April 19, 2013
It is no exaggeration to say that Anuradha Koirala is the most famous woman in Nepal. Likewise, she and her organization, Maiti Nepal, have garnered respect from all over the world. Among dozens of other awards, she is the recipient of CNN’s 2010 Hero of the Year Award, CLICK HERE
the German UNIFEM Prize, the Queen Sofia Silver Medal Award, the Peace Abbey, and the Courage of Conscience award.
Born in 1949 to Colonel Pratap Singh Gurung and Laxmi Gurung, Anuradha Koirala was brought up in a family that regarded providing services for humankind as the best form of work. In 1993, Anuradha founded Maiti Nepal with the goal of providing services for children and women who had been trafficked within and from Nepal for commercial sexual exploitation. Today, Maiti Nepal has three prevention homes, nine transit homes, two hospices and a high school – all devoted to the victims of trafficking. In addition, Maiti Nepal conducts awareness campaigns, community sensitization meetings, rescue operations and apprehension of traffickers, among other regular activities.
Two days ago, I interviewed Anuradha in Maiti Nepal’s Kathmandu office. This was my second interview with her, the first being in 2006.
DUNHAM: Was there a moment or event in your life that made you pursue a career in fighting sex trafficking, or did your interest evolve gradually over a longer period of time?
KOIRALA: It was gradual. Of course, sex trafficking has existed for many, many years. But before the democracy era, because of the political situation, no one in Nepal spoke about the trafficking of girls. No one wanted to raise this question. But after democracy was re-established in Nepal, in 1990, people started talking about the issue. I was not involved in any of the work I am now doing. I was just a teacher. After 1990, many NGOs began to emerge in Nepal. Before that, the political parties ran the only organizations. Also some INGOs and United Nations agencies arrived. And they were speaking about these issues.
I used to hear about it, but I was not that satisfied with what I was hearing.
DUNHAM: Why not?
KOIRALA: Because, actually, the problem of sex trafficking did not lie in the cities. The problem started in the villages. In those days, sex trafficking was in certain villages and certain ethnic groups. Now it is everywhere. Now it is all over the country and involves all groups, castes and creeds, no matter what.
I really wanted to do something for the people who were in need, who were suffering from trafficking. That was number one.
DUNHAM: Which districts were involved in trafficking when you first became involved?
KOIRALA: Sindhupalchok, Nuwakot, Dhading, Makawanpur, Nawalparasi, Udayapur. There were the six districts from where most of the girls were trafficked. But now sex trafficking exists in all 75 districts. And in different forms.
Before it was only in one form and one destination: India.
This was the situation that deeply affected me and this was the time when I decided that I must work for the benefit of these girls.
The second reason that I became interested in this was that I used to go to Pashupati and I saw women begging with three or four children. I was always an inquisitive person. And I would ask these women, “Why are you begging?” Every woman had the same answer: They were all victims of domestic violence. Their husbands had deserted them and married other women. Or the husbands died and the mother-in-laws chased them out of the family.
Yes, all the new NGOs, which had mushroomed in Nepal, were talking about domestic violence. But the problem was quite evident to me, right under my nose; I was getting my information from the women who I was talking to on the street.
And that was very true. Even if I go to apply for a job, the employer will ask me for references. Without a reference, no one will hire you. Hiring an unknown person from the street and bringing her into your household to do housework – it’s a very difficult thing to ask of someone. Tomorrow, what if that woman steals from your house and disappears? That’s the kind of thinking that people had in their heads.
DUNHAM: Plus these women had no skills.
KOIRALA: Yes, no skills except cooking, washing and all that – domestic work, they knew.
Since I was a teacher, I had very little salary coming in: about 7,000 rupees, and I had a son to look after.
But I really wanted to reach out to these homeless women. So I asked them, “If I give you a job, will you work and stop begging?” And they said, “Yes”.
And during that period when I was talking to the homeless women, I began asking about trafficking and they were aware of it. They thought it was a very big crime.
