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Saving Nepal's girls

One woman's efforts to stop the trade in girls for brothels

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1999


On a Saturday morning Anuradha Koirala darts about like a mother hen.

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The wiry, petite lady in a sari moves around a small courtyard keeping an eye on a couple of dozen children and teenage girls. It's wash day, clothes and bodies, and with each soapy child she touches comes a story.

"Pulled from a trash bin," Ms. Koirala says of a tiny baby. "Thrown in a river because she has AIDS," she says of a teen washing clothes. "This one - pulled out of a mental institution," she says of a girl with long, dark hair glistening in the sun.

Tenacious and tender, Koirala has been dubbed the Mother Theresa of Nepal.

She is the founder and director of Maiti Nepal, a six-year-old social organization with transit homes on the Indian border that rescues young Nepali girls on their way to the brothels of Bombay and other Indian cities. She also provides a home, as well as literacy and vocational training, to street children and discarded prostitutes with HIV.

In any society, Koirala's efforts would be laudatory. But here, she defies centuries of cultural and religious traditions that place women in subservient roles, (including family sanctioned prostitution). Yet in a short time, often through sheer pugnacity, she has emerged as a force for change.

Reliable figures on the trafficking of Nepali girls for the sex trade don't exist. But conservative estimates range from 7,000 to 12,000 annually. The Asia Foundation, a US-based nongovernment organization (NGO) working for social change in Nepal, estimates that every year some "40,000 women and girls are abducted or falsely lured into forced sexual slavery, most often in the brothels of India." Because of their quiet temperaments and exotic beauty, Nepalese girls are reported to be favored in brothels, the younger the better.

Koirala has little patience for the politicians and institutions that turn a blind eye to this trade. Earlier this month, speaking at a seminar on prevention of trafficking sponsored by the Kathmandu District Police, Koirala called for governments to have the political will to curb trafficking. "It's not what they say they will do," she says, "It's what they do."

But the sexual exploitation of girls goes beyond politics and law enforcement. The sale of Nepalese girls is fed by economic desperation and historical mores.

Family-based trafficking

In fact, trafficking falls into two categories, says John Frederick, an American writer who has lived in Kathmandu for 11 years and specializes in reporting about trafficking and children's issues.

Unlike other experts, Mr. Frederick distinguishes between "soft trafficking," or family-based trafficking, and "hard trafficking" which is coercive and deceptive. He contends that soft trafficking may be far more common than officials are willing to admit. "First and foremost, prostitution is a business, and not seen as immoral," he says. "Recruitment is often done by older prostitutes coming home to their villages."

In some poor Nepalese villages, families willingly send their daughters to brothels. The price can be anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Average annual family income in Nepal is $225 a year, often leaving families desperate.

Vidhea Shrestha, a Nepalese researcher who has interviewed families in villages and girls in Bombay brothels, says, "Many woman's groups would like to think the woman is purely and simply a victim. But after having talked with the girls, I wouldn't totally agree with that. A lot of the girls want to go, not necessarily as sex workers, but anything to get out of the situation they were born into."

In Nepal, as in other Asian countries, many families want sons, not daughters. Traditionally a woman is considered a guest in her father's house. She is destined for an arranged marriage, and is frequently secondary to a son. At meals she is fed last, and has no rights to inherit property; abortion is illegal. Any woman not under the protection of a man is viewed with suspicion.

Even today, after a decade of literacy efforts by many non-government organizations (NGOs), only 32 percent of adult females in Nepal are literate. Girls from low castes seldom go to school.