Laxmi’s* story of being trafficked began with the simplest of things: a missed call on her mobile phone when she was just 15 years old.
“I told the man I didn’t know him, but his calls kept coming and we started talking,” she explains.
The man introduced Laxmi to a girl he said was his sister and invited her to travel with them to India, where he said there would be plenty of jobs.
“At the time I didn’t know if his home was really in India, but he said it was and I trusted him,” she says. “Later, I found out the girl wasn’t his sister, they were just friends.”
Together, the three of them travelled across the border. When they arrived in India, the couple took Laxmi to a woman’s house, where she was locked in a room.
It was only later that she discovered the woman was selling girls to work in a brothel. She never saw the man who had brought her there again.
“I never expected this could happen to me. I was devastated. I would like to tell other girls: do not trust a person you don’t know.” — Laxmi
Every year, more than 8,000 girls and women are trafficked in Nepal — one every hour.
While some are trafficked within the country, others are taken overseas. India is a frequent choice because the open border with Nepal makes movement relatively easy. Once they reach their destination, the girls may be sexually exploited or forced into child marriage, domestic servitude or to work in clothes factories.
“Trafficking is directly linked with people’s livelihoods,” explains Rupa, Child Rights Programme Coordinator at Plan International Nepal. “The agents lure the girls in, but they never get the work they were promised.”
Many of the girls who are targeted have been living in extreme poverty, with little access to information, quality education or employment. Few have been told the dangers of being trafficked — so when someone promises them opportunities in the city or abroad, they believe they will have the chance to create a better life for themselves and their families.
“The main thing is they are often sexually exploited once they are taken away,” says Rupa. “Even after being rescued and coming back to their families it’s very hard for them to reintegrate, because there’s a lot of stigma from the community. There are very few girls who can really talk about what they have been through.”
“The whole trafficking market is not open — it’s hidden. People don’t talk about it. So it’s very challenging to figure out what’s happening where.”
— Rupa, Plan International Nepal
For Sharmila*, it was the possibility of getting a job, earning money and helping her family that encouraged her to say yes when her sister’s friend asked her if she wanted to go abroad.
“She told me she would arrange everything,” says Sharmila, who was 16 at the time. “She made me promise not to say anything to anyone. I trusted her and said ok.”
Sharmila was taken, via a chain of trafficking agents, to Dubai, where she was forced to work in a family’s house as a maid.
“I had a lot of work to do. They didn’t give me time to eat,” she says. “For two months’ work I got 700 dirhams (£140). But later, the woman who owned the house started shouting at me, saying I didn’t do enough work. Then she stopped giving me money.”
One day, the older brother of the family tried to touch Sharmila.
“I said no, but he still tried to do bad things to me,” she says. “He threatened me, saying I shouldn’t tell anyone. I felt very bad. I was scared too.”
When Sharmila spoke to a female family member about what had happened, she told everyone.
“They started shouting at me,” remembers Sharmila. “I cried and told the wife of the older brother I wanted to go home. But she said I couldn’t because she had bought me for 8,000 dirhams (£1,600). Until I paid that money, I couldn’t go anywhere. I had to work for her.”
“I thought going there was my mistake, so I needed to stay until I paid her money and then I would go. But then the youngest brother sexually exploited me and I became pregnant.”
“Girls should get enough knowledge before going overseas. Without enough knowledge, they could end up in my situation.” — Sharmila
Karina’s* ordeal was also characterised by sexual abuse and violence. She was kidnapped from the street by two men when she was 15.
“They took me in their van and gave me something which made me unconscious,” she says. “They did so many bad things with me.”
“After that, one of the men took me to his home. He was around 50 years old. He said I shouldn’t tell anyone what he had done to me — if I did he would beat me or kill me. His family used to ask who I was and he used to reply that I was his wife.”
The man took Karina to India where he and his friends made a plan to sell her. She tried to escape a number of times, but each time he caught her.
“I used to sit and cry,” she remembers. “I had no way out. No-one, not even the neighbours or landlords, knew that this man had kidnapped me.”
“There are so many girls who are trapped. We should all help them to get out.”
Trafficking is a form of violence against girls. They are being targeted because girls are less valued in society, because fewer work opportunities exist for them to bring in an income, and because violent behaviour towards girls is more readily accepted.
In Nepal, we’re working with our partner organisation, Common Platform for Common Goal, to bring an end to trafficking through the AACT (Action Against Child Trafficking) project.
Through children’s clubs, we’re raising awareness of the issue and educating young people, so they’re aware of the dangers of abuse and exploitation.
We’ve also set up an information booth on the border with India, helping people look out for signs of trafficking and providing a space for reporting concerns — in the first four months of 2018, four girls had already been rescued as a result.
With the political situation in Nepal undergoing huge change, we’re also working with youth advocates like Sabina and Sarita, who are both involved in our anti-trafficking projects.
Currently, power is being devolved from a national to a local level in Nepal. That means newly-elected Mayors have the power to create local laws to protect girls’ rights — and to end trafficking. As part of a comprehensive approach to tackling the issue, Sarita and Sabina want their Mayor to run a public awareness campaign, to make sure every girl knows the risks of being trafficked.
“Now, as the whole structure has changed, we need to go to the community level,” explains Rupa. “I hope the scale of this campaign will raise awareness and help implement policies, rules and laws against trafficking at a practical level.”
Long-term, the hope is that the girls’ campaign will be taken to other areas and right up to the national Government, with the aim of securing effective laws that protect girls from trafficking and provide proper support services for survivors.
“At the community level, many people still don’t know what trafficking is, how people get trafficked, and what happens afterwards, so it’s really important to raise awareness on this.” — Hemanta, Common Platform for Common Goal
Today, Laxmi, Sharmila and Karina are all back in Nepal and beginning to rebuild their lives. They each have a rescue story.
Laxmi was moved to a house with a number of other Nepali girls, where she was able to borrow a mobile phone and make a call to her sister, who reported that she had been sold in India. When the police made their first raid on the property, the girls were forced to hide underground in a dark room. During their second raid, the police found the girls and took Laxmi to safety.
The family Sharmila had been working for sent her home when they found out she was pregnant. At the airport in Dubai, security officers discovered her passport was fake. She went to prison. Even after her case had been completed, she couldn’t afford to return home — until a woman in the cell next to hers bought her a plane ticket back to Nepal. Sharmila had a miscarriage in the late stages of her pregnancy.
For Karina, it was a conversation with her landlords, following a violent row with her kidnapper, that saved her.
“When I was alone, the landlords — they were a husband and wife — asked me what was happening,” she says. “That was my chance, so I told them everything. This is how they helped me get out of there.”
Since coming home, all three girls have been receiving support from a shelter, which provides accommodation in safe houses and access to counselling — vital services that remain all too rare for survivors of trafficking in Nepal.
Laxmi has since been able to move out and now lives with her sister. Karina plans to take tailoring classes and is in touch with her family — she’s bought her mum a mobile phone, so the two can speak. And all three girls are using the power of their words and stories to create change, to make sure girls across Nepal are aware of the dangers of trafficking and how to keep themselves safe.
“At first, I used to be afraid to talk to anyone about my story. But now I can,” explains Sharmila. “After talking in counselling classes, I am empowered. In the future, all I want to do is to stop discrimination and stigma, and eliminate trafficking.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities