If you came across Patali Tamang on the trails that lead out of Melamchi up towards northern Sindhupalchowk district, you would nor imagine that she has single-handedly put traffickers behind bars.
Patali has a bravado that belies her name, which means "thinny". Like the time last year when a man suspected of being involved in trafficking young girls to India was is identified in Taramarang. Fearing detection, the man escaped to Thakani. But Patali chased him there, and with the help of the community carried out a house-to-house search. Finally they found him hiding in one of the houses and took him to the police station.
"We\'ve had enough of this buying and selling of our girls," says Patali who has been nominated Village District Committee member and treasurer of a paralegal committee in Sindhupalchowk to prevent girl trafficking. Patali is earning a reputation for being tough. These days, if the villagers encounter trafficking, the word goes out: "Find Patali Didi."
Although brothels in Indian cities have girls from all over Nepal, the highest proportion of them still come from Sindhupalchowk District, east of Kathmandu Valley. Trafficking is a complicated issue, in many cases brothers, fathers or uncles sell oft their daughters or sisters. In others. Nepali sex workers from Bombay return home on recruitment drives. Indian trafficking networks work with Nepali middlemen. But the end result is the same: inhuman treatment and extreme exploitation of girls, some of them as young as ten.
Estimates put the number of Nepali girls in Indian cities like Calcutta. Bombay and Delhi at anywhere up to 200,000. One survey in Bombay showed that up to 40 percent of them were HIV positive. Frustrated by government inaction and lack of national outrage, local activists like Patali are finally sending a powerful message of resistance against trafficking, and addressing the root of the problem in the villages and homes from where the girls lured away. They have formed paralegal committees made up of local activists to spread awareness and to take action against traffickers where necessary. As the monsoon rains fall on the banana leaves outside, the paralegal committee meets in Sindhukot village with Patali presiding. Ambika Sigdel is a teacher at the local school and a member of the team, she says: "Even though this is a busy time for me, with planting rice and all, I had to come to this meeting. It is just too important, we have to work together to save our girls. "Anti-trafficking organisations in Kathmandu estimate that despite recent crackdowns, about 6,000 girls a year are smuggled out of Sindhupakhowk even- year. Traffickers are now going further a field to remoter villages where awareness about pimps have not yet spread. The villages of Ichowk, Ghorang. Botang and Thangpalkot are considered to be the worst affected. Local activists have set up their own anti-trafficking networks in the district and formed paralegal committees in 24 villages. Each committee has 11 members, nine women from nine villages one male teacher and one local leader. Members keep a constant vigil on young girls in the village, and look out for strangers. If they notice anything suspicious, like pimps propositioning young girls or someone Leaving the village suddenly, they make sure the parents concerned and the police know about it.
But they haven\'t stopped at trafficking. The committees are also playing an active role in controlling gambling and the sale of alcohol in the villages. Drunken brawls are taken seriously, and anyone involved is tied up all night on the street. Patali Tamang isn\'t worried that men are stronger. "Eight women are always stronger than one man," she says laughing. Local youngsters sometimes help the women keep village drunkards under control. The committees are now actually doing some of the work of the police by resolving local problems in areas where there there are no police posts or where they have been removed because of the Maoist problem.
A young college student from Thangpalkot, Tashi Lama, feels that more and more villagers now know about trafficking, and are determined to stop it. But Tashi is worried about what happens to the culprits after they\' are handed over to the police. "We catch the pimps and hand them over to the police, but the next day we see them walking free. It is frustrating." Other committee members echo this. They say trafficking can never be stopped until the collusion between pimps, police and politicians is curbed.
Sita Kharel of the activist group, Samaj Uthanka Lagi Sangathit Samuha (United Forum for Social Reform) is blunt about the nexus: "Politicians help pimps get out of jails. We had filed a case against a man who sold a girl and put him into jail but he was released soon after with the help of money and corrupt politicians."
Despite this, speaking to villagers in Sindhupakhowk, you get the felling a solid start has been made. People here know exactly who the corrupt politicians are and which policemen are helping the pimps. Now, with the help of the brave villagers in the committees it is easier to identify and catch the crooks. Because of increased vigilance, the pimps have \'\'gone underground" and although it has not been proven by statistics, local activists are certain that trafficking in Sindhupalchowk is down. Fearing a backlash in elections, politicians have also shown some wariness about openly patronising notorious pimps.