The year was 1996. I was living in Bombay, the Indian city of dreams, studying to be a social worker. Not far from my college there were as many as 200,000 other Nepali girls, who had been trafficked and sold into prostitution. There – in those infamous brothels of Kamatipura and Falkland Road – I was sent on a fact-finding mission. I was 21. Walking around the narrow allies I met girls who looked vaguely like me, standing outside the brothel doors, each with a tight blouse, a dirty petticoat and sad make up, waiting to find customers. Some looked petrified, some resigned and some had that hardened look – one that comes after years of rejection, torture, and mistrust. Inside the brothels were rows of beds separated by a filthy curtain, each cubicle with a picture of a Bollywood actress. I remember crying with a young girl – my age – who asked me what to do with her fifth pregnancy. She had aborted four already. One day, when an emaciated girl dying of AIDS and TB howled in pain and desperation, I ran blindly trying to erase the sound of that howl. She too was 21. We shared a country but our circumstances could not be more different.
Back in Nepal, a short while later, I visited the district of Sindhupalchowk. Many of the trafficked girls came from this district, just a few hours away from Kathmandu. Young girls who were not allowed to go to school, and who did all the housework in their homes, were also the ones most in danger of being trafficked. One girl pointed to a hillside dotted with shiny tin roofs. The money from Bombay is what puts roofs on the houses, she said. Many of the girls I talked to said that they had no future in their village. There is a saying in Nepal: investing in a girl child is like watering your neighbour’s garden. Parents in these villages did not want to invest in a girl’s education. Poverty and desperation mixed with patriarchy and a preference for boys meant that girls were disposable. We heard stories about parents selling their daughters, brothers their sisters, and husbands their wives.
Over the past two decades, strict vigilance on the border crossings between Nepal and India has meant that the number of girls trafficked through those channels has come down. Even so, the UN data suggests that as many as 7,000 are trafficked to India every year, down from 15,000 a few years ago. Desperate hopes make it easier to lure these girls with lies, and the greed of human traffickers keeps finding new avenues to exploit them.
A couple of years ago, I met a young woman at a hospital in Kathmandu. She had paid a trafficker to find her a job as a domestic helper in Saudi Arabia. Not only did she not get paid the promised amount, she was beaten, burnt and raped. She had no way of escape and eventually, when she literally could no longer stand up, she was taken to the hospital. By the time her ‘salary’ was deducted as hospital fees, she came back to Nepal a completely broken woman.
There are stories about Nepali women and girls ending up in Syria, Libya and other dangerous places – trafficked with no way of return. A friend of mine in Nepal told me that her own sister paid some traffickers, in the hope of finding work as a domestic helper in Israel. She has been missing for five years now. Labour migration contributes more than a quarter of Nepal’s GDP – and as many as 200,000 women work abroad. Many of these women face abuse and many others fall into the hands of traffickers who use the open border between Nepal and India to smuggle girls into third countries. There are no reliable data on how many such women are scattered around the world.
But Nepali girls aren’t only trafficked across international borders. They are also trafficked from their villages to the homes of the well to do – where they are exploited in the same way. In South-West Nepal I met 15-year-old Sabita. Her hair was all grey. She told me a story about how she was made to sleep in the toilet, and was raped by the house owner in Kathmandu where she worked as a domestic helper. She was kicked in the stomach until some ribs broke.
Between 24,000 – 29,000 women, trafficked from villages across Nepal, are working as sex workers in Nepal, according to 2012 World Bank data.
I’ve always wondered about the accident of birth. Could I have been one of these girls? Just a generation ago, in a neighbourhood in old Kathmandu, my grandmother had made a bold decision. She was a widow, dirt poor, with one child, a daughter. Like many women in Nepal, at one point, she worked as a domestic helper. My grandmother decided that the only way to escape poverty and exploitation was to send her daughter to school. My grandmother’s brothers tried to convince her that education would turn my mother into a whore. They would wait on the street every day as my mother returned from school – to see if my mother had indeed turned into a whore. My grandmother’s faith in education changed my mother’s life, and eventually my own and my siblings’ lives. That one decision is the reason that I am standing here, in front of you, to talk about the possibilities of education, the possibilities for women to challenge the power structures of patriarchy, that keep them – keep us – as exploitable subordinates.
For most girls in Nepal, that dream of education and possibilities simply doesn’t exist. About half the girls drop out before they reach high school. Twelve-year-old Sunita from Far West Nepal once described to me what it means to be a girl. ‘We daughters wake up in the morning and work all day, taking care of our brothers and sisters, the cattle and the fields, while the boys play. Yet our parents don’t want us, they never did. They just want sons.’
An investment in a girl child is an investment in her family. More than 14,000 girls are in school because of the American Himalayan Foundation’s help. But I cannot begin to emphasise how urgent the need is to expand this commitment to hundreds of thousands. The same district I visited back in the 90s, Sindhupalchowk – where so many girls were trafficked from – is now devastated by the 2015 earthquake. Unemployment across Nepal is at 46 percent, making girls ever more vulnerable to trafficking. More girls like Sabita and Sunita need to be in school, and to stay in school.
With your help, one day, a woman or the daughter of a woman who could have been trafficked, who could have lived without opportunities, will tell the world what it means to have someone believe in her, and invest in her. Let us make a commitment, to do our bit to ensure that every girl goes to school.
A version of this speech was made on March 23, 2017 to the American Himalayan Foundation in San Francisco.
Cover photo by Symmetry_Mind/Flickr.