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
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