Around the world, women working illegally in the sex trade are often at the mercy of pimps, partners, clients and police, powerless to stop a beating, powerless to get justice, powerless even to protect themselves from HIV should a client refuse to use a condom.
Dr. Sharvari Karandikar has devoted her professional life to changing that, focusing her research on gender-based violence among female sex workers and how it affects their day-to-day lives. Her most recent work was in Kathmandu, Nepal, where women recounted the challenges of living as sex workers in a society where every aspect is dominated by men.
By understanding the circumstances that brought these women into the sex trade and the violence they face, and then by talking to the clients themselves, Karandikar hopes her research will lead to interventions that will protect women from physical harm and HIV risk, and restore their basic human dignity.
Many women in Nepal’s sex trade, she notes, were forced into it, either by dire poverty, traffickers, even by husbands or fathers in some cases. And once in the sex trade, women can never shake off the stigma that Nepalese society attaches to it.
“These women are seriously on the lowest rungs of society,” she says.
Karandikar arranged a collaboration with the Nepal School of Social Work for her latest work. She was joined by Dr. Lindsay Gezinski (OSU PhD 2011), assistant professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Utah and a former PhD student of Dr. Karandikar’s, and by Marissa Kaloga, a PhD student at Ohio State.
En route to Kathmandu in late April, Karandikar and her team were forced back after a devastating earthquake struck central Nepal. They eventually made the trip in December, joining up with Pradipta Kadambari and Kipa Maskey from the Nepal School of Social Work, and Bijaya Dhakal, who represents a sex-workers-rights organization called Jagriti Mahila Maha Sang.
Nepal’s unregulated sex industry is burgeoning, and the principle driver is poverty. The earthquake only compounded the misery, driving desperate women and girls into the sex trade or into the clutches of traffickers promising “good jobs” in India.
Having interviewed 30 women over the course of 10 days in Nepal, she and her team learned what specific circumstances compelled them into the sex trade in the first place and the type and degree of violence they faced in their work. Her next step is to look at the problem from the other side.
When she returns to Nepal in May 2016, she and her team will interview clients to better understand their violent triggers and to identify steps that can be taken to reduce disease transmission.
“One of our partners in Nepal, a sex-workers-rights organization, came to us and said there has to be some change in this and you have to talk to the clients, not only about HIV protection but also about respecting women and children.”
In the upcoming research, Karandikar and her team will set out to do just that, though she understands that persuading men to talk candidly about their sexual practices and their treatment of women poses a considerable challenge.
“The intention is not to expose clients, but to understand their perspective, to gain knowledge so we can reduce violence,” she says. “I understand that might not be a priority in their heads, but that is the only way to get this information.”
As part of their work, Karandikar and her team plan to devise interventions to educate clients — for example, holding workshops on gender sensitization and HIV prevention. While these are small steps, she believes they can be the start of a path that leads to a much better future for the women of Nepal.