November 28, 2010
Last night in Hollywood, Anurada Koirala – founder of Maiti Nepal, the Nepali anti-trafficking organization -- was feted following her win of the prestigious CNN Hero of the Year Award. The awards ceremony was held earlier in the week at LA’s Shrine Auditorium, emceed by Anderson Cooper and with nearly 5,000 people in attendance.
It was the first time I had talked to Anurada since I interviewed her at her office in Gaushala, Kathmandu five years ago. At that time, I was writing a four-part article for Tehelka magazine (New Delhi) on sex trafficking in South Asia. The spare office quarters of Maiti Nepal could not have been in starker contrast to the swank lounge of W Hotel, where last night’s event took place. The crowd ranged from such well-known activists as documentary producer Chelo Alvarez-Stehle and author Susan Stiffleman to a strong contingent of rap artists and music-industry types. Bullets 4 Peace founder Rafi Anteby hosted the event, so the crowd was quite an eclectic mix.
Much has changed in Nepal in the five intervening years since I first interviewed Anurada. At that time, the 10-year armed conflict between the Maoists and national security forces was still in full swing, rendering it extremely difficult for Maiti Nepal to monitor the cross-border movement of sex-slaves being transported from Nepal to Indian brothels.
At that time, Anurada told me:
We have 26 border observation spots, but because of the insurgency, we only have 14 centers that are in operation. It is chaotic down there. Because of the unrest, there is an ongoing mass migration to India, which only complicates our ability to adequately watch the border.
Something else has changed recently with sex trafficking patterns. It used to be that there were three primary Indian destinations for Nepali girls: Calcutta, Delhi and Mumbai – all quite far from the southern Nepali border. But today, there are Indian brothels springing up ever closer to the Nepali border: From 1 ½ hours, to 45 minutes – now there are Indian brothels a mere 30 minutes from the Nepali border. This changes the dynamics completely. It used to be that the kidnappers would travel far into the western mountains of Nepal to snatch girls. Now, the abductors don’t have to travel at all. They just wait for innocent girls to cross the border to kidnap or lure them. Some of the girls are as young as 7 or 8 years old.
Another thing that has changed is that, in the past, girl victims were limited to a few lower castes. Now they are taken from all castes.
As for the trafficking right here in Kathmandu, here’s what usually happens: Girls under the age of 16 run away from the hard life and conflict of the hills, only to come down to the [Kathmandu] Valley to a much more dire situation.
Generally speaking, today, there is better awareness – globally -- of the magnitude of international sex trafficking. But the challenges of curbing sex trafficking remain monumental.
Anurada Koirala has not only played a significant role in raising awareness of the situation within her own country, but also in the Western community as well. For that, CNN has bestowed the well-deserved $125,000 prize.
Today, as she returns to Nepal, away from the bright lights of Hollywood and back to the harsh ground realities of her own country, she is certainly better financed to confront the task that she set out for herself in 1993, when she created Maiti Nepal.
But all Nepalis are winners today.
For the brief time she was in America, Anurada became the face of Nepal. Here was a woman who was not thrown off by the glamour of stage lights and international accolades. What we witnessed in the States was Nepal at its best: a person of strong will but at the same time self-effacing – a person of quiet dignity.
For more information on Anurada Koirala and Maiti Nepal and go to this link: