top of page


or trafficking in women in Nepal

Carmignac Prize 2017


The story often begins in the same way: a stranger, a friend, or, more often than one imagines, an uncle or a cousin makes the promise of a better life to a young Nepalese woman. Wearing expensive clothes or jewelry, it ensures that a job allowing the whole family to subsist as well as new opportunities await them in Kathmandu, the capital, or in India, Malaysia or Kuwait.

Rita had this conversation when she was 16. Living in poverty in Jappa, a village in eastern Nepal, she was promised a better life in India, a few kilometers away. This is how the trap closed gently on her. After crossing the border with her "friend", Rita was entrusted to a man who forced her to prostitute herself to fifteen to twenty men a day, as were many girls and women locked in the same building .

Nilan was only 15 when she was made the same promise. Attracted by the illusion of a better life, she was taken and sold to Dubai where she was forced to work as a maid twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Sexually assaulted by many men, she became pregnant. This did not prevent the abuse from continuing. During the eight months of her pregnancy, she was held against her will, often chained to bed. She was eventually sent back to Nepal, but the baby did not survive the torture she had endured.

Sarita was only 5 years old when her father died, marking the start of an inevitable downward spiral. Abused for years by her stepfather, she ran away from home at the age of 12. To survive in the streets of Kathmandu, she worked in restaurants locally called “Cabin restaurants” and adult bars “Dance bars”. Either way, drinks are not the only thing sold to the many male customers ... At the age of 16, she was raped and became pregnant. Her attacker married her, but abandoned her five months later, taking all her money. Now twenty-seven years old and with one child, she continues to work in a dance bar and earns less than a hundred dollars a month.

In Nepal, these stories are all too familiar. The country remains one of the poorest states in South Asia with a quarter of its population living below the poverty line. The economic situation worsened in 2015 after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. Nine thousand people died and 650,000 had to flee their homes. For many families, finding any job became an absolute necessity and for the traffickers it was a godsend. It was there that the carefully prepared trap closed on the young women.


Lizzie Sadin spent three months in Nepal to carry out the work presented in this book: “As a woman and a photographer, I have always been interested in human rights issues. I naturally chose to focus on the lives of women and the way in which their fundamental rights are violated ”.

Lizzie's interest in women dates back to the nineties in France when she followed the plight of battered women, from their homes to emergency departments, from the police stations to women's shelters. “I spent three years fighting with the police, social workers and charity volunteers to get access to these women that no one wanted to show,” she says. "I wanted to lift this taboo, be the voice of those who did not have one and show what was hiding in the shadows". Her goal was simple: to force the conversation, to show battered women that they were not alone, that they were the victims of a structural problem that affected society as a whole. "When the photographs were published, people started to express themselves: the women dared to tell their story and that's what I wanted."


In Nepal, Lizzie Sadin understands that she is facing a similar omerta which allows this immense traffic to continue. "The Nepalese do not know it, they do not know that we are talking about trafficking, slavery" she explains. “They think it's a classic form of prostitution. Neither public opinion, nor the families of these girls, nor the girls themselves realize what this implies ”.


Kathmandu has 20,000 sex workers who sell their services in Cabin restaurants, Dance bars and massage parlors. Between 5,000 and 10,000 women are sold each year from Nepal to India, joining hundreds of thousands of others who have been sold or who have chosen to migrate to find work abroad. What Lizzie Sadin witnesses during these three months across Nepal and parts of India is organized trafficking: a mafia, as Judge Tek Narayan Kunwar called it. A mafia that feeds on hopes and despair.


Lizzie Sadin had to fight to get these photographs. “You have to be daring. One has to face the husbands, the pimps, the traffickers, the guards, the guards, the owners of the bars because what is happening is very hidden, ”she says.


From these photographs emerges the harsh reality of girls forced to work in these establishments. Their clients, their exploiters, their executioners dominate them like predators. Lizzie Sadin having chosen not to show the acts of abuse, one can only imagine what happens behind these doors once closed.


The photographs also illustrate their despair. The word "anguish" takes on its full meaning when we see these girls crossing the border between Nepal and India, clinging to the hope that they will not be turned away as they persist in believing in the wonders that they have been lied about. In one of the shots, a young woman argues with immigration officials and workers from an organization, claiming that she is not the victim of traffickers. A man in custody, a trafficker, listens to the discussion behind bars. He wears a T-shirt proudly inscribed with:

" I am not IN danger, I am THE danger " ...


