Giv­ing traf­ficked women a home

Maiti Nepal, an in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised or­gan­i­sa­tion help­ing vic­tims of hu­man traf­fick­ing, be­gan in 1993 in a small rented room on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal Katmandu. To­day, thanks to the tire­less ef­forts of founder Anu­radha Koirala, it has formed a

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Geeta* couldn’t sleep for ex­cite­ment. Ly­ing on the rough, straw-stuffed mattress for the last time, she looked out through her home’s only win­dow, tak­ing in the stars twin­kling in the mid­night Nepalese sky, the full moon sil­hou­et­ting the back­drop of snow-capped Hi­malayan moun­tains.

Geeta had seen this sight a mil­lion times, yet it still cap­ti­vated her and the thought that this would be the last night in her par­ents’ home sent a slight shiver of nos­tal­gia through her. For a fleet­ing mo­ment the 17-year-old felt a gnaw­ing ner­vous­ness about her plan to run away and marry San­jeev*, who for the past few months had been win­ning her heart at the fam­ily veg­etable stand, who had promised to take her to Kathmandu for their nup­tials and on to In­dia for a re­spectable high-earn­ing job.

San­jeev seemed con­cerned about her back­break­ing labour. He told her she would no longer have to wake at sun­rise and la­bo­ri­ously toil the land, or carry the bas­ket on her back with pro­duce more than half her slight body weight. She was too good for that, he said.

None­the­less Geeta could not help but worry about be­tray­ing her par­ents, who had cared for her un­con­di­tion­ally. But she rea­soned with her­self that when she re­turned, she would be a re­spectable, trav­elled, earn­ing woman and her par­ents would, of course, for­give her.

How­ever, Geeta, like many Nepalese girls, would not be go­ing to In­dia as a mar­ried woman for dig­ni­fied em­ploy­ment, nor would she re­turn to the fam­ily home with pride and wealth. For the man in whom she had placed her trust would mer­ci­lessly sell her for just a few thou­sand dol­lars. San­jeev gave his wife to the flesh trade across the bor­der in the In­dian city of Delhi just months af­ter their mar­riage and mere weeks af­ter she had given birth to their first child.

Geeta found her­self sep­a­rated from her baby, who was placed in the care of a brothel owner, her fam­ily and the man she thought loved her, en­slaved in a brothel, im­pris­oned in a room and mer­ci­lessly beaten with rods and burnt with hot irons and cig­a­rettes un­less she com­plied with the wishes of her clients and em­ploy­ers.

For the next three years she would be moved from one red light dis­trict to the next, from Delhi to Kolkata to Pune, un­til one day she es­caped and fell into the care of Maiti Nepal.

Maiti Nepal, mean­ing a mar­ried woman’s childhood home, is a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion founded in 1993 by Anu­radha Koirala and head­quar­tered in Kathmandu. At al­most 60 years old Anu­radha is a woman with an un­re­lent­ing re­solve to pro­tect young women and girls from do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, traf­fick­ing for the flesh trade, child prostitution, child labour, ex­ploita­tion and tor­ture in a coun­try where it is es­ti­mated up to 12,000 girls a year are traf­ficked over the bor­ders into In­dia and China.

“A few years af­ter Maiti Nepal was founded,’’ says di­rec­tor Bishwo Ram Kad­kha, “we started res­cu­ing girls who were vic­tims of traf­fick­ing. Since then we have res­cued 25,000 girls.”

Safe haven for 500 women and chil­dren

What be­gan in a small rented room is now an or­gan­i­sa­tion that com­prises a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion home (cur­rently car­ing for 500 fe­males aged be­tween seven and 23), three preven­tion homes, 10 tran­sit homes, two hos­pices pro­vid­ing an­tiretro­vi­ral ther­apy to for­mer traf­ficked chil­dren and women in­fected with HIV, and a pri­mary/ sec­ondary school, The Teresa Academy.

“We have a school within our premises,” says Bishwo, who has been with the or­gan­i­sa­tion for 19 years. “We re­ceive girls ev­ery day; we don’t have a sched­ule for when a vic­tim will ar­rive. Ini­tially all the girls were sent to another school but it didn’t take in new stu­dents in the mid­dle of the aca­demic year. School is a very im­por­tant tool in re­cov­ery so we started our own so that when­ever they ar­rived they could en­ter the school sys­tem. At the mo­ment we have 450 chil­dren from nurs­ery to class 10.”

