A Different Kind Of Aftershock For Nepali Girls
Azera Parveen Rahman
April 2016 will mark one year of the devastating earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, which had struck the Himalayan nation of Nepal, killing over 8,000 people and playing havoc with the lives of 53,000 families. Whereas the frequency of tremors has since been falling gradually – although the region has recorded around 200 aftershocks – there is one fallout of the disaster that continues to haunt the ravaged communities. Human misery and helplessness always catch the attention of traffickers, who prey on people’s vulnerability and desperation to rebuild their lives. The situation in Nepal has been no different. Young women and children have been lured away from their families into India on the pretext of a better life.
Rights activists working on this issue have reiterated this dismal reality through one case study after another. “Whereas the children are mostly pushed into labour, sometimes in hazardous jobs in factories or in domestic work, the girls and women end up being abused and sexually exploited,” says Rakesh Senger of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), a child-rights organisation.
According to the BBA, nearly 1,000 girls are trafficked every year from Nepal to Delhi alone. Most of them either wind up in the flesh trade, some work as domestic help, while others are forcibly married off. Post the Nepal earthquake, Senger says, there has been a noticeable spike in the number of trafficking cases.
Data provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs, too, confirms the observation that there has been a big jump in the number of trafficking cases registered on the Indo-Nepal border after the disaster. While in 2012, 2013 and 2014, officially there were eight, 13 and eight recorded cases of human trafficking, respectively, in 2015, in the aftermath of the quake, a total of 46 cases were registered.
The official data further reveals that in 2012, 72 women were rescued and seven traffickers were arrested. In 2013, there were 108 victims and 19 traffickers arrested, and in 2014, there were 33 victims rescued and eight traffickers arrested. In 2015, prior to the Nepal earthquake, there were 47 victims rescued and 12 traffickers arrested. After the earthquake, 159 victims were rescued and 59 traffickers arrested.
Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap, a non-government organisation that works on women’s rights, reveals that two districts in Nepal, Makwanpur and Sindhupalchowk, which were anyway most prone to trafficking, were sadly the worst hit by the earthquake.
“I had visited Nepal in May 2015, and it was evident that the number of girls missing from these districts had gone up,” says Gupta. The activist, who decided to take up the cause of women’s rights after visiting a Nepal village in which “girls could not be seen because of large-scale trafficking to cities like Mumbai”, sensed the urgency of the situation.
“[After the earthquake], the consequent homelessness, lack of food and death in families, as well as loss of agriculture made the already vulnerable girls even more vulnerable to traffickers, who have clearly taken advantage of their dire circumstances. Apne Aap works in Forbesganj in Bihar along the border, and we found more girls on railway stations and bus stops being taken to Delhi and Kolkata with false promises,” she elaborates.
The ‘economic blockade’ that happened in September 2015 only worsened the prevailing debilitating conditions. It was the widespread protests by the local Madhesi community in the southern Terai region over the passing of the new Constitution in Nepal that led to the blockade of a major portion of the 1,868 km open border between Nepal and India. The strikes imposed by the protesters as well as the curfew orders and “prohibited zones” declared by the government had a crippling effect on normal life and caused intense economic hardship. The nearly five-month-long blockade was finally called off only in February 2016.
“The economic blockade did what the earthquake had started. At least people then knew that the girls were victims of a natural disaster and tried to help them. After the blockade, they became totally indifferent to their plight. Girls were starving, border guards were more corrupt, taking advantage of the power they had during the blockade. Smugglers and criminals gained more power and were preying on hapless families, trafficking their daughters with just the promise of a handful of rice or some cooking oil, like in the days of the Bengal famine,” Gupta shares.
While several aid and humanitarian agencies, including UNICEF, are working on the ground and grants are being announced to rebuild schools and other critical infrastructure in the earthquake-hit districts, activists lament that nothing much is being done on the Indo-Nepal border to protect the vulnerable from the hands of those who are only too eager to take advantage of their misery.
“There is really nothing significant that has been done in the districts affected by the earthquake nor have there been any major attempts made to mitigate the impacts of the economic blockade. The vulnerable have been pushed further against the wall,” Gupta remarks.
Resource in poverty
Reiterating a bitter truth that most working with communities are only too aware of, she adds, “Both natural and man-made distress affects poor, low-caste girls disproportionately as they actually end up becoming a resource in poverty. They are taken advantage of, sexually exploited by people who offer them food and housing, sometimes even a little protection. Strict law enforcement and developing victim-friendly laws, apart from changing mindsets, is the only way to change the situation”.