The Danger of Human Trafficking Is No Secret in Nepal. Why Is It Still So Common?
Thousands of women and girls from Nepal are trafficked into India each year, and many are forced into sex work. The government is well aware of the problem of human trafficking, but interventions have been too minor to be effective. The most obvious solution may be the hardest: creating opportunities at home so people don’t want to go abroad.
BELAHIYA, Nepal–Chanda Basnet, an aid worker with the Nepalese NGO Maiti Nepal, stands beside a blue tin shack that functions as her organization’s field office in this border town. A few dozen meters behind her, an enormous stone gate marks the crossing into India. Nationals of both countries have the right to cross freely, provided they can produce some form of identification. Children under 10 require no papers.
The system is convenient for travelers—but not only for them. For years, the open border has enabled human traffickers to transport Nepalese women and girls to India with relative ease. Some of them have been recruited for domestic work in Indian homes, where conditions range from tolerable to highly exploitative. Many others have been forced into sex work or sent to third countries. Chanda and her colleagues from Maiti Nepal—the Nepali word maiti signifies one’s birth family—are here to prevent this from happening.
Whenever they see a young woman or girl passing by, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, the staff of Maiti Nepal take her aside to ask her about her documents, travel plans and the nature of her journey—specifically, if it has been “organized” by someone else. Around 20 to 30 suspected victims of trafficking are stopped here on a daily basis for more detailed questioning by Maiti Nepal or representatives of other NGOs.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on Resilience in the Face of the Coronavirus Pandemic. ]
A short bus ride into Nepal lies Bhairahawa, a small, dusty border town, where a larger office of Maiti Nepal is located. The office doubles as a kind of transit home, where victims of human trafficking are temporarily sheltered before being reunited with their families or transferred to shelters in the capital, Kathmandu.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transfer or harboring of persons through force or deception for the purpose of exploitation. No comprehensive figures exist for the number of Nepalese women and girls trafficked across the border into India. The border is nearly 1,100 miles long and very porous, with only 14 checkpoints.
But 3 Angels Nepal, another anti-trafficking charity, estimates that 30,000 women and young girls are smuggled from Nepal to India each year. According to its data, most victims are between 12 and 25 years old, though some are as young as 8.
India’s Sashastra Seema Bal, or SSB, the armed border force that falls under the government’s Ministry of Home Affairs, has recently reported a sharp increase in the number of Nepalese women and girls rescued at the border, from 108 in 2013 to 607 in 2017. The force describes Nepal as India’s “source country” for trafficking victims, and reports that 26 of Nepal’s 75 districts are seriously affected by the problem.
The number of traffickers apprehended by the SSB has also risen, from just eight in 2014 to 102 in 2015, 148 in 2016 and 154 in 2017. But experts and law enforcement officials believe the numbers of victims and perpetrators documented by the SSB are just a fraction of the total.
At Maiti Nepal, the number of interceptions and rescues per month ranges from 15 to 50, Chanda says. In a downstairs room at the Bhairahawa branch office, she pulls out a few files from a cupboard and starts going through them.
“In one of our old cases, we intercepted six girls at the border, all between 17 and 21 years old, who were being trafficked by six young Nepalese guys from Nepal’s Terai,” she says, referring to the country’s southern lowlands that border India. “They drove to the mountain villages and recruited the girls by promising them jobs with high salaries. And they also raped the girls.”
The victims are not always female. In another case, Chanda says, seven boys aged between 7 and 19 were trafficked to India to work in restaurants or as domestic help.
Nepal has long been a nation of migrant workers, with remittances from abroad fueling almost a third of its GDP. That money has been necessary to support a local economy dragged down by the lack of a manufacturing base and declining agricultural production. The economy was dealt a further blow by the earthquake in April 2015 that killed nearly 9,000 people.
Experts and law enforcement officials believe the number of reported human trafficking cases is just a fraction of the total.
Large-scale campaigns from the government and NGOs have successfully heightened awareness about the risks of migration—especially the possibility of being roped into human trafficking networks—even among many rural communities in Nepal. Government-led interventions to actually curb trafficking, however, have been too small-scale to be effective.
