Standing on a Thamel rooftop Sudhir, a 19-year-old street sleeper, points to a middle-aged white man walking with a child on the road below.
"He used to take me to his room and ask me to shower and he would say if you do nice things I will give you clothes, food and money. I needed those things," Sudhir says. He counts on his fingers, and says he personally knows seven men who pick up boys in Thamel.
Until recently there was no law in Nepal against child sexual abuse. In September 2002, an amendment to the Country Code created a new offence of "unnatural sexual relations with a minor". Depending on the age of the victim, either a boy or a girl, an offender can be sentenced up to 16 years in jail. Nobody has been convicted.
Paedophilia everywhere is hidden and elusive. It is even more so in Nepal. Neither the perpetrator nor the victim want to talk about it. Usually, the children don't dare speak out. The police say it is not aware of paedophiles currently active in Nepal. NGOs working with street children have stopped filing cases. The result is that the issue doesn't get coverage in the Nepali press. But that does not mean it doesn't exist, and our investigation shows paedophilia is out there and it is growing.
In the late 1990s the issue briefly flared up in the media. Five men and a woman, all from Europe, were arrested between 1996 and 1999. Some were expatriates, others tourists. All were accused of running unregistered childrens' homes, where street children were allegedly exploited for sex. Others were accused of bringing children back to Thamel hotel rooms. A 1999 UN report stated, "Sex tourism is on the rise in Nepal, including increasing incidences of paedophilia, as the business appears to be shifting to Nepal from other countries in South and Southeast Asia." Countries such as Thailand had been adopting harsher legislation, and several high-profile cases on Sri Lanka's west coast resorts involving European sex tourists had increased vigilance there.
Nepal is still a safe haven, but things may be changing. Krishna Thapa, the director of the charity Voice of Children, estimates that nine out of every ten Thamel street children have had sexual encounters of one kind or another with a foreigner. Sunil Sainju, mission manager of another group, Plan?te Enfants, agrees. "It is not isolated, it happens to a lot of children."
But both groups say it is extremely difficult to track the paedophiles down. "It's hard work. The children are very afraid the abusers will hurt them and there is also a lot of social pressure amongst the children," Thapa told us.
Voice of Children is currently collecting testimonies against a German national running a childcare centre, but in the last three yeras this group and others have not been as active as they could be in investigating child sexual abuse. In fact, none of the child protection groups we spoke to knew about the September amendment of the Country Code. "We are fed up with the fact that nothing happened after we filed cases in the past," Thapa says. "Almost all suspects were released soon after their arrest. Children sometimes changed their testimonies." In fact, some of the children even accused the charities themselves of forcing them to testify, and that has disheartened the activists.
The driving force behind the earlier prosecutions was Olivier Bertin, a French national living in Nepal. He told us: "I was appalled by the stories I heard from the street children, but it was difficult to do anything against it. It took a long time to win their confidence. I quit because the pressure became very big-lots of people were against me and I received threats. It is very difficult here in Nepal to target a foreigner. They can afford the best lawyers, pay lots of baksheesh, and the Minister of Justice in 1996 told me in one case there was a lot of pressure from an embassy. They have very good networks."
Jean-Jacques Haye, a French suspect who was released twice in Nepal, is presently in jail in France with his paedophile-case pending. He is being prosecuted under a French law that allows prosecution for crimes committed outside the country. Plan?te Enfants and Voice of Children cooperated with the French enquiry, even sending a street child to France to testify. It is understood that the Nepali police have never attempted to share information with foreign prosecutors. Twenty-three countries now have laws that allow the prosecution of their citizens for sex offences committed abroad.
Most other released suspects are still free to visit or live in Nepal. "Some former street children came to my house two weeks ago," Bertin says. "They told me this English guy who some street children testified against, is back in town." Some street children who gather at night between Thamel and Durbar Square talk about foreigners who let them play computer games, give them clothes and shelter. The children are not eager to talk about sexual abuse.
