TSERING DOLKER GURUNG
FRESH START: Meena Salami, 37, received a zero-interest loan from Shakti Sahara to start her clothing store business this year.
As far back as 1996, police raided prostitution dens in Mumbai and rescued 500 young women. More than 100 of them were from Nepal.
The story received wide coverage in both the Indian and Nepali media, and spotlighted the enormous problem of young Nepali women being trafficked into the sex industry in Indian cities.
At the time and in the years since, the Nepali media has been accused of being obsessive and insensitive, compounding the problem for rescued young women who were stigmatised and ostracised by society — sometimes including their own families — as they tried to start new lives back in Nepal.
Sunita Danuwar, now 41, was one such rescued woman, and remembers being subjected to constant scrutiny and judgment.
“Families would refuse to accept their daughters, out of fear of being excommunicated by the community,” recalls Danuwar, whose own relatives disowned her upon her return, because she had worked in the sex industry. “Even doctors testing us for HIV were scared of touching us.”
The discrimination and stigma prompted 15 of the trafficked women to set up Shakti Samuha in 1997. It is Nepal’s first anti-trafficking organisation run by survivors to help survivors, and also address the push factors that lure the women away.
“We have a simple objective: to fight trafficking, and help trafficking survivors rebuild their lives by providing them with the kind of support that we didn’t receive,” says Danuwar, a founding member of Shakti Samuha and its current president.
Shakti Samuha has set up a nationwide network to help bring victims of trafficking together and facilitate their reintegration into society by providing legal and psychosocial counselling, livelihood and skills development training, and support in income generation.
There are now 22 such groups in 10 districts, including Shakti Sahara in Kohalpur here in Banke, which has 21 members.
Meena Salami, 37, was a teenager when she was trafficked to Delhi by labour recruiters promising to send her to Kuwait for employment. Fortunately, her family tracked down and rescued her before she could be sold to a brothel.
“When I returned, people gossiped about me,” Salami recalls. “Many said I was a bad woman just because they assumed I had worked in the sex industry.”
Frustrated with the humiliation and lack of economic opportunities resulting from the stigma attached to being a trafficking survivor, Salami found herself once again being enticed by an agent’s false promises.
“I was despondent, and convinced myself that there was no other way to improve my life and my family’s, other than to go abroad and earn,” says Salami, now married with three children.
A chance meeting with Nirmala Thapa, a Shakti Samuha member who worked in the district, changed her mind. Salami says, “She said one should go abroad legally and be aware of one’s rights before doing so.”
This year, she opened a small clothing store in her village with an interest-free loan provided by the group. Although business is slow, Salami says: “Shakti Samuha’s support encouraged me to shed my fears and to believe in myself.”
Sita Sunuwar also obtained a zero-interest loan from the organisation to start a buffalo farm, and says she is now more confident andaware of her rights.
“There’s a great sense of solidarity among the members because we have all been through the same things,” explains Sunuwar, recalling her own ordeal after paying an agent to take her to Kuwait to work as a domestic helper.
Shakti Sahara distributes interest-free loans to members, which have to be repaid after a year and redistributed to other members.
“Our goal is to provide the initial support, and make you capable of running your own groups,” Dilip Koirala, legal and training coordinator for Shakti Samuha, was telling rescued women in Kohalpur recently.
In 2013 Shakti Samuha received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for its fight against trafficking, and last year it was conferred the French Human Rights Award. But despite groups like Shakti Samuha, around 7,000 Nepali girls and women are trafficked every year, according to a UNICEF report.
“The state has failed to provide opportunities for youth,” Danuwar says. “When people are desperate, it is easy to be tempted by fake assurances.”
Last year the Ministry of Labour and Employment revised the ban on women working in Malaysia and the Gulf countries, and allowed women aged 24 and older to work as domestic helpers. But no labour agreement has been signed with any of the countries.
Shakti Samuha has set up counselling desks at District Administration Offices to provide information about safe migration and trafficking to women wishing to go abroad. Says Danuwar: “We don’t want to stop women from migrating, we just want them to do so in a safe and legal manner.”
The findings of a new study entitled Imprisoned Traffickers in Kathmandu Valley show that human traffickers are not aware of how high the risks of their activities are, and how low the financial reward can be. Published by the Centre for Strategic Knowledge, the report attempts to fill the gap in research on perpetrators of human trafficking.
While collating reliable data on human trafficking is complicated, particularly in the absence of adequate research and measuring tools, reports by the media and various organisations tend to focus on the trafficking victims, patterns, legal measures and prosecutions. Often missing from the discourse is information regarding the traffickers, who are at the nexus.
The study looks at the methods used by traffickers, their thought processes and experiences. It claims to be the first-ever initiative to provide a glimpse into evolving trends, by featuring two comparative sets of interviews with traffickers in Kathmandu Valley prisons. The baseline study was carried out in 2006, and the follow-up exercise was undertaken 10 years later. The imprisoned traffickers completed a short questionnaire, and in-depth interviews were conducted with willing inmates.
“One reason this study is significant is that it is among only a handful of studies on human traffickers,” says Jonathan Hudlow, the lead author. “To try to understand human trafficking and how we can more accurately deter and fight it, we have to know more and understand the traffickers,”
While reaffirming the persistence of recognised trafficking trends, the study also challenges popular perceptions relating to the trade.
The findings indicate that at least in Nepal, a realistic cost-benefit assessment would show that engaging in trafficking is an iffy proposition at best. Would-be traffickers appear to be unduly swayed by the seemingly profitable nature of trafficking, but in fact most of the traffickers in the study reported earning less than expected and barely breaking even.
This skewed assessment is made against a backdrop of a low perception of risk of being apprehended. The lack of access to accurate information — stemming partly from the loose nature of the network of traffickers — contributes to a situation where harsh penalties do not have the expected effect. Compared to eight years ago, the number of convictions has increased; so have the fines and length of jail sentences.
According to the research, Nepal functions mainly as a source country, with Nuwakot and Sindhupalchok persisting as the most popular source districts for recruiters. Trafficked victims are sent as far as China and the Gulf, but Delhi and Mumbai in India remain the most prevalent destinations. Promises of employment and assurances of marriage are still the primary tactics employed, implying that these are still successful and casting doubt on the effectiveness of awareness programs that have been implemented.
The authors concede that the traffickers’ responses may have been distorted, and that when coupled with the multiple assumptions and unknown variables, the report's conclusions “are admittedly tenuous”. Nonetheless, the study suggests that efforts to alter the erroneous perception of the inherent risks and benefits may achieve a better outcome in reducing trafficking.
Study author: Jonathan Hudlow
Lead researcher: Dr Tek Nath Dhakal, Tribhuvan University
Publisher: Center for Strategic Knowledge, Kathmandu
Sunita's long walk to freedom, Devaki Bista
Teach to fight trafficking, Stéphane Huët
Victims to leaders, From the Nepali Press