Asked why they start school­ing at such a young age, Bishwo ex­plains sadly, “Chil­dren at seven are traf­ficked here and that trend is in­creas­ing dra­mat­i­cally be­cause some peo­ple be­lieve sleep­ing with a vir­gin will cure you of HIV.” Adding shock­ingly, “They give them

hor­mone in­jec­tions to make them look big­ger and are bid for by brothel own­ers. They are too young to un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing to them and they don’t want to go with clients.”

Sigh­ing and shak­ing his head Bishwo says, “But brothel own­ers are so cruel they starve them, give them elec­tric shocks, burn them and beat them into sub­mis­sion.”

Fight­ing a con­stant bat­tle

It is such a pro­lific tragedy that has driven Maiti Nepal to con­stantly ex­pand its res­cue, repa­tri­a­tion and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grammes.

“Traf­fick­ing changes all the time,” Bishwo says. “It has wider man­i­fes­ta­tions now and we have to ad­just our re­sponses ac­cord­ingly. As one type of traf­fick­ing re­duces, another rises, for ex­am­ple from dif­fer­ent dis­tricts, to dif­fer­ent coun­tries or dif­fer­ent ages. You try to stop it in one area and it reap­pears else­where.”

This is why Maiti Nepal has such far-reach­ing re­sponse tech­niques and to­day it con­ducts a wide range of ac­tiv­i­ties na­tion­wide in­clud­ing aware­ness cam­paigns in the most vul­ner­a­ble dis­tricts where poor girls are of­ten the tar­get.

“Per­haps [in th­ese ar­eas] the girl has a hard life walk­ing for one hour to get wa­ter, has no proper food, no clothes and no ed­u­ca­tion,” says Bishwo. “This makes her very vul­ner­a­ble and sus­cep­ti­ble. She will eas­ily be­lieve a man who says he has fallen in love with her and en­tices her with the idea of more money in the city.”

On aware­ness-rais­ing cam­paigns, a team of up to 100 lawyers, doc­tors, ac­tivists, re­porters and for­mer traf­ficked vic­tims will visit vil­lages and lit­er­ally knock door-to-door speak­ing to moth­ers, young girls and fa­thers, ex­plain­ing the re­al­ity of traf­fick­ing, the means by which traf­fick­ers lure their daugh­ters and the pun­ish­ment that can fall upon any man found guilty of par­tic­i­pat­ing in the crime.

“We iden­tify highly af­fected dis­tricts,” says Bishwo. “Then we cam­paign in those vil­lages. We ex­plain to fam­i­lies what can hap­pen, we dis­sem­i­nate eas­ily un­der­stand­able in­for­ma­tion and sen­si­tise them to the prob­lem. In the evenings we gather peo­ple through pop­u­lar songs, singing, danc­ing, drama and we also

‘Brothel own­ers starve them, give them elec­tri­cal shocks, burn them and beat them into sub­mis­sion’

have lawyers and po­lice with us to ex­plain that traf­fick­ers in Nepal face up to 20 years in jail.’’

Al­though th­ese cam­paigns are ef­fec­tive and a Maiti Nepal team will try to visit ev­ery vul­ner­a­ble dis­trict sev­eral times a year, the time and re­sources they have are lim­ited. One way to over­come this and to con­tinue rais­ing aware­ness all year round, is through its preven­tion cen­tres. The ob­jec­tive is to em­power the most vul­ner­a­ble girls by teach­ing them skills and giv­ing them the abil­ity to raise com­mu­nity aware­ness about traf­fick­ing.

It cur­rently runs three preven­tion homes in Nuwakot, Mak­wan­pur and Nawalparasi dis­tricts, three of the most threat­ened ar­eas.

At the cen­tres, a com­pre­hen­sive pro­gramme in­cludes psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­selling and self­es­teem-build­ing ac­tiv­i­ties; lessons in traf­fick­ing, health­care, chil­dren and women’s rights and so­cial is­sues, and train­ing in in­come-gen­er­at­ing skills such as sew­ing, can­dle mak­ing or tai­lor­ing.

“We se­lect vul­ner­a­ble girls from th­ese ar­eas. Girls who are the most eas­ily tar­geted, poor, un­e­d­u­cated, from a lower caste and un­der the age of 20,” says Bishwo. “We choose 90 girls in to­tal, 30 from each dis­trict, and for the next six months we pro­vide them with full lodg­ing, we teach them how to read and write, and we have de­vel­oped a cur­ricu­lum that teaches them about traf­fick­ing and what they can then do to pre­vent it in their home vil­lages.”

