Stolen Souls – Human trafficking in Nepal

No-one knows the exact numbers; how many women are sex trafficked in the borders between Greece and Turkey; how many migrants were treated as slave workers to build the FIFA 2018 stadium in St Petersburg; how many children are part of the organ transplant tourism industry worldwide.

Forced labour, sexual exploitation, organ harvesting; the hell of modern slavery that has chained in its ire an estimated 40.3 million people, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2016. One out of four of those victims are children, while women account for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry.

Human trafficking, the synonym of modern slavery, is a dystopia lurking right before our eyes, present in most countries, developing and developed ones. While there are endless stories to be unearthed from this living graveyard, I will grit my teeth and try to approach only one; human trafficking in Nepal.

Poverty, disaster, culture and law - The flames

First, it is important to touch upon the reasons why hubs of the second largest criminal industry find breeding ground in Nepal.

First culprit: poverty laced by humanitarian disasters. According to 2018 figures, one quarter of Nepal’s population lives under the poverty line, surviving on 50 cents each day. The 1996-2006 Nepalese Civil War between Maoist forces and the royalist government was marked by thousands of deaths, massacres and war crimes, with the over 100,000 people that were internally displaced becoming potential targets of traffickers. Marred by “good fortune”, Nepal was also hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2015, followed by a national blockade, which affected all major industries, from tourism, to textiles, construction and agriculture.

Fuel and food shortages, disease and death pushed survivors to flee in search of a better tomorrow, either to cities or neighbouring countries. Many of the shelterless, especially women, fell victims to the traffickers’ job offers and hopeful promises, only to end up in brothels in Kathmandu, Kamathipura, or in indefinite domestic servitude in Gulf states. Others are turned into cogwheels of forced labour at carpet factories or textile sweatshops.

The 1950 India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship also allows the free movement of people via the 1,770 km border between Nepal and India, giving the right to nationals of both countries to engage in trade, establish a business, and become a resident in either state. As a result of the lack of controls and border checks, transnational human trafficking has become an activity hard to mitigate and cheap to sustain. Only in 2015, over 400 girls who crossed the Nepalese-India border were reported missing, while it is estimated that over 10,000 girls are trafficked across the border each year.

Despite the abolishment of the caste system in Nepal 1963, the discrimination and the cultural inklings that are rooted in this hierarchy still burden Nepalese ethnic groups. The Badi people, for instance, have been regarded as the lowest rank of the “untouchables”, with prostitution being one of the most common occupations for the women of the group, harbouring sex traffickers. To convey the extent of how prostitution has been entrenched as a traditional female occupation, I will simply add this quote from an LA Times article on the Badi people: “Many Badi families welcome newborn girls for their earning potential, and some fathers even quit their menial jobs to live off their daughters once they’re old enough to enter the ‘family business.’”

Friends & profiteers - The Mammons

The networks of traffickers in Nepalese localities is labyrinthine, extending from the friends and relatives of the victims, to politicians, recruitment agencies and public authorities. VICE’s “Inside the Nepalese Human Trafficking Industry” documentary gives voice to women who were raped and abducted to be trafficked, either as a result of accepting food from their friends who were told to give it to the victim by traffickers for 50 dollars, or because they were simply roaming in the woods.

With the social status of women limiting them from education and work opportunities, families often view their girls as a financial burden, a dowry that has too be maintained until it is married off. Accompanied with the pressure of debt bondage, families will trust “job recruiters” that will ship the women off to earn wages, hoping to be rewarded by remittances.

The inferno

Many of the victims will be murdered, attempt suicide, kill themselves, and if they show an ounce of resistance will be starved or beaten to death. Some of the children and girls who will be visited by clients up to 40 times a day will slowly die from HIV/AIDS, syphilis or hepatitis B. The immunocompromised will be also more likely to suffer from turberculosis. At the same time, in places like Kavre, which is known as the “kidney valley”, villagers are constantly tricked into selling one of their kidney’s, being promised huge sums of money, believing that their organs will re-grow.

Survivors will often be confronted with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder due to prolonged abuse, and self-harm tendencies. Women who have escaped have reported also facing social stigma in their efforts to re-integrate into the community, often regarded as “unclean” and “corrupting”.

In the end, many women will resort to marriage to receive social approval or re-enter the sex industry, due to scarce employment and lack of retraining facilities.. Referring back to the LA Times article: “Bina Badi, whose name is tattooed on her left fist, grew up in a dirt-poor family in which all four daughters became prostitutes. At one point, each of them married and seemed to free themselves. But they soon divorced and drifted back into prostitution.” Individuals who have been born out of wedlock will also encounter multiple difficulties in receiving a national ID to make avail of government support programs and receive access to any kind of education, pushed into a life of underemployment.

Droplets of hope

The US 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report has placed Nepal in Tier 2 countries, with the government making increasing efforts to combat human trafficking, without, however, meeting certain standards. For example, three domestic laws are in place criminalizing human trafficking, with The Office of the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Women and Children (ONRT) also created to track human trafficking activity.

Nevertheless, continuous corruption, especially within police forces, distrust in public authorities and the cultural norms that place the stigma too often on the victim, have formed a system of inefficiency regarding the allocation of government stipends, of re-enforced exploitation and endorsement of further clandestine activity.

Before you go…

Educating ourselves and raising awareness on the world of human trafficking has been and remains essential, given that this nightmare is the reality of millions of women, men and children around the world. In our globalised village, never forget that we are all connected, even if many are restrained by voiceless cries for help. It is often within our hands to give strength to that voice, fight and protect it.

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