Anyway, I agreed to support them. I supported eight women on the streets by giving them small shops, which are called nanglo pasal. [A nanglo is a very wide, shallow platter made from bamboo; pasal means shop. The nanglo is set up on a stand, in the street, from which the person sells his or her goods – thus a kind of shop.] They would sell, cigarettes, sweets, matches and all those kinds of things. But I made sure that each woman would give me back, every day, two rupees. I didn’t want them to take the whole thing for granted. I explained to them, “If you give me back two rupees, I can support another women.” That’s how I started.
It was just like being a teacher. I was teaching them to be self-sufficient.
These were the two things that motivated my work on women’s issues.
Then, in 1993, I established Maiti Nepal.
KOIRALA: These women had been saying to me, “OK, you have told us so much about trafficking and sexual exploitation. We have daughters, but all day we are busy with the nanglo pasal. In the meantime, they are playing around, here and there. Maybe they could be exploited while we’re busy with our work. Can’t you keep them and make them go to school?
I didn’t have the means to do this, but their words touched me. So I decided to start Maiti Nepal because, yes, these girls were prime candidates for sexual exploitation. I started with 10 children.
DUNHAM: What was the age group?
KOIRALA: 10 to 13-years old. That is the most vulnerable age for exploitation. Actually, ages 6 through 16 are all vulnerable. But 16-year olds are the most numerous. So I started a home for them.
Then, in 1994, with the cooperation of the police, lawyers, doctors, nurses, students, I said to myself, “I’m going to devote all my time to spreading awareness about sexual exploitation and trafficking – throughout all the villages.”
For example, Sindhupalchok district has 69 VDCs [village development committees], out of which 23 are vulnerable to trafficking. So we went to these 23 VDCs and created awareness campaigns.
DUNHAM: What were these programs like?
KOIRALA: It’s not like just talking, talking, talking. We put up posters, distribute pamphlets, and sing popular Nepali songs as a means of gathering the people together. And then we disseminate the message. Police accompany us and they explain to the villagers that there are laws against these crimes. Then the lawyers explain what the penalty for trafficking is. Then the nurses tell them about HIV-AIDS. So this is how we go around in all the districts. And gradually, Maiti Nepal became known for these programs. By the time we had brought our program to seven districts, we became very well known in Nepal.
So after that, every time a girl was identified as being sexually exploited – even when Indians rescued Nepali girls in Indian borthels – they would send them to Maiti Nepal. That’s how we developed a significant network.
DUNHAM: Earlier, you mentioned working with the police. In the beginning, did that interaction create any problems for you and your work?
KOIRALA: No, they were very willing to work with us. There was a police superintendent, now retired, who took the initiative to work with us. Even two Inspector Generals of the Police – one after the other – were very helpful and actively involved in our campaign. Frankly, the two groups in Nepal that have been most helpful to Maiti Nepal have been the police force and the judiciary. I don’t know about other areas of their work, but in this instance, they have been very sensitive.
To give you one example, for the last eight or nine years, both the police and the judiciary have annually visited Maiti Nepal for lectures and they actually take one class from a Maiti Nepal survivor. The survivor tells them their personal story, and they are truly moved by it. Sometimes they even ask to more stories from other survivors. What I think is that when they hear these stories, they can’t help but think of their own daughters and how horrible it would be if it happen to them.
Before, it used to take the judiciary system one to two years to finalize a sexual exploitation case. Now, within fifteen days to three weeks, the case is usually finalized. It’s that fast, now, because of the judiciary’s sensitization to the issue.
DUNHAM: When did Maiti Nepal begin their retrieving of girls confined in Indian brothels?
KOIRALA: The first time we brought girls back from India, there were 236 girls involved. It was a mass operation in India. When they were returned to Nepal, Maiti Nepal took in the majority of the girls and other NGOs took in the remaining victims.
DUNHAM: What year was this?
KOIRALA: 1996 or 1997. But after that event, we started to work on our own. We knew other NGOs in India, but we still had go to India ourselves. That was difficult. I knew only one Indian who could help me. He was quite powerful. He was the Mayor of Mumbai. He was one of the most famous personalities in the state of Maharashtra.
Later, I decided we should start our own organization there and we created Maiti Mumbai. The problem was that we had difficulty in registering the organization in India because we were Nepali. But through our coordinator in India, with the help of seven other people, we registered the organization under the name of Rescue Foundation.
