Krishna Thapa wakes up in a dirty, dimly lit room that smells of stale blood and rubbish. The thin sliver of light that sneaks in through the cracks in the wall hurts her eyes. Her head feels like it’s caught in a vice and her entire body is racked with pain.
The 16-year-old struggles to get up but the pain is so overwhelming that she is unable to walk properly. She splashes her face with cold water from a plastic bucket that has dead flies floating in it. It clears her mind a little and she cups more water with her hands and splashes it over her body.
‘I couldn’t understand what had happened,’ she says. ‘All I remember is being sold by my parents to a woman to work as a maid in her house, she taking me to her home and forcing me to have a glass of lassi.’
The woman was a trafficker and the lassi was spiked. When Krishna fell into a drugged sleep she was brutally raped – just like several other girls who were trafficked out of Nepal.
Trapped in a tiny room in Kolkata, India, for weeks, the assaults continued before Krishna was moved to a larger house where several girls like her were lodged. There she was forced to work as a sex slave and was brutally abused if she resisted. Although she – and 20 other girls – was lucky to be saved a year later after a raid on the house, and brought to Nepal’s capital Kathmandu by a charity working to rescue trafficked women, the horrors of the time she spent there still haunt her.
Learning a skill – sewing – at the rehabilitation centre run by the charity, Krishna has yet to visit her family as she is terrified that she might be sold off again.
But for now she has another worry. Krishna fears that her 14-year-old sister awaits the same fate.
‘My parents are poor and now after the disastrous earthquake I’m sure they have lost everything and are even more desperate. They sold me to afford a new roof for our house. I’m sure they will sell my sister now so they can have food for the table.’
Krishna wells up when she remembers her childhood in the green foothills of the Himalayas. The family had a small house made of bamboo, straw and tin. Krishna didn’t attend school, but helped her parents in the field. As the older child, there was much for her to do. Yet life in the village of Khokana was peaceful.
‘I had family and friends around and in the evening, right around the time for sunset, I’d often sit on a hill, watching the last light of the day disappear behind the mountains, listening to birds chirping.’
Then one day, two years ago, a woman dressed in a colourful sari arrived in Khokana and promised to find Krishna a job as a maid. Her parents readily agreed to her leaving home and were paid $1,000 (Dh3,673) by the woman. But it soon turned out to be a lie and Krishna was in fact sold as a sex slave.
Just like Krishna, thousands of girls are trafficked into prostitution from Nepal every year. According to the United Nations estimates, quoted in a report in Gulf News, up to 15,000 girls a year become victims of trafficking. Some end up in neighbouring India, others go as far as Malaysia, Hong Kong and South Korea, according to the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report.
Nepal has passed stringent anti-trafficking laws over the years, including its Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act of 2007.
However, human trafficking in Nepal is now on the rise more than ever.
On April 25 this year, a 8.7 magnitude earthquake left much of the country in ruins and a second, 7.3 strength tremor that occurred few days later, added to the already indescribable disaster. While more than 8,000 were killed and over 20,000 injured, the quakes left surviving girls in great danger of abduction.
An estimated 950,000 children have not been able to return to school because they have been destroyed or are at risk of collapsing and the situation is not likely to improve in the near future, Unicef says.
According to social workers, young girls in particular are at risk as coupled with the prospect of a poverty-stricken life and mounting expenses for reconstruction of homes, families sell their girls for cash.
Social workers, in fact, have found human traffickers preying on girls and even walking through Kathmandu’s massive camps of internally displaced people looking for victims. They try to roam around unnoticed, but spy on any young, pretty girl who could bring them money. Most of them are from the villages themselves and even women work in the trafficking business, sources say.
Shakti Samuha, a charity working in Nepal to help women who have been trafficked or who are at risk of being trafficked, has said that it intercepted the first case of human trafficking from a relief camp in Rautahat district on May 10 just weeks after the quake hit Nepal.
‘A young girl was offered a job, and taken to a hotel where she was forced to entertain clients,’ says Sunita Danuwar, the head of the charity. She immediately alerted the police and the traffickers were arrested.
The girl was moved to a government rescue home, and the police are investigating the case. ‘There could be thousands more cases like this now,’ she says.
But even when abduction is not successful, quake-defeated Nepali parents are open to send their girls to India to work as maids, an excuse that is often proposed to naïve parents, who do not know that they are actually selling their children into prostitution. With nationwide chaos after the quake, controls at the Nepal-India border have also been loosened as many of the security personnel have left for their home villages for rescue operations or to care for their displaced families. With fewer people checking documents and asking questions, it is easier for traffickers to take girls across the border, particularly India, which doesn’t even require them to have a passport.
At the country’s border with India, many anti-trafficking organisations are fighting to save as many girls as possible. Mark* is from one such organisation. He works as a security officer for a Kathmandu-based non-profit, and does not want his real name revealed as he fears for his life.
‘It’s too dangerous, as traffickers intentionally target us,’ he says. The former soldier carries a gun when going to the border, as the situation can get tense. ‘Most traffickers just run away when we uncover a situation, but others want to fight for the girls, and that’s when it can get dangerous.’
Mark’s job includes talking to as many girls as possible and asking them why they are crossing into India. ‘Almost all girls are oblivious they are being trafficked,’ he says.
