Monday, December 1, 2008

TRAFFICKING & AIDS: Sex Slavery Reaps Increase in AIDS

In commemoration of World AIDS day, below is an article published last summer regarding one of the first medical reports linking AIDS and trafficking. For the complete medical report, click here.

Published: August 1, 2007, International Herald Tribune

Adding another bleak dimension to the sordid world of sex slavery, young girls who have been trafficked abroad into prostitution are emerging as an AIDS risk factor in their home countries.

Girls who were forced into prostitution before age 15 and girls traded between brothels are particularly likely to be infected, the study found. Shunned by their families and villages on their return, they sometimes end up selling themselves again, increasing the risk.

The study, which was published Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, concerns girls from Nepal trafficked into bordellos in India, but the problem is also emerging elsewhere, said the lead author, Jay Silverman, a professor of human development at Harvard University's School of Public Health.

Girls from Yunnan Province in China sold to Southeast Asian brothels, Iraqi girls from refugee camps in Syria and Jordan, and Afghan girls driven into Iran or Pakistan all appear to be victims of the same pattern, he said, and are presumably contributing to the outbreaks of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in southern China, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

"Most authorities fighting human trafficking don't see it as having anything to do with HIV," Silverman said. "It is just not being documented."

Aurorita Mendoza, a former Nepal coordinator for the United Nations AIDS agency, Unaids, called the study very important.

"It's the first I know of that's linked HIV to sex-trafficked girls," she said.
Nepal - a poor, religiously conservative country in the Himalayas - has until recently had relatively few AIDS cases. The government estimates that it has only about 10,000. The official Unaids estimate is 75,000, but that may be too high, given that some previous estimates for other countries have been wrong. One month ago, for example, Unaids cut its official estimate for neighboring India by 56 percent, to 2.5 million infected, more than anywhere except South Africa and Nigeria.

The study was paid for by the U.S. State Department's Office of Trafficking in Persons and by Harvard and Boston Universities. It tested 287 girls and women being helped by a charity called Maiti Nepal, or Nepali Mother's Home, in the capital, Katmandu. Most had been sent home by Indian anti-prostitution groups working with the police.

Thirty-eight percent of the Nepali women tested by Silverman's team were infected with HIV. But among the youngest - the 33 girls who had been sent into sex slavery before they were 15 years old - the infection rate was 61 percent.

Brothel owners pay twice as much for young girls, Silverman said, and charge more for sex with them, sometimes presenting them as virgins, because men think young girls have fewer diseases or believe the myth, common in some countries, that sex with a virgin cures AIDS.

"It's absolutely heartbreaking," Silverman said. "Some of them are just shells, and shells of very young human beings. It's every father of a daughter's worst nightmare."

About half of those tested had been lured to India by promises of jobs as maids or in restaurants. Some were invited on family visits or pilgrimages and then sold, sometimes by relatives. Some were falsely promised marriage. Some were simply drugged and kidnapped, often by older women offering a cup of tea or a soft drink in a public market or train station, Silverman said.

Not all Nepali women are kidnapped or tricked, said Mendoza, the former Unaids official, since poverty drives some into prostitution knowingly.

Romesh Bhattacharji, a former national law enforcement official in India, said, "This heartless 'trade' has been popular for more than six decades in the subcontinent. In some parts of northern Nepal, one can tell which house has a girl working in an Indian brothel by its roof. If it's tin, that's brothel money."

Mendoza said returning girls may be rejected by their families and villages because of fear that they will either corrupt other girls or will so taint the village's reputation that no one will marry its young women.

As a result, these victims of kidnapping and rape may be forced to keep selling themselves. One survey of Katmandu prostitutes, Silverman said, found that half had worked in India. They may also become pregnant and, without treatment, infect their children.

Working in a brothel in Mumbai, one of the world's largest cities, was a risk factor in itself, the study found. The youngest also tended to have been in multiple brothels and in them for more than a year, raising their risk.

India's epidemic, concentrated among sex workers, truckers, men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs, is most common in its industrialized south and in the heroin-smuggling areas near Pakistan and Myanmar, not in regions bordering Nepal.

Worldwide, about 500,000 young women are trafficked each year, according to the State Department. Most of the 150,000 trafficked in southern Asia end up working as prostitutes in Indian cities, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

To view the entire report by the Journal of the American Medical Association, go to


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