Untold hardships got me into activism: Tamang
Chari Maya Tamang, co-founder of Shakti Samuha, the first organisation in the world run by survivors of human trafficking, has been generating awareness about trafficking as well as conducting reparation, reintegration and rehabilitation programmes.
Born in 1975 in Haibu Municipality, Sindhupalchowk, she has completed her primary level education. At a tender age, she was kidnapped and sold in a brothel in Mumbai, India. Tamang together with 200 other Nepali girls were rescued by the Indian police 22 months after she was sold in the brothel. But the Government of Nepal was reluctant to bring them back, for fear that they were HIV and STD carriers. They returned, however, with the effort of seven organisations working for human rights.
Having gone through the painful life of being a victim of human trafficking, she decided to work to save others from meeting a similar fate. In the year 2000, Chari Maya, along with 15 survivors, founded Shakti Samuha.
Tamang has received a number of national and international awards. She received the national honour in 2007. In 2011, the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, presented her with the Hero Acting to End Modern Day Slavery Award in Washington DC.
Tamang, an epitome of courage and bravery, talked to Arpana Adhikari of The Rising Nepal on the current status of human trafficking and also her journey from a survivor of trafficking to a celebrated rights activist.
How has your journey from a survivor of trafficking to a celebrated rights defender been?
Putting the horrors of human trafficking behind and moving forward was one of the toughest jobs for me. I have gone through the most horrific time that one might face in one’s life. Despite being aware about the rising girl trafficking cases in my district, I was kidnapped and sold in a brothel in Mumbai. I was trafficked when I was 16 and forced into the flesh trade. To escape from this horrifying life, I tried to commit suicide many times. I also tried to run away from the brothel. But I failed in both. I fought back to prevent myself from being involved in the flesh trade, but time was not in my favour. I was compelled to face what life had in store for me. During the 22 months I was in the brothel, I faced unimaginable mental and physical trauma.
One day the Indian police raided the brothels in Mumbai, and altogether 500 girls below 18 were rescued. Out of them, 200 were Nepali girls. I was so happy to be finally free from a life of hell. But my happiness didn’t last. Our own government was reluctant to let us return home, labeling us a carrier of HIV/AIDS and STD. We were kept in remand homes in India, which was worse than a prison. We were finally relieved after some months, when non-government organisations returned 148 of us to our land in Shrawan, 2053 B.S. Our ordeal didn’t stop there. Our family refused to accept us, comparing us with a broken egg that couldn’t be fixed. We were looked down upon and rejected socially.
I was kept in a shelter home, called Nava Jyoti Centre. Leaving behind the ghost of the past, I decided to move ahead. I was able to file a case against the guilty, and they were convicted. I along with 15 other survivors of trafficking decided to run an organisation, Shakti Samuha, so as to prevent others from facing what we underwent in Mumbai for 22 months. Running an organisation after being labelled a sexual trafficking survivor was not easy. Even after opting for this career, I faced many hurdles on the way. But still I moved on, thinking that I shouldn’t step back, as I can be an example for many who face a similar fate.
What motivated you to work towards combating human trafficking?
My own hardship and sufferings as a survivor encouraged me to involve in this activism. One thing that hit me hard was the comparison of a survivor of trafficking to a broken egg. We were looked down upon and socially rejected. The situation was very complex at that time. Detachment from familial ties, being outcast by the society and an uncertain livelihood motivated me to involve in the movement. From the time I was in India, I wanted to make a change, I wanted to save other girls and women of my country from being trafficked. After almost a month, I came to know that all the seven organisations, which helped us, had been organising a series of programmes to put pressure on the government to formulate a national strategic plan against women trafficking. I was happy, and at the same time I was sad - how could a national strategic plan be made without including the voice of the trafficking survivors? I was so committed to proving my mettle that I decided to participate in the programme. For the first time, I held a microphone and spoke out openly in front of the mass. This was the beginning of my journey in the battle against women trafficking, and I and other 14 survivors formed Shakti Samuha in 2002.
You have helped many survivors of trafficking to regain their foothold. What were the major challenges you faced in this regard?
Social stigma and discrimination were the major challenges I faced throughout the professional and married life. I was repeatedly questioned about my character. From the very beginning of the establishment of Shakti Samuha till now, I have been facing discrimination in different forms. As a woman, it’s very hard to cope when someone raises questions about our character. But still I have not stepped back because I know that I am moving on the right path.
You are an epitome of courage and bravery. What have you to say to the survivors of trafficking who want to regain their foothold?