DUNHAM: So walk me through this. How many Nepali girls are being trafficked?
KOIRALA: Even after our awareness campaign, parents were still reluctant to report that their girls were missing. Everybody said that there were 150,000 to 250,000 girls in India who had been trafficked from Nepal. But, when we consulted the police records in the Nepali stations, there were only 1,100 or 1,200 reports of girls trafficked.
DUNHAM: Why such a discrepancy?
KOIRALA: In those days, the attitude of the police was – if someone reported that their daughter was missing – their attitude was, “Oh, she must have eloped.” It was a huge gender problem. If a girl got kidnapped, it was just assumed that she had eloped.
These days the reporting of missing girls is much better. In our awareness program, which is ongoing and done eight times a year – and we now have offices in 29 districts – we really stress the importance of reporting missing children. And the parents now report missing children at a much quicker and at a much higher rate.
And here’s something else that might surprise you: Not all the clients are bad.
DUNHAM: Define “client”
KOIRALA: The client is the man who comes to sexually use a girl after she has been sold to a brothel. Some clients are very good. If the girl cries, he takes the full address of the girl’s home back in Nepal and then he writes to the parents and advises them to go to Maiti Nepal with the entire information as to where the girl is – what brothel, what room in the brothel and the fact that she wants to come back to Nepal. So the parents come to us with the information and a photograph of their daughter and we scan the photograph and send it to our investigating officers in various places in India. The rescue officers pursue the case by going to the address given and, if they find the girl, they rescue her.
DUNHAM: But the officers have to be very careful when they enter the brothels, right?
KOIRALA: Yes, the officers pose as clients, they go into the brothels with hidden cameras, and in that way we make a positive identification of the girl. And they convince the girl that they are not there to exploit the girl. They say to her, “I’ve heard that you want to go home. I’m here to rescue you.” And if the girl says, “yes”, they go to the police.
Even the Indian police have now become very cooperative. They take immediate action when they hear it is a Maiti Nepal operation. It is at this point that the Indians take over. We can’t make the raid because we are Nepali. The Indians go into the brothel and rescue the girls. And from there, they are sent back to Nepal.
DUNHAM: How long does it take – from the time your guy goes into the brothel and then goes to the Indian police – for the Indians to respond and rescue the girl?
KOIRALA: In one to two hours it’s all finished.
DUNHAM: Quickness is crucial. I know from my own work that the girls can get very excited when an undercover “client” comes in. Sometimes the brothel owners become suspicious of the girl’s behavior and they will immediately remove them from the brothel and hide them somewhere else, before the police arrive. [See my report in Cambodia, when I posed as a sex tourist:]
KOIRALA: Yes, girls are often moved from brothel to brothel. In fact, that very thing happened to us three months ago. There was a fifteen-year-old girl who was trafficked to India and somehow she called her seventeen-year-old sister with a mobile phone number. The sister and some friends came to Maiti Nepal, crying with the information. The girl told her sister that she had been taken to Leh, Ladakh. But by the time the investigators took over, she had already been shifted to a brothel in Meerut, India.
And then, only yesterday, she called again. And her sister and friends are due to arrive here, at Maiti Nepal, any minute now. The information we have is that they moved the girl again: According to the report, she is now in Delhi. She called and she must have been using her client’s mobile phone. The sister wrote down that number, we gave it to the investigation officer and right now he is tracing the number. So I think we will get some answers today.
DUNHAM: Demographics. It used to be that Nepali girls were trafficked to Bombay or Calcutta or Delhi, but that’s changed, right? Now there are many Indian brothels much closer to the Indian-Nepali border.
KOIRALA: Yes, the destinations, as well as the origin, have changed demographically. As I told you, originally, there were seven districts in which Nepali girls were being trafficked. Now, it exists in all 75 districts of Nepal.
Even you, such a great personality – the first place that came to your mind was Mumbai. Everybody in their heads has Mumbai, Mumbai, Mumbai. But that is no longer the case, Mikel. In fact, Mumbai is now absolutely empty of Nepali girls, and the same goes for the number of Indian girls, for that matter. It’s really different now. The brothels have shifted to Nagpur, Pune and other places within the same province.