Th­ese cour­ses run for six months and af­ter the girls leave the cen­tre they essen­tially be­come agents for Maiti Nepal in their vil­lage com­mu­ni­ties, speak­ing to their peer groups, and par­ents who are keen to send their daugh­ters away to earn money, warn­ing them of the meth­ods used by traf­fick­ers to lure girls away and what to look out for. Ev­ery six months a new batch of girls is put through the same train­ing in the same dis­tricts.

When asked why they haven’t ex­panded to other ar­eas, Bishwo sim­ply says they have cho­sen to place cen­tres in the coun­try’s three most vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas for traf­fick­ing, adding, “We have so many other ac­tiv­i­ties that need money, at­ten­tion and hu­man re­sources. It’s easy to start new things but it’s dif­fi­cult to keep pos­i­tive pro­grammes func­tion­ing for the long term be­cause fund­ing re­quire­ments are huge.

“We have 750 women and chil­dren un­der our care at any time and that re­quires a heavy amount of fi­nan­cial sup­port. We have to look af­ter them ev­ery sin­gle day, feed them and pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion, health­care, food and lodg­ing – and that is very ex­pen­sive.

“Most of our re­sources must go to­wards fundrais­ing be­cause char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tions don’t have a reg­u­lar in­come.”

Seek­ing jus­tice for the vic­tims

Res­cue op­er­a­tions, ap­pre­hend­ing traf­fick­ers and then pro­vid­ing le­gal sup­port are all other costs that the or­gan­i­sa­tion must bear, de­spite its non-in­come-gen­er­at­ing sta­tus as a char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tion. Prose­cu­tion is none­the­less yet another area in which Maiti Nepal ex­cels. Find­ing jus­tice for the vic­tims of traf­fick­ing is a cru­cial as­pect of what it does.

“Once a girl has reached us, we have a case­m­an­age­ment process whereby she will work with coun­sel­lors, med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als, lawyers and so­cial work­ers,” Bishwo says. “When she is ready, we take her back to the place from which she was traf­ficked to try to find the man. It’s not al­ways easy but we are proud to say we have a strong track record for prose­cu­tion.”

Via col­lab­o­ra­tive work along­side au­thor­i­ties on in­di­vid­ual cases, en­gag­ing in crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions and wag­ing le­gal bat­tles, Maiti Nepal has been in­stru­men­tal in the im­pris­on­ment of al­most 1,000 hu­man traf­fick­ers. “They have been sen­tenced from be­tween 20 and 70 years,” Bishwo says. “They can be charged mul­ti­ple times, for sell­ing her, rap­ing her, steal­ing her from her home, and for more than one girl.”

Geeta’s traf­ficker is one such man who is now be­hind bars serv­ing a jail term of 20 years, charged also with al­low­ing his baby son to be taken away at the time of hand­ing his wife over to a brothel owner.

This son now lives at Maiti Nepal with Geeta but still strug­gles with a speech im­ped­i­ment from when, as a baby, he would cry in the ab­sence of his mother and for which he was rep­ri­manded by the brothel owner by hav­ing his tongue burnt with a hot poker.

Geeta’s son is nine years old now and he at­tends a board­ing school nearby, funded by Maiti Nepal. His mother works in the grounds of the or­gan­i­sa­tion as a gar­dener, be­com­ing

self-suf­fi­cient, re­gain­ing her in­de­pen­dence and pro­vid­ing for her son. It is a key as­pect of Maiti Nepal’s work that it as­sists res­cued girls with the pro­vi­sion of in­come-gen­er­at­ing skills.

“The girls nor­mally stay with us for up to two years,” says Bishwo. “That’s about the time it takes for them to start over­com­ing their trauma. Dur­ing that time we find out what they want to do in life and we send them to dif­fer­ent places where they can un­der­take train­ing. Then we look for a job for them and we place them in em­ploy­ment.”

Once the girls are em­ployed they are able to stay un­der the care of Maiti Nepal for a few months in or­der to save a lit­tle of their salary be­fore be­com­ing fully self-suf­fi­cient. The or­gan­i­sa­tion pro­vides them with a few es­sen­tials for their new home, such as mat­tresses and cook­ing uten­sils, and fol­lows up with each girl for at least six months af­ter they leave its care.

