Although no figures are available, the trend is reported to be rampant in the industry

Report: Bhutan is slowly emerging as a destination for sex with tourists from the West and the sub-continent looking for young girls and boys in Bhutan.

This was one of the emerging vulnerabilities listed in the recently released study on status of vulnerable children conducted by RENEW (Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women) with support from Save The Children.

While there are no figures to support this “invisible findings” the study states that this has been happening for some time.

“This is the area where high-end sex workers also enter,” the study states. “Tourists are preferred due to the monetary incentive and also the fact that they would leave the country, thus protecting identity of the service providers.”

Other emerging vulnerabilities, according to the study are commercial sex workers, which include children besides children born to HIV/AIDs patients but are negative, family and neighbours of children with mental illness and children of parents serving time in prison.

Based on case studies, the study states that with various categories of sex workers, the profession was slowly becoming well organized. It further states that single women can be picked up at bars and discotheques and are paid a paltry sum of Nu 200 to 500 while school drop-outs and the unemployed, who mostly approach men themselves in intoxicated state, often siphon off everything that the man has.

The study also states that there are commercial sex workers below 18 years, whose identity and phone numbers are known by few people. “High-end girls, both children and youth insist on going to hotels of their choice for sex,” it states.

The study highlighted that under-age girls, including students being engaged in the trade and attributes this trend to poverty. Those serving high-end customers charge a minimum of Nu 15,000 a night.

“Clients are mainly Thimphu’s mobile population, particularly Indian tourists and those working in various hydropower projects, apart from other tourists and few Bhutanese,” the study found.

Tour operators and guides agreed that there could be women catering to tourists with the increase in visitors. However, they said it has to be verified as the information are based on hearsay.

Guides Association of Bhutan’s president Garab Dorji said that from what he heard, it was quite rampant.

“We hear of cases where some tourists indicate or demand female guides and escorts to accompany them during their stay in the country,” he said. “If true, it needs to be monitored as it could lead to bigger issues in future especially if it’s arranged by tour operators, guides or drivers.”

A tour operator said the issue was more prominent among regional tourists than the tariff paying tourists.  “But it’s not right as Bhutan is known as an exotic cultural and spiritual destination,” he said.

The study also states social stigma, low self-esteem, single parents and poverty have made children born to HIV/AIDs patients but are negative, more vulnerable.

Lhak-Sam, the study states was not able to bring this group into their family while there is no record on the number of HIV/AIDs patients who are married and have conceived. “Neither is there a record of children who are negative but born to HIV/AIDs parents,” it states.

Mental trauma such children faced has led to attempted suicide among them, the study states.

The study also categorises children of parents serving time in prison as the vulnerable lot as they are often subject to social stigma,  poverty, negligence, exclusion or deprivation and exposed to abuse.

One of the limitations highlighted in the study was the difficulty in contacting vulnerable groups like commercial sex workers. As conducting focus group discussion with them was impossible, since the girls do not want to know each other, snowballing sampling was adopted to get information on this vulnerable group.

Another limitation was lack of a standard definition of vulnerability or a baseline indicating the prevalence, type and factors making children vulnerable. “For obtaining a nationwide status of the vulnerable, a national level study should be conducted,” the study recommend.

For the purpose of the study, a vulnerable child was defined as “a child in difficult circumstances,” incorporated from the Child Care and Protection Act.

Of the total sample size of 891 children, 459 were in Trashigang, 235 in Paro and 197 in Tsirang. Respondents were children with one form of vulnerability or the other.

Kinga Dema