By Nishant S Gurung

Old age is a great time to sit back and enjoy your life, but everyone does not have the privilege. At the age of 65, Bhawani Shrestha from Sankhu of Kathmandu is a sex worker. Her husband, Hari Shrestha, left her 42 years ago to marry another woman.

Bhawani’s 19-year-old son Rohit Shrestha studies in a private school. His education is funded by Child Worker in Nepal Concerned Centre, an organization working for the rights of underprivileged children.

After being separated from her husband, Bhawani started working as a dishwasher at a sweet shop, but instead of getting paid she faced physical and mental abuse at the hands of her employers. The employers would beat her up each time she asked for her salary.

Abandoned by her husband and consequently her family (both maternal as well as in-laws), she did not have a Nepali citizenship and hence doors for better employment opportunities were shut for her.

To make ends meet, Bhawani was left with no other option but to turn into a sex worker at an early age.  She says she has entertained clients of all age groups starting from 18 to 55. She is also HIV positive, a disease she contracted during her years as a sex worker.

The months-long nationwide lockdown was a difficult time for many people like Bhawani. Having left with no money for food she was compelled her to sell her body for a mere sum of Rs 50.

At that time, she met 38-year-old Samjhana KC and 42-year-old Simple Lama, two transgender women laboring as sex workers in Kathmandu. They have been looking after Bhawani during dire straits ever since they met.

The transwomen duo let Bhawani stay at their place and helped her get antiretroviral (ART) medicines from BISWAS foundation, an NGO who provides free ART treatment for vulnerable people.

“The lockdown was and still is difficult for us since we do not have food, money, or a job,” says Samjhana, who left home with her 62-year old mother years ago since her family did not accept her as a transgender woman.

She has been providing for her mother and sustaining herself by laboring as a sex worker for the last 15 years. Although Nepal government provides citizenship for transgender persons, Samjhana has not been able to get one because her family is not supportive of her and she does not have the funds to support the procedure.

Simple Lama, a transgender from Dhadhing district, has also been working as a sex worker for the past 20 years.

Samjhana, Simple, and Bhawani with 15 other women visited Maiti Nepal, after they heard that the organization was distributing free food to the needy during the lockdown. Maiti Nepal is an NGO established to protect Nepali girls and women from harms of domestic violence, trafficking of flesh trade, child prostitution and labor.

When the Founder of Maiti Nepal, Anuradha Koirala, saw Bhawani, she asked Bhawani about her journey. Upon learning her story full of struggles, Maiti Nepal offered Bhawani to stay in their shelter home designated for HIV positive females in Gokarana.

But when Bhawani refused to stay at the shelter, Maiti Nepal arranged a separate house for her, paid her rent, provided food and have promised to look after her needs till her last breath.

“I feel very fortunate that I met Anuradha Koirala from Maiti Nepal who provided me with food and shelter. I now feel happy and relieved from the burdens of life. I am only worried about my son now,” says Bhawani.

“I was heartbroken when I first met her and heard her story. Being HIV positive and working as a sex worker at this age is difficult. I wish I could have met her earlier, but now that she is in Maiti Nepal’s care, I will make sure she does not have to face such situations for the rest of her life,” says Koirala, who also won 2010 CNN Hero.

Current view of the old bus park area where Bhawani used to pick her customers, in Kathmandu, Nepal, on July 26, 2020. Image: Nishant S.Gurung

A general view of the bus station area where 65-year-old Bhawani spent her homeless nights, in Kathmandu Nepal, on July 26, 2020. Image: Nishant S.Gurung

Bhawani speaks with Maiti Nepal staff before she was taken to her new home, in Kathmandu, Nepal, on July 26, 2020. Image: Nishant S.Gurung

Bhawani and Samjhana KC walk past a street vendor at an overhead bridge, in Kathmandu, Nepal, on July 26, 2020. Image: Nishant S.Gurung

Bhawani walks towards her new home at Ason, Kathmandu, on July 26, 2020. Image: Nishant S.Gurung

Bhawani carries a pillow as she shifts to her new home, in Ason, Kathmandu, on July 26, 2020. Image: Nishant S.Gurung

A staff from Maiti Nepal puts a pillow cover as she helps Bhawani shift to her new house, in Ason, Kathmandu, on July 26, 2020. Image: Nishant S.Gurung

Bhawani looks out of the window from her new house, in Ason, Kathmandu, on July 26, 2020. Image: Nishant S.Gurung

Bhawani sits in her bed as she looks around her new home, in Ason, Kathmandu, on July 26, 2020. Image: Nishant S.Gurung

To the right, Samjhana KC, 38, and Simple Lama, 42, two transgender women face the camera for a photo at their home, in Kathmandu, on July 26, 2020. Image: Nishant S.Gurung