Every year thousands of men, women, and children are trafficked from Nepal to India for commercial sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and bonded labor. Nepal is considered a “source country,” or country of origin, where victims are trafficked both within the country as well as to Asian and Middle Eastern destinations.With the help of labor brokers and manpower agencies, many young men and women migrate willingly from Nepal to Malaysia, Israel, South Korea, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and other Gulf states to work as domestic servants, construction workers, or other low-skill laborers. Unfortunately, they are often deceived about their destination, and upon arriving in a foreign country, face conditions indicative of forced labor – the withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, non-payment of wages, threats, deprivation of food and sleep, and physical and sexual abuse.
Nepal’s struggle with human trafficking has been accentuated by the ten-year civil war between government forces and Maoist rebels that plagued the country from 1996 until 2006. During this time lawlessness and violence were rampant. Today, even after the conflict’s end, the country faces a severe lack of rule of law, impunity, and blanket amnesty for perpetrators of war crimes and human rights violations. While steps have been made to quell human trafficking, without an effective government in place, it has been complicated. With pressure from the United Nations, Nepal was one of 117 countries to sign the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (the Trafficking Protocol), adopted by the United Nations in 2000. It is the first global, legally binding instrument on trafficking. Nepal’s Trafficking in Persons and Transportation (Control) Act of 2007 was expected to solve the problem of human trafficking by laying out and enacting the framework which prohibits the trafficking of person within Nepal and across borders. Yet, because of the dangerous nature of the trafficking business, those with information about victims or perpetrators are often fearful to contact proper authorities because they are afraid for their own well-being.
But, for all of these anti-human trafficking acts and laws that have been created, the situation has changed very little. After two weeks traveling in Nepal conducting fieldwork on peace building in a post-conflict society, one glaring issue was the enormous gap between top-level institutions and those at the grassroots. While many grassroots organizations are working to end human trafficking, without support from the government, it may be a futile effort.
The Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC) in Kathmandu uses anti-trafficking campaigns as a part of women’s health rights initiative. The campaign provides medical support (a rarity in Nepal), psychological support, need-based support, trainings at the grassroots level, and documentation of cases of violence against women. When asked if these campaigns have decreased the number of trafficking cases, it was explained that although there has been an increase because more women are documenting their cases, this does not mean that there has been a rise in the number of trafficking cases, per se. The fact that these women are coming forward is monumental. In Nepali culture the stigma of rape makes it is extremely difficult for a woman who has been raped or violated to return to her village and reintegrate into society.
At the Rural Development Centre in the district of Bara in southern Nepal, I asked if the high drop-out rate among Nepali girls makes them more of a target for human trafficking. I was told that it is girls who have more education and are seeking jobs who tend to be more vulnerable. They go out of their village and out of Nepal, in search of work, which often entangles them in domestic servitude or sexual slavery. They also told me that girls from the tribal Medhesi group, who tend to be less educated, are inclined to be more home-bound and not looking for a way out and therefore are less likely to fall victim to human trafficking.
In Bhairawa, a city bordering India, we spoke with the Superintendant of Police. He stated that this was one of the worst areas for “human smuggling” due to the close proximity to India. He explained that even when the crime of trafficking occurs across the border, they can still investigate. However, in order to take the perpetrator into custody, a special agreement must be signed with India to prove the case is strictly criminal. This is apparently very difficult to achieve.
An NGO called Saathi, located in the border city of Nepalgunj, runs a 25-bed shelter where women who are shunned from their communities can stay after becoming a victim of trafficking. During our meeting on the 19th of January, 2012 they reported already having ten cases of human trafficking that month. The victims are mainly uneducated, poor girls and boys from the Hill region. Their representative explained that sometimes parents “sell” their children willingly when times are difficult so the child can earn money for the family, or when they think it will be an opportunity for their child to have a better life. She estimated that around 40 percent of trafficking victims go willingly with a trafficker with the promise of work. When asked if there was any way to stop people from going abroad for work in countries known for slavery, it was explained that people would still go abroad because of economic and social problems in Nepal. Also since India and Nepal have an open boarder policy, human smuggling along the border is significantly easier.
Saathi spreads awareness about this issue via radio and newspapers and by having representatives travel extensively through the villages explaining their anti-human trafficking/domestic violence campaigns, providing trainings, and working closely with all village development committees.
Back in Kathmandu, we met with a representative of Maiti Nepal, an organization similar to Saathi, which has assisted nearly 15,000 victims of trafficking. They also provide care for children who have been trafficked or whose mothers have been trafficking victims. Because of their growing status among the international community, Maiti is able to rescue girls from Indian brothels upon petition from their parents. Sadly, 38 percent of those trafficked and rescued are HIV positive.
The representative stated that the government is working to increase laws regarding human trafficking, but thus far, only about 600 traffickers have been prosecuted or convicted. This is due in part to bribery and corruption that exists within the government and the police force. The legal process is also severely hindered by political agendas, instability, and impunity.
Clearly, human trafficking is a major issue that complicates the Nepali’s fight to rebuild their country, form a stable government, and find a sense of structure in this post-conflict period. However, between Nepal’s open border policy with India, the glaring gap and utter lack of communication between government and the local level, and the impunity, lack of rule of law and unstable nature of the country, the struggle to eliminate human trafficking in Nepal is proving to be a difficult one. Nevertheless, it is inspiring to see the incredible hard work being done by extremely motivated and passionate people at the grassroots level and one can only hope that one day very soon their efforts will pay off.
Lauren Renda was in Nepal for a two-week field course titled “Challenges to Peacebuilding in Nepal” led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Lauren’s blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this country after a decade long war. -Ed.
About the author: Lauren Renda is currently working on a Master's Degree in International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies with a focus in Conflict Resolution and Human Rights. Her areas of interest include peacebuilding, gender issues, and post-conflict reconstruction inspired in part by her recent field work in Nepal.