Roshni* was one such girl. ‘I was promised a job at a hotel in India and was told that I would be living in a beautiful city, making a lot of money,’ she says. A 17-year-old who was saved from a trafficker before leaving the country, she still hasn’t recovered from the shock of the future that almost engulfed her. ‘I struggle with nightmares when I think about it. I’m so thankful to be safe, but also scared,’ she adds.
Roshni was saved from her trafficker, who disappeared before he could be caught. She now lives in one of the many safe houses near the border, where she has a place to sleep, receives food and is also taught a technical skill such as sewing or cooking. She wants to return to her parents, but chances are too high that she will be trafficked again. ‘I’m not going back until I have a stable job,’ she says.
The girls at the house share her story, but there are a few whose rescue came too late. While they are safe now, they had to endure years of humiliating work in brothels, sharing a small room with 15 other girls with a similar fate. Asmita* is one of these girls who was willing to talk about her experience. ‘I never wanted to do all those dirty things, but the brothel’s owner told me I had to earn the money that he paid when he bought me for $800. Only then would he send me home,’ she explains.
‘That’s why, after a while, I worked hard. All I wanted was to go home. I didn’t know that everything was a trap.’
Every month, more costs were added to Asmita’s bill: She had to pay for rent, birth control vaccines, food and even make-up. ‘Every night, I put on make-up and went to our brick courtyard to wait for men.’
Asmita was rescued during a brothel raid by a non-profit organisation and the police in Kolkata, and was immediately taken to a safe house in the city, then sent back to her home country Nepal.
Originally from Dholaka district, Asmita hasn’t seen her family in years and doesn’t know what happened to them during the earthquake.
Dholaka was one of the worst-hit districts during the second big quake on May 12 and is about a five-hour drive east of Kathmandu. The distance is no more than 170km, but the paved roads are in poor condition and since the earthquakes, uncountable landslides block the road. Nature has played havoc here: Not a single house is standing and most of the areas are deserted, as people have fled to Kathmandu or other lower-altitude areas. In the district’s ghost towns, only the wind can be heard passing through broken windows, and occasional tremors set birds flying and dogs barking. The remaining people live in tents near the hills and are scared for the soon-approaching monsoon season, which might bring additional landslides.
Now, after the quake, Asmita fears she would be sold again if she went back home and is also scared of the social stigma associated with being a prostitute.
‘I know I might not be accepted back,’ she says, explaining why she prefers to stay at the rehabilitation centre.
Asmita, who was trafficked before she was rescued and brought back to Nepal, doesn’t know of the horrific picture that unfolds in her home. Like Krishna, she is scared that her family has lost everything. ‘They might sell my sister to traffickers, hoping she could earn money as a maid. I want to warn them, but I’m too ashamed to go back home,’ she says, her eyes staring blankly at the floor.
For Asmita, the next step is to be transferred to Kathmandu, where many organisations and businesses work with former sex slaves and help them find employment. Some girls return home, but only after having established a job they can return to. Many girls struggle with depression and feelings of worthlessness.
Charities and the government speak out against trafficking, but their work is not yet effective enough.
‘We employ 16 full-time workers and 36 part-time,’ says Necia Nash, of Beauty for Ashes, a local business that helps human trafficking victims. ‘These girls need a skill set and they need to make money, otherwise they are in danger of being trafficked again.’ Beauty for Ashes works with partner organisations in India who plan brothel raids to save girls, but also with local teams in Nepal that help girls get out of Kathmandu’s sleazy joints. Once the girls have gone through rehabilitation and are capable, they learn sewing and jewellery making. Their finished products are sold in Nepal and overseas. ‘If you buy just one of our bracelets, two girls can work with us for a day,’ Nash says.
Her business also caters to at-risk women who haven’t been trafficked yet, but fall in a high-chance category, due to the country’s staggering youth unemployment. At least 2.1 million of Nepalis have already left the country to find work abroad, according to the Nepal Migration Survey carried out by the World Bank in 2009. In Nepal, 28 per cent of the population is aged between 15 and 29, while 35 per cent is below the age of 15, says the US State Department. With the younger ages dominating, the already small job market is competitive in Kathmandu and almost non-existent in remote areas. Planes full of migrant workers leave Kathmandu’s airport daily. Some girls find legitimate jobs as maids and cleaners in some countries and they call home to tell their families about it. This encourages more girls to travel overseas.
The recent earthquakes add to the already tough job market. While officials are now concerned about raising aid and helping to rebuild the devastated country, the issue of trafficking gets less attention.
‘The army has provided food and shelter, but I don’t know how I can provide for my baby girl,’ says Maiti Thapa, a young mother who lost her family in the quake. Standing in front of a pile of rubble; her former house, she now fears of being abducted by traffickers and organised gangs. ‘If it wasn’t for the army and security, life would be very difficult and my life would be at risk.’
Krishna, who was drugged with the spiked lassi, eventually left her life of hell when a British aid worker, who pretended to be a customer, was able to save her with police intervention. ‘Before, I was beaten and abused every day,’ she remembers.
She now works alongside rescue teams at the border. ‘I want to be there to tell girls who are crossing the border to beware of falling into traps and destroying their lives,’ she says. ‘Many girls have lost much during the earthquake, but they are at risk of losing everything – even their lives.’
*Names have been changed