My message is not only for the survivors of trafficking, in fact, it is for everyone who have survived different forms of evil practices that exist in the Nepali society. Every human being faces some sort of problem or violence throughout his or her lifetime. I want to tell them that this is not the end. One shouldn’t lose hope but instead learn a lesson from this. Courage and determination can win over every problem. Always keep looking ahead and move ahead. Let’s walk together because together we can win.
Who or what had been your inspiration?
The accident that took place in my life was the major inspiration. The thought that those evil doers are criminals and should be convicted emerged from the core of my heart. Besides these, there are many people who have aesthetically and psychologically supported me throughout my journey.
What do you consider to be your major accomplishment?
Over time, I consider many things as my achievements. There was a day when I used to be happy knowing that some survivor of trafficking was able to regain her foothold after listening to my story. There is one case where I reintegrated a 13-year-old girl back into her family. She had gone missing when she was three years old. After a week-long approach, I was able to reunite her with her family.
How do you summarise the situation of human trafficking in Nepal?
Trafficking is a serious problem in Nepal. Initially, Nepal was the source country from where women were sold to brothels in India, and only women and girls used to be trafficked. However, Nepal has now become a source country, transit and destination of trafficking, which victimises not only women and girls but also men and boys. Trafficking is a means of exploitation of women and children as they are forced into the sex industry, domestic and factory labour, organ transplant and cross-border trafficking in young women and children. Another trend of trafficking is the increase in internal trafficking from rural to urban areas to be involved in the entertainment sector. Women and children have become especially vulnerable to trafficking after the earthquake of 2015. A number of factors like poverty, lack of education, social discrimination and exclusion, open border, old laws and ineffective law enforcement and policy mechanisms are responsible for the increasing trafficking of humans in Nepal. The government must execute plans and policies to address the current problems.
How is the situation of family reintegration of those who return after being trafficked? Has anything changed during this period?
Compared to earlier times, family acceptance of trafficking survivors has, of late, increased. Both family acceptance and survivors aspiring to go back to the family have increased. This is because of the awareness and education. However, reintegration remains challenging in Nepal due to the continued social stigma and discrimination against the survivors. The survivors returning from the sex trade face social denial and rejection, which makes it difficult to continue with their life. Without proper skills and adequate knowledge, they are forced to involve in manual labour. The barrier to successful reintegration includes continuous stereotyping, leading to isolation and limited access to opportunities. Raising awareness and sensitising the public to end all discriminations against trafficking survivors is a must to encourage reintegration.
Are the existing laws and policies enough to combat human trafficking? If yes, then why are cases of human trafficking still rising across the country?
Nepal is very progressive in guaranteeing the basic human rights of the people. However, the law of Nepal relating to trafficking and its control mechanism are not in line with the constitution. The existing laws are not sufficient to cope with the changing scenario of human trafficking. The law enforcement agency also seems weak while implementing the laws. Because of the long and complex legal procedure, the victims lack easy access to justice. Effective law enforcement against traffickers is the need, and the Nepal Police must play a vital role in this. The police administration must conduct fair investigation, and at the same time support from the family, society and eyewitnesses is equally important. There is a need to make the prosecution process easier.
The government must update the laws in tune with the changing need. The Human Trafficking (Control) Act, 1986 applies a crime control approach. It doesn’t take into account a human rights perspective. The existing laws are not sufficient to control the problems of human trafficking. There is also a need for harmonising the Human Trafficking and Foreign Employment Acts, considering the growing trend of human trafficking in the disguise of foreign employment. This will ease the prosecution process and assure justice to the victims. The UN protocol on Human Trafficking also needs to be ratified and a unified document on reintegration is essential.
What are your future plans?
I have both personal and institutional plans. While, talking about the institution, Shakti Samuha is committed to moving according to the changing arena of human trafficking. Formulating appropriate plans to demoralise the traffickers is a must. My organisation has also plans to find a solution to safeguard the interests and needs of the survivors. The surviving women also need to empower themselves to put an end to the livelihood uncertainty. Talking about my personal plans, I want to be a successful mother. I want my daughters to obtain a higher education and live an independent life. I want them to understand the ground reality of Nepali society and make them capable of facing every aspect of the society.
What further steps should the state and concerned stakeholders take to combat human trafficking?
The government must update the laws in tune with the changing need. There are a number of policies and programmes with regard to human trafficking. The government must bring a clear vision to achieve this targeted goal. It should move ahead with the integrated plans to break the network of human trafficking and demoralise the traffickers. Effective law enforcement and policy implementation mechanism are important to curb human trafficking. Collective action of both government and non-governmental organisations is needed to end this evil practice.