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In Nepal, where the slavery journey begins

One year after the earthquake, Nepal has become the poorest country in Asia, surpassing Afghanistan. Last week, I visited the Kathmandu valley for a few days as part of a fact-finding trip organised by the Freedom Fund, an organization funding NGOs fighting slavery in the frontlines.

Trafficking here is an endemic sickness in this beautiful country, where people have to migrate to find work and send money home. Often they fall prey to traffickers and slavers ready to take advantage of the most vulnerable. It is estimated that one Nepalese in 100 is subject to some form of slavery today.

I was able to see the worst and the best during this trip. The worst: the police stations where Nepalese dream to work because these are the places where you can become rich -all from corruption. The worst: children who have been sold and re-sold endlessly for the sexual gratification of people with no shred of morale.

The best: three women in their forties, who have survived the most abject outrages and ordeal for years before turning into real heroes after they were rescued. These women, Sumita Danuwar, Chari Maya Tamang and the third one, who wants to stay anonymous, were 9, 12 and 14 years old when they were taken from their villages in Nepal to the sinister red light district of Mumbai where they were turned into sex slaves for many years. In 1996, they were freed when the police raided a few brothels releasing 500 girls, of which almost 200 hundred Nepalese – the young Nepalese girls are very valued in India for their fairer skin and their beautiful smiles. This raid was publicised all over India and Nepal.

This was far from the end of their ordeal for these three women. The Nepalese government refused to repatriate them in fear that they would spread HIV/Aids in the country. Thanks to a few NGOs they finally left their squalid shelters in India where they were still stigmatised as prostitutes to return to Nepal. Twelve of the girls decided to stick together refusing to be separated across different shelters. But as soon as back in Nepal, they were all put in hospital, in a special unit to undergo HIV tests. Most of the women were found positive. They were treated as pestiferous, even by the doctors who didn’t know how to deal with the virus.

It took the women months before they realised that being trafficked and sold in prostitution was not their fault and that they were indeed victims.

That was when they decided to create an NGO to help other survivors like them. But to be able to do so, they had to prove their Nepalese citizenship. The task wasn’t an easy one: they had to go back to their villages and find their families, families which they left many years ago as young children. They had to convince their fathers to recognise them, not an easy task when they were ashamed: “we had sometimes to bribe our own fathers,” they said. All in all, it took them four years until finally, in 2000, they were able to set up Shakti Samuha, thanks to a grant of 500k rupees from Mama Cash, a well known international NGO.

Today, Shakti Samuha, is present across many vulnerable locations in Nepal and operates shelters in Kathmandu offering fantastic programs of rehabilitation, training, legal aid and psychological support to hundred of survivors that the organization rescues every year.

As part of the rehabilitation programme, a girl that has been rescued spends three months in intense psychological support. Anxiety and depression are constantly assessed by a number of counsellors. An individual recovery plan is designed by a case manager for each and every survivor. After three months, if the child wants to go back home, the organization assesses if the return home is feasible: would this be too dangerous as the survivor could be enslaved again.

If the girls prefers to stay at the shelter, they are taught different crafts to develop new skills and facilitate a full psychological recovery. The fast recovery takes up to minimum six months; a slow recovery can take up to three years during which victims receive different kind of training. When they are strong enough, they are then moved to ‘half way homes’ where they can come and go freely for 6 to 12 months. If they find a job, they take a flat of their own.

What these three women have built is truly remarkable. Today, these former child slaves receive support from many international funders to rescue but also rehabilitate victims. They also work on prevention of the risks in villages where so many parents still believe that to send their daughter to Kathmandu is the only way to secure a good life for her.

The real ray of hope for me, came from a meeting with judge Tek Narayan Kunwar, whose most remarkable achievement is to implement the law and make sure that justice is given swiftly and equitably. The judge, who is in his forties, has enforced a simple obligation across his district: to champion the rights of the victims and ensure that a case is judged in 90 days (not in ten years), and to make sure that the witness is indeed protected. This “fast track justice system” where the survivor is protected against all kinds of intimidations from their slavers, where he/she is given the right to speak behind a curtain is truly revolutionary.

As judge Kunwar said, speaking of him and his staff, “we provide smile service”. The system is though on criminals: it imposes severe penalties. For example, if the trafficker cannot pay compensation, the judge will ask the government to pay damages to the victims. In 2013, the Judicial Council of Nepal named Tek Narayan Kunwar the Best Performing Judge: he had proven in his district that without spending more money, justice could be rendered efficiently. Today people no longer dare to try to corrupt him, he says in a big smile. No small achievement.

At the other end of the spectrum, we also visited a brick kiln in Bakhtapur, where the proud owner showed us that they were no children working in his factory -a rarity in Nepal, as in India.

But what we saw was all the same heart breaking for westerners. Young men working from 7am to 6pm carrying piles of bricks on their head in a frightening repetition of shock, noise and red dust, between the factory and the lorry where they will be carried to construction sites. Most of the workers are Indian. They are paid less than half a rupee per brick produced. Take two minutes to watch the film I took with my mobile -sorry for the quality, I am not a pro videographer but I am sure you will find it enlightening.

By Monique Villa