Saving Nepal's girls

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

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

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.

While many of these constraints are lessening under the influence of Western culture and gender empowerment efforts, women in Nepal today do 60 to 70 percent of the manual labor in agriculture.

Although many young girls and women continue to be abducted under false pretenses and taken to India's brothels by middlemen (or women), many simply seek an escape from hard, hopeless lives in remote villages.

For the few women who survive in the brothels to become madams or brothel managers and send money home, thousands of others are brutalized and hundreds leave diagnosed with AIDS. "The situation in the brothels today is insane," says Ms. Shrestha. "No knowledge about AIDS is being imparted. It is a business, and nobody wants to rock the boat."

For Poem Hatoma (not her real name), four years in a Bombay brothel was a nightmare. "I thought it was the place I would die," she said softly through interpreter Durga Ghimire, head of ABC/Nepal, a social organization for women. "Often I didn't know if it was day or night because we had to work all the time," says Ms. Hatoma.

She was raped many times in her village as a young girl from a destitute family. "Someone asked me if I wanted to go to India for a better life," she explains," and that was my motivation to go, and then I was sold." She is now 18, and not HIV positive.

She lives in an ABC/Nepal house in Kathmandu now and has learned how to read and write. As a young woman, transformed by her rescue, she rejects any kind of return to a traditional role for a woman, and does not want to return to her village.

"When I was not a prostitute," she says, "I was inferior to men. I was born only for men; I was like a shoe for men. But now I know I am not for them, that I am equal and I am here for good work. I came here to do good work."

Villages without young women

The Sindhupalchowk district, a poor farming area located in the northeast part of Nepal, has been a known provider of prostitutes since the 1950s. ABC/Nepal conducted a survey there a few years ago. Aided by powerful middlemen known as dalals, village development committees were found to be "heavily involved in girl trafficking."

"When I was in Sindhupalchowk," says Shrestha, "there were virtually no women between 13 and 30 to be seen." The ABC/Nepal report, based on the survey, said three villages - Upper Patting, Lower Patting, and Bhajuwamo - all "do a brisk business in girl trafficking."

The report said it was common for the dalals to travel to and from the villages and Bombay carrying cassette tapes from the village daughters so family ties won't be broken.

These are the traditions and practices that Koirala and several international groups are struggling to change.

In 1998, when England's Prince Charles visited Koirala's shelter for women and children, he called her "an angel of mercy."

Angel or not, she and her staff of nine and dozens of volunteers, fight a daunting tide. She seldom gives media interviews and is so busy that "I tell my donors I don't know how to write proposals." In the early days, Koirala often dipped into her own pocket to provide small loans to women to open shops.

"We don't turn down anybody," she says fiercely. She takes a visitor to a wall covered with photos of the angry faces of convicted girl traffickers.

But such defiance can carry a price. Last year, the organization's Maiti Nepal headquarters - three old buildings in a row - were broken into at night. The watchman was beaten. Files were destroyed and death threats left.

In a quiet moment, Koirala sighs and looks at a list on her battered desk. "Seven girls are coming tomorrow," she says, girls rescued from a brothel.

How does she cope with the enormity of the challenge? "God has not only made our eyes to see those who are suffering," she replies promptly, "but He also made our hands to serve them."

MORE INFORMATION Maiti Nepal, P.O. Box 9599, Gaushala, Kathmandu. Nepal ABC/Nepal, P.O. Box 5135, Koteshwor,Jadiguti, Kathmandu, Nepal

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