And in a country with few economic opportunities, many people can still be talked into trying their luck abroad. Typically, agrarian distress plays a role in making Nepal’s mountain communities particularly vulnerable to trafficking. According to the SSB, employment middlemen, known as dalals in Nepali and Hindi, recruit heavily during the pre-harvest months of June to August, when families are in dire need of money and food.
The government of Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, also known as K.P. Oli, came to power earlier this year on the strength of a platform that emphasized the need for domestic growth and development, and at least moderate growth is expected in the immediate future. Yet as the stories of women and girls helped by groups like Maiti Nepal make clear, the pull of work in other countries remains strong, so trafficking still flourishes.
Chasing the Good Life Abroad
India is not the final destination of all Nepalese trafficking victims. Women and girls have been rescued from a host of countries beyond South Asia, including Hong Kong, Malaysia, China and Russia, according to NGOs and government officials. India has agreements for visa-free or visa-on-arrival travel to 59 countries, making travel outside the region that much easier.
Most Nepalese trafficking victims, though, remain in India. In the country’s red-light areas, from New Delhi to Mumbai, they are prized for what clients describe as their youthful appearance; many even believe they act as protection against sexually transmitted diseases.
In New Delhi, on a road named Swami Shraddhanand Marg, more than 70 brothels line a stretch of about two and half miles—one of the country’s most notorious red-light districts. The road, still known to many as GB Road, a name that dates back to the colonial era, is a hodgepodge of broken cobblestone, overflowing drains and windows with drooping wooden shutters.
During a recent visit to the district, Ritumoni Das, a volunteer aid worker and co-founder of the NGO Kat-Katha, which works with sex workers and their children on GB Road, walked up the narrow, steep staircase of one of the brothels. Though it was broad daylight outside, inside the lighting was weak.
“In many of these establishments, women are treated as slaves almost,” Ritumoni said. “They receive little or no pay.”
Mumbai, India, Aug. 23, 2010 (AP photo by Rafiq Maqbool).
According to Ritumoni, there are more than 3,000 sex workers on GB Road. Among them are between 400 and 500 Nepalese women, the majority of whom work out of the brothel that she was about to enter.
She passed through a small hallway and climbed another narrow staircase that led to a large foyer where dozens of sex workers were waiting for clients. Rooms divided by curtains lined one side of the foyer. They were much like the changing rooms in a clothing store, except that they contained rumpled beds.
An older man was asleep in a bed in an adjacent room. He is what many of the sex workers call a “minder,” meaning a manager of the bouncers who guard the doors to the brothels and who also keep track of the money changing hands.
A Nepalese woman in her mid-30s entered and sat down to talk to Ritumoni. Asma has been a sex worker on GB Road for more than 15 years. She left her home village in the mountainous Sindhupalchok district, close to Kathmandu, after a messy divorce ostracized her from her family. She said the decision to take up sex work was hers and hers alone.
But she stressed that nothing had prepared her for the extreme exploitation she would face. After crossing the border into India, she traveled first to Gujarat, in the west of the country, and then south to the city of Pune.
“In both places, the conditions were very exploitative,” she said. “The payment was very bad, and we could not move freely. Then, after my owner got arrested one day, I heard that I could make more money in Delhi. So I went there on my own.”
Day after day, sex workers on GB Road—both those who chose to go there and those who were trafficked—face an array of dangers. Though state health workers and NGOs frequently make HIV testing available, other diseases, such as tuberculosis, go largely unchecked. And despite the abundance of free condoms, some clients insist on unprotected sex. Others come to the district specifically looking for sex with minors.
Asma says many of the Nepalese women she knows on GB Road also come from Sindhupalchok, which was hit hard by the 2015 earthquake. A surprising number, she says, are from the Melamchi municipality, which is where her home village is located.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on Resilience in the Face of the Coronavirus Pandemic. ]
Back in Melamchi, finding residents who are willing to talk about the phenomenon is difficult, in no small part because traffickers are also members of the community. Those who do speak say many trafficking victims are tricked into thinking India is just one stop on their way to the Middle East, where they’ll be given high-paying jobs.
