28 Feb - 6 Mar 2014 #696

At the mercy of mercenaries

Protecting and rehabilitating the most vulnerable segments of society were never priorities for any of the past governments
Trishna Rana
Early Wednesday morning, news of sexual abuse and mismanagement at Amako Ghar, an old age home and orphanage in Kathmandu, made front page headlines in a national daily. In our mad scramble to be the first to broadcast this latest scandal, Nepali media outlets didn’t bother with background research to corroborate the report.

It wasn’t until much later in the day that we heard orphanage owner Dil Shova Shrestha’s side of the story. By then, she had suffered irreparable damage to her reputation and another orphanage in Godawari with the same name had to issue a clarification.

With police inquiry into Amako Ghar still ongoing, it would have been best if news outlets had waited for the investigators’ verdict before passing judgment. This is not the first time though that Nepal’s media has caused harm through haste.

Last Sunday, when the Nepal Airlines twin otter crashed in Masine Lek of Arghakhanchi district, TV channels and newspapers confirmed the death of all passengers and crew and published their names and photographs even before the rescue team had located the accident site.

Instead of showing empathy towards the families of victims, we tossed aside whatever little ethics we had and joined the ugly rat race for half-truths. Nepali media (both traditional and new) has now turned into an echo chamber of personal opinions masquerading as facts.

Despite the media’s inherent frailties, the Amako Ghar story has helped put the spotlight on the seedy underbelly of Nepal’s orphanage industry once again. The 35 children that Dil Shova was caring for were taken away by officials from the Central Child Welfare Board on Wednesday because she did not have a licence to run a children’s home and the children were living in very poor conditions, both allegations that she has admitted to. Our callous disregard of people’s right to privacy was also evident in the way we splashed pictures of the rescued minors all across the internet, TV, and print media; revealing not only their faces but also their names.

Just a week ago, Bishwa Pratap Acharya of Happy Home Nepal (HHN), an orphanage in Dhapakhel, was taken into custody on child-trafficking and corruption charges.

These two cases are far from isolated. Child rights experts estimate that there are about 500 registered ‘homes’ and 15,000 ‘orphans’ in Kathmandu Valley alone. It’s a hugely profitable, but highly unregulated sector. Many of the so-called ‘orphans’ have been lured away from poor families with promises of free care and education.

Earlier, international adoption used to be the main source of revenue for these child care centres, but with countries like the US, UK, and Canada making it almost impossible for their citizens to adopt from Nepal, agents are squeezing as much money as they can from foreign volunteers and through child trafficking.

However, the failure to look after the well-being of children and elderly lies squarely on the shoulders of the state. After two weeks of belligerent posturing over ministerial portfolios, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala finally managed to cobble together a 21-member cabinet on Tuesday. But the fact that the top posts at the Ministry of Women, Children, and Social Affairs and the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction remain vacant is a testimony to just how little the government cares about its most vulnerable citizens.

For Nepal’s political leaders, the peace process came to an end with the integration of the rebel forces into the national army in August last year. However, it wasn’t just the soldiers who were left in a limbo. Thousands of orphans and aged parents found themselves homeless with little to no support. Many are now fending for themselves on the streets or are trapped in the cycle of exploitation and abuse. Protecting and rehabilitating this population were never priorities for any of the past five governments.

The challenge at hand is to cut down on the staggering number of child and elderly care homes, provide clear guidelines for existing institutions, and implement a strict review system while building up government services. However, the tentacles of profit from these centres run so deep into the state machinery that administrators are averse to clamping down on them. Until then, our children and senior citizens will be left largely at the mercy of mercenaries who see them as nothing more than dollar machines and even those doing a good job become sullied by association

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