Often, they will say that their friends have experienced it, but deny that they have been involved themselves. Ganesh, now in his early 20s, has been living on the streets of Kathmandu for more than a decade. He works as a tourist guide in Kathmandu Darbar Square. If even a part of what he says is accurate, sex tourism is rife in Kathmandu.
When he was 16, Ganesh says he was induced to give oral sex to a foreigner. He didn't like it and never went back, but he says many other street children are tempted by gifts and money. "Everybody knows who they are," he says. "You can recognise them on the streets." Children who were willing to talk gave us several names and identified four houses that they say are used by foreigners to house children whom they use for sex.
At the Darbar Square police station the officer in charge, KS Rana, says he hasn't received reports of any recent paedophile activity in Kathmandu. If any reports came to him, he would be willing to investigate. "But basically we are not very interested in looking into what expats are doing unless they are involved in some heinous crimes," he added.
The main problem seems to be that even though paedophilia is now a crime, there are still legal loopholes. "We still need a definition of paedophilia and the various forms that sexual abuse can take.what is 'unnatural' is yet to be subject to interpretation," says lawyer, Sapna Pradhan Malla. For instance, paedophilia is attached to the Country Code chapter on rape, and as with rape, an allegation must be made within 35 days of the incident.
There is also a danger that this will only be seen as a crime perpetrated by foreigners. Malla says many cases of child rape and incest perpetrated by Nepalis, often within families or in schools, go unreported. "These crimes exist in our society, and we should create an environment to address them not only by legal mechanisms, but by enabling weak people to take action and by informing children what sexual abuse is," she says.
Activist groups and the police trade accusations about not being serious in controlling the problem. Gita Upreti, who heads the Nepal Police's Women and Childrens' Cell says, "According to the law, the victim should come to us to file a complaint, but we can also go out and investigate." However, she admits that this is very difficult when there is no hard information. "We don't have a mechanism to investigate," she told us, "and children are hesitant to go through the police's normal procedures." The Women's Cell is now starting out by first making its own officers understand what child abuse is, and the prevalence of the crime.
Better regulation of childcare centres is also needed. Inge Bracke runs a registered orphanage near Boudha, but says no one has come to inspect her centre in its seven years of operation. Krishna Thapa agrees, and says that a regular German visitor, who many children have implicated in abuse, has recently been given a licence to run a child welfare centre. Hari says he is a victim of this person and has recently given a video testimony to Voice of Children. He is now 23, but like many victims of child sexual abuse, is still traumatised by his experience. "When I was a child it felt normal, but nowadays I feel bad, ashamed and uneasy. I still have nightmares about it," he says.
Hari is convinced the man is still abusing children, but he is torn between reporting the case or letting it go. "He could do bad things to me again," Hari says, "and I think because of him at least some children are getting food, and maybe if I report him maybe they will be deprived of even that support."
(The names of the street children and former street children quoted in this article have been changed to protect their identities.)
Their nightmarish reality
Thirty-seven percent of street children interviewed in an International Labour Organisation (ILO) survey last year said they were sexually abused and exploited. Older over younger, girls over boys, and the children living longer on the streets are more exposed to sexual abuse and exploitation. Frequently reported sexual abusers were tourists (67 percent), leader of street children packs (24 percent), locals (and disturbingly) even those posing as social activists.
The average age of street children initiated into sex exploitation was 11, according to the survey, and though most were promised money, 30 percent say they were coerced. Eleven street children also said foreigners took nude photographs of them once they created a dependency relationship through provision of money, food, medicine and clothes. The most common forms of abuse were requests for masturbation, oral and anal sex. Hotels and lodges were identified as primes locales for abuse, followed by the client's home, temples, riverbanks and the street.
Trafficking and Sexual Abuse among Street Children in Kathmandu, ILO, March 2002. Thursday, 12 June was World Day Against Child Labour.