Recruiters in Nepal often don’t know where human trafficking victims will end up, or that they’re likely to become sex workers.
“Typically, agents or brokers, as we call them, advertise Kuwait as the ideal destination for young women, as getting the necessary documents is cheap and easy, or so they say,” says one man. “But the agents tell them that to get on the flights, the girls must first go to India.”
A young teacher in her early 20s says that while the women and girls are aware of the risks of trafficking, they are nonetheless more than willing to travel. This is perhaps unsurprising given the number of Nepalese who make their living overseas. According to an investigation by The Associated Press in 2016, the number of Nepalese leaving the country for work more than doubled between 2008 and 2015, from 220,000 to “about 500,000.”
“Part of the reason is that they see women coming home from abroad, wearing nice clothes and telling the other women and girls that they just have to work three or four hours a day,” the teacher says.
The man admits that some of his friends, neighbors and even relatives are part of the trafficking business. “Sometimes when they’re drunk, they tell me their stories,” he says. “And some of them even got quite rich. Everyone in the village knows what they made their money with.”
He says brothel owners in India will pay 96,000 Nepalese rupees, or roughly $880, for a Nepalese woman, though rates vary depending on who you ask; sources quote figures ranging anywhere from $500 to $2,000. Local recruiters tend to get less than a third of the total.
In many cases, the exact nature of the transactions are hidden from the local recruiters, who really do think they’re finding women jobs as domestic workers in the Middle East. In the vast majority of cases, say anti-trafficking activists, the local recruiter does not know where a victim will end up, and that she is likely to become a sex worker.
The teacher in Melamchi says that, today, about four to five villagers are leaving every month, but she emphasizes that not everyone ends up being exploited. “My best friend went abroad, too, and she didn’t have any problems,” she says. She adds that she wants to leave one day as well, preferably for Europe.
‘One Human Sells Another’
While many Nepalese women willingly sign up for the journeys that lead to their being trafficked, that is not the case for everyone.
Kalpana, who is in her early 30s, had no plans to leave Nepal when she fled her home village at the age of 25, her new baby son in tow. Her husband had recently left her for another woman, so she decided to go to Kathmandu to start a new life.
“My plan was to meet one of my uncles, who lived in Kathmandu at the time,” she says. “But once I got off the bus at Balaju Bus Park, a man chatted me up and asked if I was looking for a job. I didn’t think of anything bad and followed him to a hotel close by. He gave me some snacks. After I ate them, I fell unconscious.”
When Kalpana woke up, she found herself at a train station somewhere in India, surrounded by strange faces and a language she didn’t understand. Her baby was still with her. Amid the masses on the platform stood a Nepalese couple who explained to Kalpana that they would now take care of her and find her work.
Kalpana says she spent a month with them. Then she was taken to start her job.
“They took me on a taxi and we drove the whole night until the next morning, when we reached a house where the Nepalese husband gave me to an Indian guy, who spoke a mix of Nepali and Hindi,” she recalls. “The Nepalese guy said: ‘He is now responsible for you. He and his wife will take good care of you and give you a job.’”
shelter in Kathmandu, Nepal, Aug. 25, 2003 (AP photo by Binod Joshi).
The new couple took Kalpana to a building that had brothels on each story. “I was given a place to sleep in the kitchen for me and my child,” she says. “On the second day, they told me that I would have to ‘share my bed with customers.’ They said, ‘You will have to work here for a few years before you can go home.’”
Kalpana refused at first, but gave in after a while. “I didn’t get threatened directly, but I still felt as if I was in danger,” she says.
She wasn’t allowed to leave the brothel for two months, and she did not receive payment for the clients she had to serve. Then, without warning, she was moved again. “I was told I would be going to Mumbai,” she says. “And only then did I understand what was going on: One human being sells another human being.”