“It is cru­cial that the girls are in­de­pen­dent eco­nom­i­cally when they go back out into so­ci­ety,” Bishwo says. “There is a huge stigma at­tached to traf­ficked girls and they are dis­crim­i­nated against. How­ever if peo­ple see the girl has a good job and she is hard-work­ing and dig­ni­fied, they won’t dare to crit­i­cise her.” Many of the girls who are res­cued and re­ha­bil­i­tated have cho­sen to work in pre­vent­ing more girls from suf­fer­ing the same fate. The or­gan­i­sa­tion es­tab­lished mon­i­tor­ing check­points at bor­der points back in 1996 to help the al­ready-present au­thor­i­ties bet­ter pre­vent traf­fick­ing, and to­day for­mer vic­tims staff all of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s 10 posts.

“They said what­ever had hap­pened to them could not be changed but they wanted to work help­ing oth­ers and they wel­comed the idea of work­ing as bor­der guards” says Bishwo.

“They stand in a booth near the po­lice and they mon­i­tor the cars pass­ing. Th­ese girls have been through the process so they know how girls are tricked; know the stan­dard an­swers the girls will have been told to re­ply. They know what to look out for.”

With an open bor­der be­tween Nepal and In­dia, it is not dif­fi­cult for naïve girls who trust the man with whom they are trav­el­ling to give myr­iad ex­cuses on the rare oc­ca­sion that non-for­mer-traf­ficked bor­der guards ques­tion them. “They may say they are go­ing to meet a fam­ily mem­ber,” says Bishwo “or have treat­ment or want to buy some­thing. [Un­trained] guards have no idea how to dis­tin­guish if they are telling the truth or not.”

When asked why the girls so will­ingly give guards re­hearsed an­swers, Bishwo ex­plains, “They have no idea about their fate. They be­lieve the man be­cause of­ten they are close fam­ily friends, hus­bands or rel­a­tives.

“If, for ex­am­ple, he has pro­posed then she re­gards him as her hus­band, she can’t mis­trust ‘It is cru­cial that the girls are in­de­pen­dent eco­nom­i­cally when they go back out to so­ci­ety’ a man in whom she is meant to have ul­ti­mate trust. It’s then easy for him to brain­wash her and what­ever he says, she fol­lows.”

Rad­hika* is one of the cur­rent guards, who has not only worked at check­points on the bor­der but also now works at Kathmandu in­ter­na­tional air­port to en­sure girls are not be­ing taken out of the coun­try by air. She is a woman who suf­fers from HIV from her years of servi­tude, yet thanks to the care of Maiti Nepal she is able to ded­i­cate her time out­side of HIV clin­ics to help pre­vent girls from fall­ing prey to traf­fick­ers the way she once did.

A sense of so­cial pur­pose and a will to ac­tively re­verse the trend of traf­fick­ing is clear to see in all the girls who en­ter this or­gan­i­sa­tion al­most ir­repara­bly bro­ken. But through time, pa­tience and tar­geted care, they leave as em­pow­ered women de­ter­mined to change the fate of oth­ers, women such as Geeta whose fu­ture and that of her son is brighter, much the same way as the flow­ers she tends in the beau­ti­ful man­i­cured gar­dens of Maiti Nepal. Per­fect grounds that re­flect the care given to each and ev­ery girl whose life is re­paired thanks to the ded­i­ca­tion of Anu­radha, Bishwo and the for­mer traf­ficked girls now ded­i­cat­ing their lives to help­ing oth­ers.

As Anu­radha says, “Take ev­ery child as your own daugh­ter, and soon you will feel her sor­row, and then you will feel the strength that comes out of you to pro­tect them.”

Anu­radha Koirala, far right, who set up Maiti Nepal, with some of the teach­ers at her school

Res­cued girls from the Maiti Nepal team raise aware­ness in vil­lage com­mu­ni­ties

Teresa Academy stu­dents par­tic­i­pate in an an­nual fes­ti­val

Maiti Nepal or­gan­ises aware­ness cam­paigns in vul­ner­a­ble vil­lages (top cen­tre) and also runs a school for traf­ficked and sus­cep­ti­ble chil­dren

mak­ing a dif­fer­ence Pam­phlets high­light­ing the is­sues are dis­trib­uted across vil­lages in Nepal

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