Survivors Continue to Fight Sex Trafficking, Raise Awareness in Nepal


Article Highlights

Trafficked Nepali women populate the "Mumbai cages."  

KATHMANDU, NEPAL – A narrow lane in Dumbarahi, an area of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, leads to a house that is under construction. Inside the house, a dark stairway ends in a congested room with two beds, a closet, TV, stove, table, and some pots and pans.


In the same room, atop one of the beds, a 10-year-old is watching an interview of her mother, Charimaya Tamang, on a 9 a.m. Nepali TV show. Time and again, Tamang too tries to glance at herself being interviewed on the TV as she finishes her kitchen duties in the crammed but organized room. She has to feed her husband and family before she goes to work.


Tamang was being interviewed about the award she won earlier this year. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton awarded her the 2011 Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award in June 2011.


For 13 years, Tamang has worked with Shakti Samuha, a nongovernmental organization that calls itself the first NGO here to be established and run by survivors of trafficking. Tamang, who was trafficked as a teenager, founded the organization with fellow survivors in 1996.


One wall of the room is decorated with a neat row of letters of appreciation. The letters are from different organizations she has worked with and people she has helped through her NGO since she was rescued from a brothel herself. As her phone rings, she moves to answer it. She explains her work schedule for the day to the caller. 


A native of Haibung, a village in the Sindhupalchok district in central Nepal, Tamang, 33, is the youngest of her three siblings. She grew up in a poor family, and her father died when she was 15.


Tamang says she completed primary school and wanted to continue studying. But there was no school in her village beyond that level, and she says society here also prefers women to stick to household chores. So she spent most of her days grazing the family’s cattle, cutting grass and collecting firewood.


When she turned 16, she says men from her village, Kyar Singh Tamang, Bire Tamang, Manu Tamang and Krishna Tamang, a common last name in Nepal’s Tamang tribe, tried to lure her to go with them every time they saw her doing her daily chores. They often tempted her with prospects of a good job in one of the shops in a local commercial town since she could do basic math.


She says the men used to tell her that there would be good food and good money, but she never agreed. That didn’t stop them, though, she says with a grim face.


“I don’t know what they fed me forcefully, and then I lost consciousness,” she says. “And when I woke up, I found myself all decked up: from the lungi – a sarong-like cloth – and a vest that I was wearing, to a bright kurta salwar – a traditional wear with a tunic and trousers. My hair was also neatly combed.”


They were in Gorakhpur, an Indian city near the border with Nepal, and the men told her that her family and villagers would no longer accept her since she had disappeared with them. They told her they would instead find her a good job in Mumbai, India’s largest city, and took her there by train.


But she says she soon learned that the men had tricked her and had instead sold her for 50,000 rupees INR ($1,020 USD) to a brothel in Kamatipur, an area of Mumbai notorious for its red-light districts.


Tamang says she cried for days until her tears dried. The brothel owners then forced her to satisfy customers, who she says were much older than she was. For 22 months, she says she spent a “life like in hell.”


Then, Mumbai police raided the area in February 1996 and rescued her along with 128 other Nepali women. Her brothel alone housed about 20 to 25 Nepali women who had been forced into sex work.


But she says her homecoming didn’t proceed as smoothly as she’d imagined. Her family had thought wild animals had killed her. When she explained that local men had trafficked her and she had been forced to work in a brothel, she says they resented her. She wasn’t allowed to attend social functions, and her family members refused to eat the food she cooked.


“My relatives and people from the village told me I should have died and not returned,” she says. “But that didn’t deter me. I knew I had to be focused and fight against trafficking, and I continued doing that.”


She became active in spreading awareness about trafficking at local schools and through street drama, a form of theater performed on the street here to raise awareness about social issues. At times, she also inquired about other survivors and did her best to help them.


She says people also told her that no one would ever marry her because she had been a sex worker, and, if someone did, they would be from a lower caste. But she eventually proved them wrong.


When her husband, Shambhu Tamang, a construction worker who was not from a lower caste, found out that she was a rescued sex worker, he told her he wanted to marry her so that she could start her life anew. She says she didn’t want to settle down, but she couldn’t refuse his proposal.


“I didn’t marry him because I wanted to,” Tamang says with a grim face. “I wanted to prove the society [wrong].”


She says his bold wish to help her start over also wooed her to accept. They now have two daughters, ages 7 and 10, who are in first grade and fifth grade.


Tamang has also returned to school. Fulfilling her childhood dream of continuing her education, she is now in 12th grade at Pashupati Multiple Campus in Kathmandu.


And when Tamang isn’t fulfilling her duties at home or school, she is trying to help women like herself at Shakti Samuha.


Tens of thousands of Nepali girls and women are sold into the sex trade every year, thanks to poverty and a lack of awareness and prioritization. With survivors determined to prevent other women from suffering their fate at the helm, NGOs are receiving international recognition for leading the fight against sex trafficking here. Meanwhile, the government is working on establishing rehabilitation centers and committees against trafficking in districts nationwide.


