A report from Nepal
Nepal is an astonishing country. A visit there might change your life, but the boundless poverty is likely to break your heart. The misery of the poorest Nepalis, moreover, is often compounded by predators who enrich themselves by exploiting their most vulnerable compatriots. Perhaps the worst of these malefactors are the men calling themselves “brokers” who prowl through indigent villages hoping to lure teenage girls from their homes with promises of marriage or lucrative jobs in distant lands.
Because life can be so hard in Nepal, families of teenage girls often fall prey to the brokers’ deceptions and hand over their daughters for payment of a dollar or two. Occasionally families are so desperate to offer their children better lives that they actually pay the brokers to take their daughters off their hands. Some girls are delivered to Saudi Arabia, Dubai, or Lebanon and given quasi-legitimate employment as household servants. But the brokers are just as likely to take the girls to India and sell them to whorehouses in Mumbai or Kolkata for $500 or more. The younger the girl, the greater the payment. Many of the girls are only twelve or thirteen when they are sold into sexual slavery. Some are as young as ten.
In 1992, an eminent Nepali physician and activist named Aruna Uprety traveled to Mumbai to attend a seminar on HIV/AIDS. While there, she visited a girl named Nisha who had worked in a brothel for the previous seven years, was hospitalized with AIDS, and had recently given birth to a baby girl. Three days after Dr. Uprety’s saw her, Nisha succumbed to the virus. Deeply disturbed by Nisha’s death, Uprety visited some nearby brothels, where she spoke with numerous women and girls, some as young as fourteen, and discovered that a significant number of them had been trafficked from villages in Nepal, like Nisha. Uprety observed that for years at a time, prostitutes in Mumbai brothels are
“physically abused and held in debt bondage, which is tantamount to slavery. They are raped and beaten severely if they don’t surrender easily or if they refuse to have sex with customers. Brothel owners — who may be either men or women — will even beat them after submission if they don’t bring in enough money. Many of these young and illiterate girls contract AIDS, and once this condition becomes known to their keepers, the girls are thrown out of the brothels to return home to die — that is, if their communities will accept them back.”
Reports issued by the U.S. Department of State and other government entities estimate that as many as 20,000 Nepali women and girls are trafficked annually. Most are no older than eighteen when they are taken from their homes. Many are only twelve or thirteen. Some are ten or even younger.
Uprety told me that her visit to the Mumbai brothels twenty-eight years ago was “the turning point in my life, when I thought that something must be done for the girls.” The upshot was a groundbreaking program called Stop Girl Trafficking (SGT) that she launched in 1997 in partnership with the American Himalayan Foundation. Rather than rescuing victims from brothels after they had been trafficked, as other anti-trafficking charities were attempting to do, Uprety created SGT to prevent as many girls as possible from being trafficked in the first place. She understood that prevention was rescue, but without all the suffering that happened first.
Several years ago I spent a month traveling around Nepal with Uprety to see for myself how SGT operated, and to meet some of the girls in her program. One of them was a shy, seventeen-year-old Tamang girl named Ranjila who had spent her entire life in a dirt-poor settlement in the Middle Hills of central Nepal.
During a visit to Ranjila’s village, Uprety and her staff determined from conversations with Ranjila’s mother, her teachers, and village elders that the challenges faced by Ranjila’s family made her particularly susceptible to being trafficked. She lived with her illiterate mother and six siblings in a mud-walled hut. Ranjila’s father died when he fell from a tree while gathering fruit to feed his children. To provide for the family after his death, Ranjila’s mom toiled in other families’ fields for less than three dollars per day. This wasn’t enough income to make ends meet, however, so she was forced to borrow money from a loan shark at outrageous interest rates — a debt that grew larger every month, which she had no hope of ever repaying. Ranjila was under tremendous pressure to quit school and go to work to help her mother pay the bills.
Witnessing the paper-thin margin by which Ranjila’s family survived from week to week and year to year made it easy to understand how a parent could be desperate enough to sell a child to a stranger. To preclude this eventuality, SGT staffers invested a lot of time educating Ranjila and her mother about the dangers of trafficking, and then, to keep Ranjila in school, offered her a scholarship that covered the cost of her books, school supplies, school uniforms, fees, and a backpack.
The plan worked. Ranjila remained enrolled in school and excelled at her studies. Indeed, according to her teachers, Ranjila became a role model for girls throughout the village. One teacher told me that Ranjila and other “SGT scholars” now regularly warn their classmates to steer clear of brokers, and that trafficking in the area has dramatically declined as a consequence. When I asked Ranjila how long she intended to wait to get married, she assured me with a hearty laugh, “Long time. Not until my education is complete!”
Uprety’s methods are ridiculously simple on the face of it: Identify the girls most at risk, then do whatever it takes to keep them in school in order to prevent them from being trafficked. But the success of the program ultimately depends on a large network of dedicated, well-trained field workers who repeatedly visit the SGT scholars in their villages, some of which are inaccessible by road and can only be reached via a half-day hike. This allows SGT workers to maintain personal relationships with the girls, their parents, and their teachers, and provide ongoing counseling about the perils of trafficking.
SGT doesn’t just keep girls safe. The larger goal is to fundamentally transform the way girls are viewed by their families, their communities, and themselves. In much of South Asia — but especially among the lower-caste and tribal communities — girls are too often seen as having little or no value. They are considered to be disposable. But this changes dramatically when a girl is enrolled in SGT. As she gets an education and begins to flourish, her value becomes obvious to her family and her community. She is transformed from a liability into an asset. Fathers who’d been willing to send away their daughters for a couple of dollars actually weep with pride when they see their girls graduate as SGT scholars.
After starting with 54 girls in 1997, SGT has now established programs at more than 500 government schools in districts plagued by some of Nepal’s highest rates of trafficking. Presently 12,000 girls who were at risk of being trafficked are safely attending school thanks to the efforts of Dr. Uprety and SGT. Another 11,000 have already graduated. The graduation rate for SGT scholars is 82%, and less than 2% have dropped out of the program. All of which has been achieved at a cost of just $100 per girl per year.
By employing these straightforward, hands-on methods, SGT has proven to be highly effective. And over the past three decades the program’s mission has expanded into something much larger than simply protecting individual girls, because solving the problem on a grand scale requires transforming the communities where predators seek victims. To bring about such widespread change, SGT arranges for the girls who graduate from the program to serve as mentors and role models for the younger girls in their villages who look up to them. To date, this has generated an army of remarkable young women — 23,000 strong, and growing by another 1,200 girls every year — who are determined to end trafficking in Nepal.