A much neglected area of research concerns the reintegration of formerly sex trafficked women. Very little is known about Nepalese women’s experiences following their return from brothels in India to their families in Nepal. This research explored the reintegration experiences of twenty formerly trafficked Nepalese women who were released, rescued or had escaped from Indian brothels and returned to live in Nepal. The study sought to answer two questions: how do women survivors of sex trafficking experience reintegration; and what are the barriers and the supporting factors that facilitate reintegration. The data was collected through in-depth interviews. At the time of interview the participants were living in one of three different settings: with their families in a rural village; independently or with their husbands in Kathmandu; or in rehabilitation centres run by anti-trafficking Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Kathmandu.
Qualitative data analysis revealed that despite the participants sharing the same identity as a returnee from sex trafficking, reintegration is not a uniform experience. The proposition that reintegration is a unique experience is demonstrated in three case studies. At the same time the women in this study shared a number of common experiences. For instance, the effects of the abuse which women experienced in the brothels continued to impact the women’s day to day living long after their return.
Most of the twenty women who returned to Nepal with the support of NGOs perceived that many of their choices were governed by NGO staff and they therefore lacked autonomy. While waiting to return to their families, these women reported NGO practices such as being sent for HIV tests without their consent, being pressured to take legal action against their traffickers and disclosure of their trafficking history to their families. These practices violated their rights to self-determination.
A few women who returned independently from India to Nepal were able to exercise some autonomy in planning how and when they would return to their families and how they would present themselves to their families. However, the journey home to Nepal for some independent returnees was unpredictable and unsafe in comparison to those women who were assisted by NGOs.
The majority of the twenty returnee women were welcomed by their parents. Nevertheless, all participants who had returned to their home and community were vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination, particularly from community members. The discriminatory practices meted out by community members constitute a denial of basic social or civil rights of access to facilities, and inclusion in society. Some women’s experiences further suggest that NGOs played a negative role in their reintegration largely due to NGO staff failing to adequately assess a returnee’s family situation and lack of follow up and support for the women once they returned home.
Community discrimination, lack of access to health facilities and HIV/AIDs medication, and limited job options other than agriculture labouring were the key factors that led women to leave their family and village to live in NGOs or independently in Kathmandu. Just five women were living in their village at the time of interview. Notably, none of the women who had returned home with the assistance of NGOs were living in their home or village at the time of interview.
The long term experiences for those women who remained living in their village included developing strategies to cope with villagers’ discriminatory practices, finding a marriage partner and coping with health issues and low income. For independently living women in Kathmandu, many were vulnerable to sexual abuse and struggled to become involved in adequately paid employment in the early days. However, over time most found paid employment and some married a man of their choice. For the women who were living in NGOs, most lacked confidence in finding a job outside the NGO and living independently even though they had undertaken several NGO skills training courses. Many expressed concern about their wellbeing should an NGO where they were living terminate its current support.
As numerous NGOs are involved in assisting women in their repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration, the findings suggest that anti-trafficking NGOs need to take a victim centred approach to assessment of women’s circumstances and pathways to reintegration. Moreover, there needs to be a greater focus on changing discriminatory societal and community attitudes towards returnee women. The study findings suggest that while women’s individual resilience plays an important part in successful reintegration, the main focus for change should be at the structural level. Existing deeply entrenched patterns of discrimination against women generally, and sex-trafficked women in particular, must change if Nepalese women are to be included as equal citizens in the social, cultural and economic life of their country.