EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written before the devastating earthquakes that hammered Nepal. It was intended for publication at a time when the additional burdens of recovery from natural disaster were not foremost in everyone’s mind. Although it doesn’t address the specifics of these pressing needs, it still addresses a concern of critical importance, as times like these are when predators step up their work taking advantage of the weak. It is a time when girls are most at risk.
We stood at the border between India and Nepal surrounded by a cacophony of sounds and smells, most of which were not pleasant. We were in Bhairawha, one of 23 official border crossings in the southern Terai region of Nepal, a land that feels more like India than the mountainous country most people imagine Nepal to be.
Every manner of transportation makes its way with no regulation into India through these crossings. We watched people on foot dodging colorful lorries with HONK PLEASE painted on the rear gates, rickshaws in various states of functionality, bikes, MINI Cooper–sized cars, cows, and buses crammed with tourists returning from a visit to Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha. It was a sweeping movement of humanity all heading south, facing an equal throng moving north like a river entering the ocean with oncoming waves.
Sabin, our guide from Maiti Nepal, looked at the mess with disdain. With a wave of his hand, he said “Do you see why it is so easy to traffic girls?” It was very easy to see.
I was leading a group of six travelers on a Crooked Trails donor trip to bear witness to the work of Maiti Nepal in its fight against human trafficking. Founded by Anuradha Koirala 20 years ago, Maiti Nepal has helped rescue or prevent the trafficking of over 20,000 girls.
The heartbreaking tragedy of human trafficking is enormous in Nepal, which suffers from poverty and illiteracy, making its girls such easy prey for traffickers. How many Nepali girls lose their hopes and lives after being sold into sexual slavery each year? No one knows the exact number. Indian officials estimate there are 75,000-150,000 Nepali girls in Indian brothels today. Maiti Nepal has staff at nine border crossings, where it intercepts an average of 2,500 girls a year. Given the total of 23 official open borders and literally hundreds of others, the real number is hard to imagine, with conservative estimates at 40,000 girls a year. That’s 40,000 lost, tortured souls and shattered families.
Many girls that were trafficked, sold and living in sexual slavery – serving up to 30 men a night – have been rescued by Maiti Nepal. It was some of these heroic girls whom we watched screening all the traffic as it passed. They were stationed in a brightly painted blue booth about the size of an espresso hut in America. With the support of both Nepalese and Indian police, these girls, working in pairs, stopped busses and looked for girls being trafficked. Having been trafficked themselves, they have eyes and understanding that no one else does.
A Long Road to Recovery
What happens to the girls they intercept? Maiti Nepal helps them find and reunite with their families. If the girls cannot go back to their families, they are brought to the main rehabilitation center in Kathmandu for school and training. The center can and does house over 500 young people.
For girls that are rescued from brothels or slavery, the road to recovery can be long. Earlier in the day, we had visited a Maiti Nepal transit home to which girls are bought when they first return to Nepal after rescue. One eight-year-old girl had burns all over her from her “owners” who had tortured her since she was six. She was so sweet it brought tears to our eyes. How could anyone do this to another human being? Another young woman of just 18 had been sold into slavery by her husband.
For these young women, it takes time to recover, as the Maiti Nepal staff needs to determine what kinds of medical, psychological and legal help are needed. After evaluation, all that help is provided by Maiti Nepal staff doctors, psychologists, therapists and lawyers. The Maiti Nepal girls/staff we met were at the forefront of not only stopping trafficking, but were helping to heal the wounds of injustice they survived by preventing harm from coming to others.
Trafficking Awareness Day
After a day at the border, we spent time following the Maiti Nepal staff on an awareness day that included door-to-door talks and street theater. The day began as we loaded into buses: one with soldiers and police, one for Maiti Nepal girls and staff, and one for our group. We drove an hour southeast of town to an area occupied by landless people. It had grown into a sprawling village and, as a places where jobs are hard to come by and people cannot grow food, it was atypical of communities where traffickers prey on the helpless.
We walked around the village plastering posters on walls, talking to the villagers and handing out pamphlets with drawings clearly explaining situations of which to be wary. Many women in Nepal cannot read, so these easily understood drawings made sense to all.
I was touched by the sincerity with which the Nepalese army did its job. I followed one tall, handsome soldier as he walked up to a straw-and-mud hut and inquired, “Didi?” meaning, big sister. A mother emerged with her two little daughters hiding behind her sari. The soldier smiled at the girls and spoke calmly to the woman. He handed the two brown-eyed girls some sweets and then we were off to the next home.
Street Theater in Action
After canvassing the area, we went to the center of town where a crowd of 200 people had gathered, drawn by loudspeakers on the buses announcing a free show. After a few formal introductions, the Maiti Nepal girls dressed for their parts and acted out a typical trafficking scene. They had the crowd in fits of laughter as one young girl played a drunkard father. The crowd was also moved by the very realistic tears of the young actress who was rescued after her time in a brothel and reunited with her mother.
I had heard of street theater before, and its very successful shows about AIDS and other global health issues, but I had never seen it in action. I was as moved by the performance, as well as the crowd’s reactions. All were riveted. So was I. In a small town where a movie outing to the nearby city might happen only a handful of times in one’s life, if at all, street theater was real and exciting.
With Maiti Nepal it was also educational. It would be difficult to estimate the number of girls that have not been trafficked because someone saw one of these performances. But with the increased awareness of Maiti Nepal’s prevention efforts and its ever-growing global and local support, I can only believe it is in the thousands.
A David-and-Goliath Battle
The fight against human trafficking often feels like a David-and-Goliath type of battle. The profits are so huge on one side, but the desire to protect innocent girls is even stronger. As Anurahda, the founder, always says: “How hard would you fight if it was your girl?” I know my answer.
The generosity of this Crooked Trails group, and in particular one woman – who wanted to do something significant for her 50th birthday celebration – was outstanding. We raised over US$60,000 to support the work of Maiti Nepal, fighting one of the world’s worst crimes.
Want to help? With the rehabilitation center that houses, clothes, educates and trains over 500 children, not to mention three prevention schools and 11 border crossings, there is great need.
Please donate to this fundraiser in support of the work of Maiti Nepal, which rescues girls from the brothels of India and brings them back to Nepal. There are often as many as 500 girls in Maiti Nepal’s care, but it receives no assistance from the Nepalese government, which would prefer not to admit that sex trafficking occurs. All support, which keeps the girls fed, housed, loved and healthy, comes from donors. Maiti Nepal has a strong border-prevention program and prevents thousands of girls a year from being trafficked each year. All donations are tax deductible.