News: Saving Nepal's girls

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Subject: News: Saving Nepal's girls
From: LI Ling (
Date: Fri Apr 16 1999 - 10:57:52 EDT

Saving Nepal's girls
David Holmstrom, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Apr. 14, 1999 -- KATHMANDU, NEPAL
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

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

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."

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

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