Buying Prostitutes In Kathmandu
Names of people and places have been changed.
Three plastic silver bangles are now my most treasured possession.
Our ministry hosts had already prepared us for what we were going to do that night. We were going to walk into the dance bars in Thamel, sit down, order Cokes and make relationships with the girls. Our goal: to get their phone number and get them connected to the ministry in order to get them out. Easy, right?
I felt a surge of energy as we walked throughout Thamel. We were told to walk around as a squad and pray for the Lord to tell us which dance bar to go into. We would split up into 4 different teams, with about 12 people in each one. Before we even started walking, I knew which dance bar I needed to go to. The lights around the sign made it difficult to miss, and the words Crown Thamel Dance Bar were bright red above a badly cropped image of Angelina Jolie, who was in a tight nude tank top and posed provocatively... at least by Nepal’s standards. We walked by rows of closed storage units before we reached a dimly lit staircase that led to the dance bar. As we walked in, we saw a few men sitting in the booths, and a woman in a tight dress dancing lazily on stage. Her movements were so practiced yet messy, and the dance was so tame that it was almost comical, unless you knew what was really going on.
The woman on stage is likely a girl, aged somewhere between 13 and 17. Her dance may be tame, but when she gets off stage, the men working at the club will direct her towards a customer who liked her and who will likely buy her an alcoholic drink, or several. From there, at the end of the night she will probably be taken into one of the storage units that we walked past on the way in, and she will be taken advantage of by a man who is decades older than her, or he will get her number in order to see her later.
We split up and sat in booths. I sat with my teammate Caitlin and our guide and we ordered Cokes. We had been told to look happy and continue to smile. If we looked concerned for the girls, they would know that we were therefor a different purpose, and we would be kicked out. I sat and smiled and tapped my foot to the beat of the music, all the while distraught over what I was looking at. After sitting there a while, a couple of the dancers sat next to the other girls in our group and about 6 girls started dancing on stage. One girl stuck out to me immediately.
She couldn’t have been more than 14 years old. She was on the stage, front and center, and was by far the best dancer. It seemed as though all of the girls behind her had no idea what they were doing, and they were just following her moves. Not only was she the youngest girl on stage, she was also the most skimpily dressed. My heart broke the second I saw her, and it completely shattered when I saw an American man in his 40’s hand her a few Nepali bills. I waited, knowing I HAD to talk to her.
After about 20 minutes of waiting, she finally walked out and I immediately waved at her. She seemed surprised at first, and then relieved. I don’t blame her; I’m sure she doesn’t see a whole lot of young, white American girls in there, and I now know that she was relieved that she could sit with me instead of the man in the back who was old enough to be her father. She sat down and I asked her what her name was, and she said “Punita”. When I asked how old she was, she said 17 years old, and we both knew that was a lie.
I won’t give details about our conversation, but I will say that the rest of that conversation broke my heart. The first time I asked, she told me that she liked working there, but I wasn’t convinced. I asked her about her family and her dreams, and was surprised when she was actually very vulnerable with me. After asking again if she liked working there, she sighed and told me that she never eats, never sleeps, and never sees her family. Several times in the conversation, she apologized for having to get up and talk to the older man who kept giving her money during the dance, but then she would sit back down with me and sigh. Also, several times the owner would come and speak sternly to her in Nepalese. When he left, I asked what he said, and she said “he’s telling me to speak to you like a friend”, blushing. I realized that the owner saw me as a potential customer, telling me that even women were taking advantage of this girl. Hearing her story while pretending to be totally happy and excited will forever be one of the most difficult things I will ever do, but the bouncers could not know that I was not a potential customer.
Near the end of our conversation when she was talking about her dreams for the future, I told her that she had a joy about her, and that she could do anything she wanted; all true. Then, I asked her if she wanted the number of a woman who could get her out and help her get a job. She hesitated, looked around her, and nodded yes. I gave her the number and wrote hers down, and soon after, the owner told her to go talk to the other customer.
Punita was replaced by Jaya, who said she was 19 years old, but couldn’t have been older than 16. My conversation with Jaya was limited because she spoke very little English. Luckily, there was a girl sitting next to Caitlin who would translate for us when we got too stuck. When I told her my name was Anna (it’s easier for them to remember), she nodded and said “oh, like Anaconda!” She had just been dancing along to the words “My anaconda don’t want none unless you’ve got buns hun” a few minutes before… I laughed, not sure what else to say. Now, as I write this it still saddens me that those degrading lyrics are so fresh in her mind. After trying hard to have a conversation, but being stopped by the language barrier, I just decided to let her rest. As Punita had told me, they rarely sleep because they work all night. After having her friend ask her if she liked working there, she shook her head no. I got her number and gave her our contacts number as well. They would be able to get her out. Then, Jaya turned to me, smiled and pinched my cheeks and slipped three of her plastic silver bangles onto my wrist.
As I write this, I still have those bangles on my wrist. I don’t see myself taking them off any time soon. It’s such a beautiful reminder of the sweetness of this girl whose life consisted of degrading men and women, and dancing to lyrics that match. As I said above, I have changed the names of those two sweet girls. I chose their Nepali screen names carefully. Punita means pure and holy, and Jaya means victorious. Walking out of that dance bar without those girls hands in mine was one of the most difficult things I had ever done, these screen names give me hope for what their future could look like.
Please continue to pray for Punita, Jaya and all of the girls that we came in contact with, and gave the tools to leave prostitution. Pray that we planted a seed, and that the organization that we have been working with continues to water that seed and watch it bloom.
With love from Kathmandu, Nepal