When two strange men approached the mother of Amita and Roja* with an offer of marriage for her teenage daughters, she never thought they were telling her anything but the truth.
Belonging to a remote tribe from the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal, she was innocent and uneducated, living the life of a slave as she worked to pay off a debt too large for her. The offer of a good marriage for her daughters was a blessing, she thought, so she sent the girls with the men.
When she finally heard from her daughters several months later, their story was not at all what she expected to hear. There had been no marriage, only day after agonising day of sexual abuse; a ‘training exercise’ for the girls before being trafficked across the border into India to be sold as prostitutes. Distraught, their mother didn’t know what to do. Only a year ago, her eldest daughter had vanished suddenly, and she and her community feared the worst.
Being a Seventh-day Adventist, the woman called a pastor she knew – Pr Rajendra Gautam, founder of Three Angels Nepal (3AN), an organisation supported by Asian Aid. Pr Rajendra was able to contact his volunteer workers at the border who caught the traffickers as they crossed, rescuing the girls and bringing them back to safety. Amita and Roja had already been priced.
These two girls were among the first to settle into the Girls’ Safe Haven run by 3AN. Nestled in the centre of landlocked Nepal, the haven is surrounded by a fortress of snow capped mountains and is part of a community of homes run by 3AN. There are twelve girls living there, aged between 15 and 21, each going to school and learning life skills.
Sex trafficking is arguably one of Nepal’s most pressing social issues.The fairer-skinned Nepalese girls are prized in Indian brothels, and a lack of education means they are innocent to stranger danger. Estimates say that between 5000 and 15,000 Nepali girls are trafficked over the Indian border every year, mostly from northern central Nepal.
When she is stolen, a girl will usually be kept in Nepal for a few months to be sexually abused, after which she will generally be reluctant to escape and go home – her family would probably reject her. In Hindu culture, if a girl has been ‘ruined’, she cannot come back because it is believed that the whole village will be cursed for her ‘sin’. A price will be set for her, and someone will take her over the border to India. Nepalese and Indians can cross the border freely, so this is relatively easy. In India, a girl might fetch a price anywhere from a little less than a water buffalo to a little more than a video recorder.
Once she is in India, it is nearly impossible to rescue the girl, as it is illegal to remove them without a family member and specific documents – and often by this time her family doesn’t want her. Many girls will end up with HIV/AIDS or other diseases and need medical treatment they can’t afford. Most of them are illiterate and have very few employment options. If she is rescued without a refuge to go to, she usually sees her option as going back to prostitution, or suicide.
With his team of about 20, mostly volunteers, Pr Rajendra is working to change the ending of this grim story, and since August 2010, Asian Aid has been supporting their work. With three booths set up on the border, 3AN has gained the authority to search and interrogate anyone they suspect to be a trafficker. However, the rented Safe Haven is at full capacity, and even if they rescue more girls, they have nowhere to care for them. There is a new house being built for the girls, but the need goes beyond a single home.
“As soon as the house is ready there are more girls waiting to be rescued,” Pr Rajendra said. “At least three more homes are needed urgently. We have two girls with HIV waiting to be rescued.” One of these girls sleeps, with her two children, in a plastic shelter under a tree by a river. One of her children has HIV too.
Sharon Thapa, 3AN’s accountant, also helps take care of the girls, sleeping in their dormitory with them and being a ‘big sister’ to them.
“At first they were really sad. They didn’t want to stay anymore,” she said. “They used to cry. They used to say they want to go home. They used to pretend so many things to go home.” But now, she says, if you ask them, they don’t want to go home anymore – this is their new home, and they are comfortable and happy. Most of the girls were rescued before too much damage was done, so they adjust quickly.
“The basic thing we want to do is wipe their tears away and bring back their smiles, and give them hope. Our girls are like princesses,” Pr Rajendra says as he smiles.
* Names have been changed.