As you said earlier, I have been telling everyone that the destination for girls trafficked from Nepal is getting closer to the Indian-Nepali border. If you go from Bhairahawa, Nepal, there are now brothels in Maharajgung, Utter Pradesh [which is right across the border of Nepal]. If you go from Biratnagar Rani, there are now brothels in Farbeshgung, Bihar [India]. In eastern Nepal, if you go from Kakadvitta, Jhapa district, there are now brothels in Khalpada, Siliguri, India. If you go from Birgunj, there are now brothels in Motihari [India]. So the Indian brothels are coming closer, closer, closer to the Nepali border.
But still, the eastern border of Nepal is the most widely used.
KOIRALA: It’s just easier for traffickers there. As for the destinations, they’ve shifted in India to Nagpur, Pune, Meerut – and this really surprised me – Chandigadh and Ludhyana [both cities in the Punjab]. These cities used to be very clean. Even Agra is now a destination. In fact, we just received five girls who had been rescued in Agra. These are the new places coming up.
But now, we have trafficking problems with China, too.
KOIRALA: That’s right. And the style, the method, the way trafficking is done now has changed. The places, instead of being called brothels, they are now called “dance restaurants”, “cabin restaurants”, “guest houses”…
And you know very well that no matter what they call them, they are still brothels.
What’s the definition of trafficking? If you are forced into prostitution, that is trafficking. Children under the age of sixteen– even with or without their consent – if they are used for sexual purposes, that is trafficking.
And the 10-year conflict in Nepal compounded the problem. So many people fled their villages and came to the cities in search of safety. And the children of these displaced people were lured into these dance restaurants, cabin restaurants or guesthouses and prostitution flourished in these places during those ten years – in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Biratnagar, Birgunj, Bhairahawa. And the children worked in these places but they were also sexually exploited.
And the dance restaurants, etc., became the source for traffickers who were taking girls to China. In China, there are similar dance restaurants, cabin restaurants and red-light areas.
DUNHAM: What about the Nepali border police next to the China border?
KORIALA: We have border police, customs, and an immigration office in place. But Nepali citizens crossing into China get a one-day pass. And this is a problem for curbing sex trafficking. So many people cross the border for shopping and they come back to Nepal the same day. The problem is that the authorities, who issue the passes, don’t check to see if those Nepalis come back on the same day or not. Because they don’t have to give the pass back, once they return. Illegally, the trafficked child ends up in China for months and months without anyone knowing. They may return to Nepal months later.
In a way, the poorly monitored Chinese border is just as open for traffickers as the Indian border.
DUNHAM: Let’s return to the Indian border for a moment. I know that Maiti Nepal has set up checkpoints – intervention outposts – along the border to watch out for traffickers.
KOIRALA: There are 26 official routes to cross from Nepal into India. Of those, Maiti Nepal has 10 checkpoints. We work closely with the police at these checkpoints. The girls who are working at the checkpoints are girls who, themselves, are survivors of sex trafficking. We put them there because they know the mode of trafficking.
Of course, sometimes there are problems because we are independent from the state. For instance, if one our girls identifies a potential trafficker and notifies the nearby police, asking them to interrogate the suspect, we, at the same time interrogate the girl. We are certain that this is a case of trafficking. But sometimes the police will say, “No, no, no, no. This is not a trafficker.”
You can’t put all of the police in one basket. Out of a thousand policemen, one may be bad. When we find such a policeman, we notify the higher authorities and that policeman is immediately transferred away from the border.
That’s why I defend the police: Most of them are very sensitive to the issue.
DUNHAM: The policeman is transferred? Not fired?
KOIRALA: No. They may be sent to somewhere very remote.
And now, we have a presence along the Chinese border as well.
Unfortunately, there are so many unofficial border crossings that we can’t cover them all. The Nepali border is very porous. Especially along the Indian border there are so many constraints to monitoring: not human resources but financial resources.
However, we have a program in small villages called Safety Net.
DUNHAM: The Safety Net programs are located in the Terai, along the border?