There is no official data on the number of Nepali women trafficked to foreign lands. But a 2001 study by the International Labor Organization, a U.N. agency, estimated that 12,000 Nepali girls are trafficked annually. Achuyut Nepal, communication officer at Maiti Nepal, an NGO that has been working to end the trafficking of Nepali girls since 1993, estimates the current number to be around 15,000 every year.


“Before, [Nepali] women used to be sold only in India, but now they’re even sold in the Gulf countries,” he says.


Tamang blames Nepali society for the existence of human trafficking. She lists various reasons for why it still exists here: lack of prioritization by the government, poverty, involvement of people in high-level positions in trafficking, and a lack of education and opportunities.


“The nature of our society is such that when someone is in trouble, they just remain silent rather than raising a voice,” she says. “If a dog bites a person, that dog should be identified so other people can be prevented from that dog bite. Or else it will have a negative impact on the entire society.”


Shanti Lama, 31, was one of the Nepali women rescued with Tamang from the Mumbai brothel.


Lama says that three Nepali men coaxed her to come to Sunauli, a town on the Nepali-Indian border, when she was 13. She says they drugged her food there, and she woke up in the brothel.


When she opened her eyes, she says the men were nowhere in sight. Instead, she saw a woman who, like herself, was from the Tamang group and explained to her that she had been sold.


“I never knew humans could be sold,” Lama says.


Lama says there were many other Nepali women in the brothel, and the old men always preferred young women. She says being a sex worker mentally and physically drained her. Nevertheless, she lasted a year working in the brothel.  


Then Lama was rescued with Tamang in the 1996 Indian police raid. She says she was lucky to be rescued and return to Nepal.


Like Tamang, Lama has also returned to school. She attends school in the evening and is currently in eighth grade at Gyan Jyoti Women’s School.


NGOs played a large role in the rescuing of Tamang, Lama and the rest of the Nepali women during the Mumbai brothel raid. These NGOs include: ABC Nepal, Women’s Rehabilitation Center, Maiti Nepal, Stri Shakti, Child Workers in Nepal, Nava Jyoti Kendra and Shanti Punarsthapana Kendra.


For the initial six months following Tamang’s rescue, she says she lived at Nava Jyoti Kendra, where she received rehabilitation services as well as learned about advocating against trafficking.


Tamang says that her family and community discouraged her from sharing her story or being proactive in advocating against trafficking. But she says she thought to herself that she had to do something on her own. She had to speak out.


“When I returned to Nepal, I didn’t stay silent,” she says. “Wherever there were programs on human trafficking, I went. I used my pain as strength and focused on how to save women in peril. I wanted no other woman to suffer the pain I went through.”


To ensure this, she says she also wanted to sue the men who trafficked her and were still living in the village. The men threatened that they would kill her brother if she sued them. But Tamang says she was determined and took them to the court.


Initially, she went to the court alone and filed a case. Later, she received legal support from a women’s organization in her village, Mahila Atma Nirbharta Kendra.


After six months of legal procedures and hearings, Tamang won her case. She says her case became the first and also the first successful case against human trafficking in Sindhupalanchok district. The men who sold her were sentenced to 10 years in prison, while the others who assisted them received 30 months of prison time.


In Nepali law, the Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act 2007 states that any person who buys or sells a human being can be given 20 years in prison and a fine of 200,000 rupees NPR ($2,540 USD), and anyone who forces someone into prostitution can be given 10 to 15 years in prison and a fine of 50,000 rupees NPR ($635 USD) to 100,000 rupees NPR ($1,270 USD), according to the Nepal Law Commission.


Tamang says her victory in court motivated her to continue to fight human trafficking. She says she was aware that the same men who had sold her had been selling other girls in her village.


To prevent other women from ending up in her situation, Tamang founded Shakti Samuha along with other survivors who were rescued from trafficking. The organization started with 15 women and now has 135 to 165 members. They work in Nepal’s 10 districts raising awareness about trafficking through trainings and educational programs. They also help to rehabilitate women who have been rescued.


“[As long as] I’m alive, I’m going to dedicate my life towards human trafficking,” Tamang says, adding that her recent award has served as further motivation. “This award has given me more responsibilities.”


Tamang is only one example of the thousands of women who are working against human trafficking in Nepal. Lama works as Shakti Samuha’s secretary.


Nepal of Maiti Nepal says that the NGO currently employs 100 rescued women. Maiti Nepal’s founder, Anuradha Koirala, was named a Top 10 CNN Hero in 2010.


After the establishment of the Ministry of Women in 1995, the Nepali government formed a policy on human trafficking in 2008 and drafted it in 2009.


But on a local level, only 26 of Nepal’s 75 districts have a committee for human trafficking and control, says Gaj Bahadur Rana, undersecretary of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare. The government is still working to make them active, he says.


He says that there are rehabilitation centers in eight districts, and the government is working on establishing centers in an additional 15 districts that require immediate assistance. Rana says that the government is also amending the national program for human trafficking, and that the new one is in its final phase.


“People are slowly breaking the barriers and talking about it,” Rana says. “The level of awareness is also on a rise.”