Twin earthquakes in Nepal made it easier for traffickers to sell women into slavery
‘Many girls are being trafficked to Malaysia, Dubai, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and even China, where they are being sold off into potentially lifelong servitude for $10,000 to $13,000’
Sluggish reconstruction and the slow pace of economic recovery since deadly twin quakes two years ago have left millions in Nepal still roofless and jobless, making many of them easy targets for traffickers, anti-trafficking groups in Nepal say.
Maiti Nepal, the largest such group with a country-wide network and presence in India, the main destination of those trafficked from Nepal, intercepted 5,726 people while they were being trafficked via various Nepal-India border crossings in 2016, up 156 per cent from 2,237 interceptions the year before. Some were reported to be children as young as 10.
The first quake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck on April 25, 2015, the biggest to rattle Nepal in eight decades. It was followed by a magnitude 7.3 temblor on May 12. The quakes left nearly 9,000 dead, over 22,000 injured, and over a million houses and archaeological structures damaged or in ruins.
“The quakes caused enormous financial pressure on hundreds of thousands of affected families, leaving girls particularly vulnerable to trafficking. The situation is quite alarming,” said Sunita Danuwar, executive director of Shakti Samuha, an anti-trafficking group run by trafficking survivors like Danuwar.
“With so many villages in ruins in the already poverty-stricken hill districts like Sindhupalchowk, Rasuwa, and Nuwakot, it has become so easy for traffickers to find their prey.”
“The trafficking destination is no longer just India. Many girls are being trafficked to Malaysia, Dubai, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and even China, where they are being sold off into potentially lifelong servitude for $10,000 to $13,000,” she added.
Kabita Tamang, now 23, is one of them. The youngest of four children of poor farmers in Chilime village of Rasuwa district north of Kathmandu, Tamang was convinced after the quakes by a distant relative to fly to Kurdistan, which she mistakenly believed was a prosperous European nation.
“The quakes took away everything we had. The relative said I would be paid $400 a month for working eight hours a day, six days a week,” Tamang said.
Having worked in the past as a housemaid for three years in Dubai where she was treated well, Tamang had no reason to grow suspicious. Besides, her family desperately needed money to survive the aftermath of the quakes.
In September 2015, Tamang flew from Kathmandu to Dubai and then to Erbil airport in Kurdistan, Iraq. From there, she was taken to Baghdad. The overland travel took two days and required her to change vehicles four times. In Baghdad, she was taken to a house which, she understood too late, was an office run by traffickers. After being confined there for five days, the people to whom she later understood she had been sold picked her up.
“For 16 months after that, I was made to work from 5:30 am to 11 pm every day. I wasn’t fed well. I was scolded. When I fell ill, I wasn’t allowed access to treatment. I wasn’t even allowed to even leave the house,” Tamang said.
When she told her employers that she wanted to return to Nepal, they said they had bought her for $13,000 and that she would have to fork out that sum to buy freedom.
Tamang was fortunate to be able to connect, using her cellphone, with a Nepali journalist by Facebook and later by Skype. The journalist informed Shakti Samuha, leading anti-trafficking activists to spring into action.
Iraqi authorities were subsequently informed, and her employer, an Iraqi police officer, eventually sent her back to the office from which she had been sold. She was then flown to Dubai and then to Kathmandu, where she arrived on March 19.
“At the traffickers’ office in Baghdad where I stayed for four days before returning to Nepal, I met about 20 girls. Some of them told me they had been raped by their employers. Others had been tortured,” said Tamang, who feels “very lucky” to be back.
According to the United Nations, one-third of all Nepali households, and 35 per cent of rural households, have at least one member working abroad. The exodus, first spurred by Nepal’s armed Maoist insurgency that started in 1996, only gathered pace after the insurgency ended in 2006. More than a decade of political instability that followed and continues to prevail has dried up jobs and investment in Nepal. The quakes couldn’t have struck at a worse time.
“Before the quakes, traffickers had to work hard to convince girls to go with them to India, which is the main trafficking destination as well as the main transit point. The quakes left people desperate for work. Nowadays, they themselves go to traffickers who pose as middlemen for foreign employers,” said Meena Pandey, an anti-trafficking campaigner in Sindhupalchowk district, located northeast of Kathmandu.
Not everyone who gets trafficked comes back. Those who do mostly come back badly scarred. Testimonies abound of Nepali girls trafficked into brothels in India or to abusive employers elsewhere.
A 21-year-old said that she was raped by her employer and his son during her 11-month employment as a housemaid in Dubai. She returned to Nepal pregnant.
Another girl, who is 19 now, was sold to a brothel in New Delhi where she was forced to sell her body for a month before she was rescued by anti-trafficking activists in 2015.
“Creating jobs at home is the only way to stop trafficking,” said Tamang, who now wants to work as an anti-trafficking activist.
Maiti Nepal says over 12,000 girls and women are trafficked from Nepal to India every year. In total, the number of trafficked girls and women stands at 200,000.