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For youngest girls enslaved in sex trade, more woe

HIV risk higher, conditions worse

Sex workers in Mumbai, the destination where traffickers send many Nepalese girls who are tricked into prostitution. Sex workers in Mumbai, the destination where traffickers send many Nepalese girls who are tricked into prostitution. (punit paranjpe/reuters)

WASHINGTON -- A rare glimpse into the harrowing lives of girls and women forced into India's sex trade found that the youngest among them -- girls age 14 or younger -- faced another cruel risk from their bondage: 60 percent became infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The study, published in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, reviewed the health records of 287 Nepalese girls and young women who were lured into prostitution in several cities in India from 1997 to 2005. It found that 38 percent of them tested positive for HIV when examined after they were rescued by Maiti Nepal, a nongovernmental organization based in Kathmandu.

The research yielded new insights on the dehumanizing conditions for females coerced into prostitution, then bought and sold around the world. The State Department estimates there are roughly 600,000 to 800,000 people who are trafficked globally in virtual slavery; 80 percent are female.

"It adds to our knowledge," said Ambassador Mark P. Lagon, director of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, one of the funders of the research. "It is stomach-turning to hear the stories through this study of those Nepalese girls who were 14 or younger trafficked to India."

Jay G. Silverman, the study's lead author and an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that Maiti Nepal's records revealed that the youngest of the prostitutes -- girls who have yet to reach sexual maturity -- were most at risk for contracting HIV.

"We came to realize that there seemed to be something happening with the youngest girls. Their experiences were qualitatively different," Silverman said of the 33 girls who were found to have been forced into prostitution before age 15. "They were moved around much more, hidden much more, restrained. They seemed to be forced to sexually serve larger numbers of clients" than older girls or women.

While Silverman acknowledged that researchers could not reach conclusions based on the smaller database of girl prostitutes, he said the documents revealed some reasons why the youngest prostitutes were more likely to contract the deadly disease.

More than a third of the youngest girls were forced to work in multiple brothels, compared with 12 percent of older girls and women in the sex trade. The youngest girls also spent more time in brothels: The study found that two-thirds of the girls 14 or younger were held in brothels for more than a year, compared with 43 percent of older sex-trade workers.

Moreover, the study noted another well-known reason for high HIV rates among the youngest sex slaves: because girls' genital tracts are immature and more sensitive to trauma, they provide greater pathways for infection. Silverman said the youngest of the Nepalese prostitutes often were the most sought after.

"These youngest girls are the folks who bring in the most money for the traffickers and brothel managers," he said. "Male clients are willing to pay much more to have sex with a young girl. Some of it is based on the mythology these girls will be cleaner. [They] were often portrayed as virgins."

In some parts of Africa, researchers have found cases in which HIV-infected men erroneously believed that having sex with a virgin would cure them of the disease. Silverman said the myth was repeated in India.

The Nepalese sex slaves were trafficked to the Indian cities of Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, and Kolkata, often enticed by false assurances of well-paying jobs as domestics or restaurant workers. Traffickers also tricked them by inviting them to visit a relative or attend a social or religious event, but then sold them into servitude.

The article called for greater efforts to prevent sex trafficking of young girls and women to spare them both sexual violence and the high risk of contracting HIV. "Currently, relatively few such efforts exist," the article said.

Lagon, the US official, said international authorities also should focus on the men who seek prostitutes, especially those who want to have sex with minors.

"It's important not only to look at the awful economic situation, and the political situation that makes people vulnerable, but also at the demand that creates this situation," he said in an interview.

John Donnelly can be reached at