Others collapse when they realize they have been saved from months, if not years, of bondage and abuse. However, their future remains uncertain and they have no other perspective than poverty, prisoners of a life from which they cannot escape.


Local authorities have tried to stem this movement. Earlier this year, Nepal banned its citizens from traveling to Gulf countries on tourist visas, and some of those countries stopped issuing work permits to Nepalese. But traffickers are constantly adapting and using India and Sri Lanka as the epicenters of their activities, with rampant corruption helping nothing. In March 2017, a parliamentary report stated that immigration officers at Kathmandu international airport may have been complicit in traffickers "in sending thousands of poor and illiterate women to the Gulf countries in order to work illegally and where they are exploited and abused ”.


Abuse takes many forms, from slavery to physical and sexual abuse. Nilan, who was a domestic slave to a family in Dubai, was repeatedly raped by various assailants. When she got pregnant, the head of the family made her understand that she was "sick" and that they could no longer keep her. She was taken to the airport and then sent to prison, her passport having expired. Eight months later, after being expelled from the country, she was able to return to live in Nepal but without her stillborn baby.


According to the non-governmental organization Maiti Nepal, which recently carried out a survey of Nepalese workers returning from the Gulf, 67% of them suffer from serious health problems as well as psychological after-effects. Although not all Nepalese women suffer Nilan's fate, many remain scarred by forced servitude.

Maya, for example, endured it five times. The 37-year-old woman, originally from the village of Kharani Faat, near Pokhara, first worked in Kuwait where she looked after twelve children, eighteen to twenty hours a day, for less than a hundred dollars a month. She describes this situation as hellish, a hell that lasted two years. On her return, her uncle sent her away. Twice. Then she was sent to Dubai and Oman. Today, thanks to the Pourakhi organization, she can finally return to her hometown where her children are waiting for her.


The problem, in France as in Nepal, remains the same. “It's gender-based violence,” explains Lizzie Sadin. Violence deeply rooted in society. “They were taught to be commanded, docile, to obey men, husbands and brothers” Given that they rarely have access to education, information and because of threats of reprisals, they choose silence.


However, there is a difference between what the photographer could see in France twenty years earlier and what she saw in Nepal in 2017. “In France, the women I photographed invited me to take their picture for bear witness. They wanted to exist through my images, ”says Lizzie. “I would talk to them, I would hold their hands, I would cry with them and then I would photograph them. In exchange, I offered them a voice ”. In Nepal, on the other hand, the women photographed by Lizzie do not dare to take the plunge. " They are scared ". They continue to be the victims of a societal structure where violence against women is rooted in mores.


Local organizations are fighting to change this perception. They work to disseminate prevention campaigns across the country and work directly with local police forces. On the border between Nepal and India, for example, they help immigration officers identify traffickers among men who claim to be traveling with their wives, daughters or sisters. They call families and friends on the phone to verify the veracity of their words. Those caught in the act are convicted of human trafficking and are sent to prison for a sentence ranging from seven to ten years.


Judge Tek Narayan Kunwar has done a lot for these women as well. Winner of an award from the United States Department of State, he is responsible for drastically reducing the time between the arrest of a trafficker and his trial, from five years to less than ninety days.


These actions are bearing fruit. Some victims start talking and Rita is one of them. Six months after being forced into prostitution, she was rescued by the charity Sakti Samuha. “Rita now wants to join the organization and help girls like her across Nepal learn about reality,” says Lizzie Sadin.


For the photographer, organized trafficking is not just a consequence of the economic situation and the lack of opportunities in Nepal. It also raises the question of women's rights: the right to receive an education, to choose their future, to live their life without fear of physical or psychological violence from their husbands and families. It's about changing an entire belief system, a system that considers women to be inferior to men.


Lizzie Sadin fought against this system in the nineties, using her photographs of battered women in France. Today, she continues this fight for the women of Nepal, with the hope that her photographs will help to change mentalities. Not only in Nepal, but also all over the world.


Editor-in-Chief Photography New York Times



bottom of page