The Skin Trade: A Growing and Gruesome Crime

Women and Health Contributor Eshi Vaz, shares the secrets behind an unconscionable economic trade

The philosopher and economist Amartya Sen is noted to have said that ‘poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realise one’s full potential as a human being’. To this extent, thousands of trafficked women and girls from some of the poorest districts of Nepal, experience the full meaning of such a definition: often by being promised a future of education, empowerment and a chance to lift their families from a life of marginal subsistence, children as young as nine are ultimately sold to criminal gangs and are transported across the Indo-Nepal border for a life of brutal sexual and physical exploitation.


A Nepalese girl in a village (Photo credit: Eric Montfort)


Resulting from an investigation by the Indian News website Youth Ki Awaaz (Voice of the Youth), a report published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation has stated that “poor Nepalese women are being trafficked and duped into selling their skin to be used for penis and breast enlargements in the global cosmetic surgery market”. Thriving off of the demand for human skin grafting, the sale of which has grown by more than 30% since 2002, the rural districts of Nepal have become a breeding ground for illegal gangs of traffickers to take advantage of villages experiencing extreme poverty such as the district of Sindhupalchowk, which has one of the highest unemployment, poverty and infant mortality rates in the country. Girls living in these villages often grow up in extremely harsh circumstances: many of them are denied access to education and thus lack the necessary resources to cultivate a better life for themselves, predestining them to the intergenerational cycle of poverty. When human traffickers promise impoverished families a future of economic prosperity for their daughters, it is with blind hope that their girls are sent to these traffickers that are cleverly disguised as representatives for preeminent Indian firms.


Alanskitra Singh.jpg
Two girls walking the streets of Mumbai (Photo credit: Alanskrita Singh)



Often operating at local bus-stops and other crowded public spheres of the community, traffickers try to familiarise themselves with young girls living in the area and build a network of residents of rural districts to engender trust among its people: a promise of social mobility is possibly the most powerful catalyst for the trust of the socially and economically deprived. Once young girls are lured by agents of criminal gangs, they are transported to an assigned distribution point where they are given a ‘price’ dependent on age, fairness of skin and virginity. The fairer a girl’s skin, the higher the price fetched – a 100-inch square piece of fair skin can sell for up to 1,00,000 Rs in Mumbai. This price is largely attributed to the fact that fair skin is almost indistinguishable in appearance from Caucasian skin: a colour that is the most highly valued both in the black market and the cosmetics industry. Subsequently, another man poses as the girl’s husband at the Indo-Nepal border when taking her to India where she is most likely to be sold on to a brothel. The porous and poorly monitored nature of the checkpoints at the border exacerbates the number of girls trafficked for their skin. The FBI estimates that almost 700,000 girls and young women pass into India unchecked as victims of sexual trafficking. UNICEF suggests the number could be as high as 1.7 million. As such, in some villages in rural Nepal, there are reportedly few to no girls left between the ages of 11-20, a frightening statistic in its emphasis of the grand-scale of female exploitation. It has been reported that once in India, further dehumanisation occurs in the brothels; victims are often tortured and burnt when reluctant to meet their client’s requests, prohibited from using contraceptives, unpaid and raped.

It is precisely within these brothels, shadowed from the detection of police, that agents who pose as ‘clients’ drug young women and girls. They then tear parts of the skin from their back or limbs to be used in cosmetic surgery either in Mumbai or transported around the world. In these cases, women have no knowledge of the purposes of skin extraction other than the physical and psychological pain it causes them: for many, they perceive it to be an aspect of their client’s sexual fetishes and are thus less likely to report such incidents for fear of being tortured. For the women who are not drugged, they are often made to sign forms declaring that their skin donation is voluntary: a statement that negates the systemic oppression and violation of freedom, which many of these women are subject to. Though illegal under Nepali Law, the sale and exportation of human tissue is an expanding and lucrative black-market business, one that has grown by more than 70% since 2002. Sold to pathology labs in India for high prices that solely benefit the traffickers, such tissue is subsequently exported to US-based firms and used as derivatives for plastic surgeries including custom breast implants and penis enlargement for the wealthy. In many cases, the competition for light-skinned tissues is so vicious that providers are often unconcerned about the source of the skin – while the profit of the aesthetic industry is rapidly increasing, the rights of thousands, if not millions of Nepali women among others are cast into the shadows.


Innocent and unaware children of Mumbai smile for a picture (Photo credit: Kidurtmedia)


Thus, the hope so concentrated within the symbolism of International Women’s Day must be translated into activism, into a force for change that can well and truly form the premise of a better global society for this world’s women and girls. Trafficking of any human being is a violation of every human right in existence: the right to have autonomy and freedom over one’s life – not to be forced into a life of misery and modern enslavement. The right to be a child – not to be sexually tortured and abused, raped, cut and emotionally traumatised so the seeds of potential in the blood of all these girls have no chance to shine and facilitate the boundless promise they are worthy of. The right to be heard – not locked away in a brothel and tortured into silence. The right to have roots –   to have a home and an environment of safety. These children and women, who are often society’s most disadvantaged, are denied such fundamental rights that are intrinsic to the human experience: if we cannot guarantee at the very least, their freedom from oppression, then we lose any sense of the word ‘human’ in humanity. In response to the report, the Nepalese Women, Child and Social Welfare Minister issued the following statement – “we will investigate and if found to be correct, the government will make all efforts to stop this heinous crime and punish those responsible”. Ensuring such action is a promise that is essential to keep in order for the basic human rights of these women to be upheld.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Soma Basu says:

    Hi, the investigation into the Nepal skin racket was not done by Youth Ki Awaaz. It was done by me independently. The story was later published in Youth Ki Awaaz. Would appreciate if you make the correction.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s