While cross-border trafficking of Nepali women gets attention, domestic trafficking does not
Photos: Kate Ryan
NEW LIFE: After her mother was rescued from a brothel, Sumitra was put in school by Maiti Nepal. Now she makes high-end leather goods.
When Pramesh Pradhan began volunteering for Change Nepal in 2003, trafficking to Kathmandu was on the rise. In the midst of the Maoist insurgency, he estimates one in three homes in Thamel housed a woman working in the entertainment industry.
“We found them ignorant. We found them vulnerable. We found them exploited multiple times a day,” remembers Pradhan. As a managing director he is now fully consumed by his work at Change Nepal. But no matter how hard he works, the problem of internal trafficking persists.
“A lot of focus has been to address the issues of migrant Nepalis going abroad, their lives being very unsafe,” says Pradhan. “But at the same time, tens of thousands of children and women are working in adult entertainment centres in our own areas. It is rampant.”
Change Nepal is one of dozens of non-profits working with women and children who are financially bound to employers, work in unsanitary conditions, are cut off from their families, physically abused and psychologically trapped. These organisations work independently and in coordination to empower victims, to offer alternative work, education, housing and financial aid. The results are impressive, but not long-lasting.
"We integrate 20 girls in a month, and they’ll bring 30 more the next month,” says Pradhan. “We feel we are banging our heads against the wall.”
Helen Sherpa, from World Education, says trafficking is like a sausage balloon: “If you put the pressure one place to stop traffickers, they pop up somewhere else. They are very quick to shift, whereas NGOs and government are very slow in comparison.”
Pradhan says that the government is too reliant on NGOs eager to address the problem and that it should be taking the lead. When a case of 10 children working in a brothel is uncovered, the government looks to groups like Change Nepal to be on the front lines.
“We wish the government said, ‘OK, there are 10 children, we have a plan. We have seen the reports. Let’s work’,” says Pradhan. “They have not owned this issue.”
Hira Dahal of Chhori (pictured below), is a member of the Campaign for Rights, a coalition of non-profits that lobbies for improved laws and services for vulnerable women and children. The Supreme Court’s 2008 directive to protect the rights of women in the entertainment sector and the 2012 Minimum Standards for the Care of Trafficking Survivors are steps forward. Whether or not those directives are carried out is her concern.
Pramesh Pradhan of Change Nepal says the numbers of internally trafficked girls is in the thousands.
Dahal says the slow and inconsistent implementation of laws is due to the patriarchal mind-set of those in power. Because women are not kidnapped in the night and locked in a room, the prevailing theory is that they are in the industry of their free will. The psychological and financial chains that bind trafficked women are harder to see and understand.
“They are not treated as human beings,” Dahal says of the women she meets. “They were blamed for being trafficked, for trusting the people and leaving the house, for being infected with HIV, and for being prostitutes.”
Helen Sherpa says the punishment for those who are prosecuted needs to match the lure to join the industry. She says each trafficked girl is worth around $24,000 for traffickers, brothel owners and landlords over two or three years.
Some officials have been supportive. The US Department of State named Superintendent Kiran Bajracharya a Trafficking in Persons Hero in 2016 for her investigation into organised crime involving women and children. At a panel hosted by the Fulbright Commission last week, Bajracharya noted the social stigma that keeps young women from seeking police help, and called for stronger relations between the public and private sectors and between public prosecutors and police.
Advocates say the government needs to ensure all police are trained to spot traffickers, to hold landlords of establishments pimping children responsible, and to ensure prevention and punishment are not just written into law but practised and legitimised. Until then, victims are not likely to seek justice.
Last year, Dahal surveyed 180 women to see why they were not willing to file cases against traffickers and employers. Women answered that they did not know where to file, who to file against and added that police and the law were not on their side.
Pramesh Pradhan sits back and sighs. He says there are so many NGOs working on this, they begin to compete with each other.
“We want to network and work together, but because of the government not playing the pivotal role, is it networking or not working?” he asks. “Without the ownership of the government, we’ll fail,” he says. “Certainly fail.”
Skills They can Count On
For girls who have not been trafficked but are at risk, math skills are tools for alternative work
Hira Dahal recently met a young woman who was earning Rs90,000 a month as a sex worker. But the woman’s clothes were ragged and her shoes worn.
“Though she made that much money she had nothing,” Dahal, executive director of the non-profit Chhori, recalls. The woman had to hand over all her earnings to her boyfriend, who forced her to have sex with customers.
Until she found Chhori, it did not occur to the woman that she could save money and plan for the future – this lack of financial ownership and foresight common among women trapped in Nepal’s entertainment sector.
Financial literacy can be a path to freedom for trafficked women, and the key to prevention for those at risk of being sold as sex workers. Math skills are essential to learning most trades, and personal finance leads to economic independence and self-confidence.
Former trafficked women do well in Kathmandu once they gain basic business skills, says Helen Sherpa of World Education. “They’re quite entrepreneurial, they are survivors.”
For girls who have not been trafficked but are at risk, math skills are tools for alternative work. And when women are working they are less likely to be lured by traffickers and tend to self-advocate for their finances, health and when they marry.
Sumitra (pictured, above) was helped by Maiti Nepal when her mother was rescued from a brothel. Now 18, she passed her SEE exam and works for Kobold Watch Company, making high-end leather goods and saving for the future. She plans to return to school to study rural development and one day create jobs for young women.
For now, she is able to provide for herself because of her math skills.
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