Kalpana’s owner in Mumbai was a woman. “I had to serve two or three clients a day,” she says. “During the first months, I wasn’t allowed to leave the brothel, and my owner gave me half of the money that the clients paid. Only later on was I allowed to walk freely outside of the brothel.”
Kalpana spent six years in Mumbai. Her son lived with her in the brothel for the first few years before she was able to send him to a boarding pre-school.
She was only rescued when, one day, police raided the brothel and cleared it out. The police action ended up freeing the women, who were then transferred to various shelters.
It is still largely up to NGOs to reintegrate trafficked women into society.
Subsequently, Kalpana was repatriated and sent to the Maiti Nepal transit home in Bhairahawa. She stayed there for a week before being transferred to the organization’s compound in Kathmandu.
Few Other Options
The Balaju Bus Park, where Kalpana was drugged before being trafficked, sits near the Kathmandu Ring Road. It is a major transport hub in central Nepal, and is also a major locus of operations for traffickers. The backstreets around the bus park are teeming with sex workers. Dance bars, cheap hotels and tea shops function as fronts for small-scale brothels.
Signs put up by Maiti Nepal warn travelers of the risks of trafficking. But there are few other signs of efforts to prevent women and girls from undergoing an ordeal like Kalpana’s.
It would be wrong to suggest that NGOs like Maiti Nepal have been left to fight against trafficking entirely on their own. In 2002, Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission established the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking, which has produced a slew of reports on the problem since then.
Under a National Action Plan, the government has allocated roughly $9 million annually for anti-trafficking programs. The government has also established 312 Local Committees for Controlling Human Trafficking, or LCCHTs, to identity traffickers and their victims.
Yet the National Human Rights Commission acknowledges that the number of trafficking cases registered by the government is still dismally low. In 2015 and 2016, according to one report, just 212 cases of trafficking involving 352 victims were recorded. And it is still largely up to NGOs to reintegrate trafficked women into society, including by trying to provide them with some kind of vocational training or education. And without the creation of additional jobs, there are few guarantees that this kind of training will ultimately help them support themselves.
June 26, 2018 (AP photo by Niranjan Shrestha).
Back at Balaju Bus Park, Sunita, 16, works in one of the tea shops that doubles as a brothel. The establishment is run by a woman in her 40s.
As clients order and drink their tea, they haggle over the cost of a night with one of the six or seven girls who work there. Girls are summoned once negotiations are completed.
Away from the tea shop, Sunita explains how she was trafficked. “I come from a village in the Terai,” she says. “Three months ago, one of my neighbors offered to take me to Kathmandu so that I could get a job as a dancer. But when we got there, I was forced to have sex with a man I didn’t know during my first night. My neighbor had sold him my virginity.”
Sunita wanted to go to the police, but her neighbor argued against it, giving her 3,000 Nepalese rupees, or around $25. The neighbor was ultimately able to get Sunita to stay by promising her a job as a waitress in a dance bar.
She was able to work at the dance bar for two months without having to do any sex work. However, her original trafficker then stole her earnings, and Sunita says she had no choice but to go back to sleeping with clients for money.
“I need to make money, because both of my parents are sick and need medical treatment,” she says. “So I had to get back into sex work. Some broker took me to the brothel owner that I work for right now, and they give me about a third of the money that the clients have to pay. In one month today, I can make up to 30,000 rupees,” or roughly $250.
There is financial logic to Sunita’s decision not to give up sex work. No other job would pay anywhere near as much for someone who has only four years of formal schooling.
Meanwhile, Sunita holds onto hope that a better job is around the corner. “I really wish I could work as a dancer in Dubai someday,” she says. “That would be my dream.”
Dennis and Patrick Weinert are journalists, documentary photographers and filmmakers who cover issues including politics, human rights and conflict. Born in Germany, they have reported from the Americas, Southeast Asia and many places in between. Samples of their work can be found here. This story was produced in collaboration with StoriesAsia.[ SPECIAL OFFER: Get your FREE copy of our in-depth report on Resilience in the Face of the Coronavirus Pandemic. ]