KOIRALA: Yes, and we spread awareness that if the villagers see a girl leaving with a boy, they must be intervened, because this could very well be sex-trafficking in the making.
DUNHAM: I first interviewed you in 2006. Since then, what has changed in the world of sex trafficking?
KORIALA: The guises, the lures of sex traffickers have changed. Now they advertise for foreign employment in the Middle East and other places, which can be big traps for naïve girls. The girls think they are going to foreign countries to become housemaids, dancers, saloon people. But that’s not what really happens.
Can you imagine, there are girls now being trafficked to Kyrgyzstan! Right now we have a girl that was in Kyrgyzstan. She was beaten and burned on her inner thighs and was really sick when she arrived at Maiti Nepal. But now she’s better and the criminal who trafficked her has been captured. And just last week, we intercepted four girls who were on their way to Kyrgyzstan, taken by the same person. So we are filing a case against him today!
Tanzania! Girls are being sent to Tanzania as dancers. And if you look at these girls, you would guess that they are educated and well off. They have ipads, iphones, high heel shoes, dyed hair, hair extensions that are very expensive – the traffickers do all these things here for the girls before they are sent to Tanzania or Goa [India]. The traffickers spend about120,000 rupees on each girl [approximately $1500]. But when the girls get to Tanzania or Goa or wherever, their salaries are deducted from the money that was originally spent on them. They get nothing there.
DUNHAM: What about the false advertisements for jobs on the internet for girls?
KOIRALA: And not only the internet; the newspapers! The advertisements say, “WALK-IN INTERVIEW! Get a job immediately!” And the traffickers advertise salaries up to 25,000 rupees per month [approximately $350]. But when the girls go to the “hiring office”, they are seized by traffickers and sent somewhere.
I have been fighting for so long about this. Everyone has a right to have mobility. Everyone has the right to work. But when you take a girl from a rural village and move her straight to a big city and, then from there, straight to the Middle East or Krygyzstan or Iran or Israel – do you think that these girls are going to be in good circumstances, even if they aren’t being trafficked for sex work?
Earlier, you pointed out that these girls have no skills. Imagine what happens to them in foreign countries where they have been hired as housemaids. They’ve never used an electric iron, they’ve never seen a vacuum cleaner or an electric washing machine and they don’t speak the local language. They’re not trained for any of this.
What I’ve been saying is that both the receiving and sending countries should have an agreement about the necessity of making sure that the girls have learned all these skills before they are sent to a foreign country. We are not saying to stop sending girls abroad. There are few opportunities for them here. But we’ve been blocked by the authorities who say, “Oh, this is safe migration.”
What is safe migration? I’m telling you, Mikel, everyday one or two or three girls return from foreign countries – the planes fly in here at night – and they have gone mad. They get off the plane with only one plastic bag. And when we look at their passports, we see that they have been working in the foreign country for two years and yet they have nothing to show for it. They have gone mad. They come back beaten, bruises all over their bodies. Some of the girls don’t even remember where they came from.
It can take months to track down where they came from. It can take up to a half a year for their mental stability to get better. In the meantime, who is going to give us money to take care of these girls? We are personally doing it ourselves.
I can give you an example. There was a press conference recently about eight girls who had just returned from the Middle East empty-handed. And the journalists asked them, “There are girls who come back with money, why not you?” And the girls answered, “Maybe some girls are lucky, but we couldn’t tolerate what we were made to do. We thought we were going to a job, that’s why we went, but it turned out to be something else.”
These girls were being sexually exploited by the employer, the employer’s son, the son’s friends, employer’s friends – they were forced to have clients 20-25 times a day…the same number of clients-per-day as girls in Indian brothels.
DUNHAM: How many girls has Maiti Nepal rescued?
KOIRALA: 22,000 girls so far – since 1994. Everyday, we intercept four to five girls whose traffickers are trying to get them through the border points. Sometimes, we manage to capture the traffickers. We have managed to convict 686 traffickers. They are sentenced to jail terms from 12 to 35 years.
DUNHAM: Of those convicted, how many are women traffickers?
KOIRALA: About 30% of the traffickers are women.
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