Falling from the Roof of the World

“My heart is fluttering like silk in the wind

I cannot decide whether to fly or sit on the hilltop”

The famous Nepali folk song Resham Firiri opens with these lines, and is sung everywhere in the country – no matter to which cast one belongs, and regardless which of the hundred or so languages indigenous to Nepal one speaks. Another common characteristic across Nepal (or the “Roof of the World”, as it is commonly called) is the mistreatment of women.

Chhaupadi, the inhuman practice that forces women to stay outside their homes in unhygienic cow sheds during menstruation and childbirth, has made news around the world. The cultural tradition of Kumari or where young girls are worshipped as living goddesses is controversial too. The chosen girl is isolated from society and education until she reaches puberty, and readjusting to a new, ordinary life is often very difficult. Kamlari , the bonded labour of females, whereby girls are sold into servitude by their parents to a higher cast family under contract for a specific period of time, has now been abolished and widely discussed outside Nepal too. Widows are another vulnerable group of women in this Himalayan land. Discriminated against, ostracized by their communities, and often blamed for many misfortunes, widows are not only prohibited from wearing red and attending religious celebrations, but also left destitute and often abused. This problem is linked to another one – the custom of child marriages. Young girls are often married to a much older men, and a young bride makes for a young widow. So no matter at which part of the cycle of abuse you look – the life of women in Nepal is not easy. Son preference, discrimination in access to education, maternal mortality, lower life expectancy than men, dowry, limited property rights – where does it end?  

My work in Kathmandu was mainly concentrated on helping the victims of one specific problem – human trafficking. I met with Mr Shyam Pokharel, the director of Sasane  https://sasane.org.np/ (a survivor-led organisation doing pioneering work in Nepal). Over a cup of chai he told me about the situation. “Right now, in the sex trafficking world, Mongolian girls are considered to be the most desirable in brothels around the world, due to their beautiful exotic features. Also their submissive and dutiful natures mean they won’t make a fuss about servicing twenty to thirty clients a day. Nepali girls look very similar, so that it why they are in demand with traffickers too”.  Having a legal background himself, Mr Pokharel has witnessed the fate of human trafficking victims in many courts in the country. “You have a primary trafficker within the village or girls’ community who feeds information about vulnerable members to the secondary trafficker in the larger city”. Mr Shyam talks about the mountainous regions, where inhabitants often do not even understand the language spoken in other parts of Nepal. These isolated, uneducated, and poverty-stricken families are easy targets for the traffickers who come with promises of a better life for their daughters in the capital. But Kathmandu is not the final destination for these girls. For as little as £500, they are sold in India, with an estimated five to ten thousand Nepali girls ending up in Indian brothels every year. Trafficking the girls from Nepal to India is far too easy, with a long shared border and no immigration controls under the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty. From India the trafficking routes spread all over the world. The Gulf region is one popular destination, but the most lucrative place is Africa, where victims can fetch £1500.

Baking with the sisters at Sasane

Organisations like Sasane, help to rescue and repatriate these unfortunate girls, but the low number of convictions of traffickers begged the question as to why they were so seldom prosecuted for their crimes? The director’s response was simple – which trafficker would you be prosecuting in this case? If it is the primary one, then it is the girl’s very own family. How many of them would seek to press charges in a conservative, patriarchal society? In many cases when the girls’ families are informed they have been rescued, they shun their daughters, refusing to pick them up and take them home as what they have gone through is seen as shameful. Therefore NGOs are often left to pick up the pieces. Paralegal training programmes have been introduced by Sasane, where survivors are educated as paralegals, training at police stations where they have a chance to help others who have been rescued from traffickers. Other successful training initiatives include enabling women to become trekking and travel guides, cookery instructors for tourists, and trafficking awareness officers giving talks at schools.  

During my time working in human rights and women’s empowerment I have frequently seen, in many places around the world, that only vocational training can really give women affected by GBV the fresh start they so desperately need. Providing shelter alone is not enough. Don’t get me wrong, it is a necessary step too. For example, while in Kathmandu I was giving assistance to an NGO which runs shelters for rescued girls. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget the joy on the faces of the victims who had rescued the night before on the border with another country. They had been bought out of slavery by some well-wishing foreigners, and on seeing me these brave souls went down on their knees to give their thanks.

Opening a newspaper in the airport lounge, the article on the first page seems all too common… “Hundreds of adults were brought home from India from suspected cases of human trafficking. Necessary medical assistance is provided for victims….”

 I gaze out of the window of my plane. A gorgeous view of the ‘Roof of the world’. But only by falling off the roof, and stumbling into the tumbledown village cottage that is the lot of women in Nepal, was I able to see the gaping holes and rotten rafters.

“My heart is fluttering like silk in the wind

I cannot decide whether to fly or sit on the hilltop”…

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