"Landlords throw them out, and even doctors and nurses at the hospitals loathe touching them for fear of contracting some disease. I began to wonder one day, how long can we stay hidden? If we continue to hide, how will our needs and demands be met?"
Six years ago, Nepal’s growing gay rights movement inspired Dhakal to cast aside the veil of anonymity and start Jagriti Mahila Sangh. Jagriti means awakening, and Dhakal hopes it will catalyse sex workers hidden in the 75 districts of Nepal to unite for a change in their lives.
"I saw all these male sex workers, transgenders, and people living with HIV/AIDS declaring their status in public and demanding their right to be treated like any other citizen," she says, sitting in Jagriti’s office in Kathmandu, a three-room apartment that did not have a single stick of furniture when it opened with seven registered members.
"They gave me courage. Besides, I was tired of speaking through intermediaries who often failed to convey correctly to the state authorities and donors what we wanted," she added.
Today, Jagriti Mahila Sangh has grown into Jagriti Mahila Mahasangh, a federation with 26 associates spanning 23 districts, mostly in eastern Nepal and the southern Terai plains bordering India. Its major donors are the U.N. Development Programme, the British government’s Department for International Development, and Save the Children.
Dhakal feels even the donors are uneasy. "They prefer working with the HIV/AIDS community over us," she says. "They think, being uneducated, we won’t be able to manage our projects and also, what we do for a living puts them off."