Innocence lost

  • Nepal needs to urgently develop a system that can protect children—from the villages to the cities—from all kind of abuse

NOV 20 -

While you are probably sipping your first cup of morning tea, it may not be the ideal moment to read about children in distress. But I want to ask for your forgiveness and spare some moments to think about today. Today is the Universal Children’s Day and the 23rd Anniversary on Convention on the Rights of the Child. Also, yesterday marked the World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse and as children’s guardians it is of utmost importance that we understand the extent and nature of the scourge in Nepal.

Any form of violence or harm done to children, be it physical, sexual, psychological or through neglect, is considered child abuse. Around the world, violence — in its multitudinous contexts and forms — remains a harsh reality for millions of children. While different forms of child abuse are present in Nepal, one of the most intractable is trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation.

Though slavery was legally abolished in Nepal almost nine decades ago, it is disturbing to know thatthe tentacles of modern-day slavery in the form of trafficking continue to clutch our society. Though it is difficult to find data on trafficking, some estimates indicate that 12,000 are being trafficked out of the country each year for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

Children are mainly trafficked to India but increasingly they are being tricked and sent to Malaysia, the Gulf States, Lebanon or Hong Kong. Nepali girls are said to be prized for their comparatively more exotic looks by clients in India. There is also an increasing demand for virgin Nepali girls.

Recently, at the Maiti Nepal premises I met a couple of young girls in their early teens who had been apprehended by airport officials in Kathmandu as they were preparing to leave for the Gulf States. As we talked with them they all produced passports, along with other supporting documents, that specified their age as being 21. They told us they had each been told to say that they were 21 years old.

Maiti Nepal, which has been dealing with trafficking cases for decades now, say that  many girls face extreme torture after being trafficked. They are forced to have sex with as many as 30 to 35 clients a day, and nearly all trafficked girls are forced to begin having sex with clients within a day of their arrival. Many are said to be gang-raped and beaten to be initiated into the trade.

A study conducted by Terre des Hommes showed that girls spent an average of three to five years in conditions of slavery and debt bondage. Very few return to Nepal voluntarily after having been freed. Stigma and discrimination from their family and community, keeps them captive in their wretched worlds. Every now and then I read in the papers news of trafficked and tortured girls and women either losing their minds, or even taking their own lives.

What one hears about more often is cross-country trafficking. What is more worrying is the increasing trend of inter country trafficking. It is said that the number of girls trafficked internally, within the country, is higher than those taken outside Nepal.  According to estimates from the National Centre for AIDS and STD Control, more than 32,000 females are engaged in commercial sex work or sexually exploitative work in Nepal. It is believed that more than half of these are minors and that the majority are trafficked into sex work.The numbers are truly numbing, and totally unacceptable.

The Government of Nepal has taken positive steps in combating the problem and has taken the lead in formulating new legislation to prohibit all forms of trafficking and forced prostitution.  These also include The Human Trafficking and Transportation Control Act (2007) and its Regulations (2008).  However, the system still lacks sufficient human and financial resources to enforce legal provisions, implement prevention programmes and provide social services for rescue, recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration.

If we are to prevent our children from being trafficked, the key thing to do is to raise awareness about the issue especially amongst parents, communities and mainly, amongst the children themselves too. While guardians need to understand that when they send their children away to augment their income, they could actually be making them vulnerable to trafficking, and delivering them into the hands of unscrupulous traffickers and pimps. Many of the girls I talked to at Maiti Nepal that day said it was they who insisted with their parents to finance their trip to the Gulf. Some parents had ended up selling their livestock to meet their children’s demands. How those girls are going to be looked upon and treated by their family and friends once they return home is a totally different and troubling issue.

Another deterrent would be a strengthened social welfare system. Families receiving adequate support from the state would probably be less likely to send their children away from their protective familial environments.

A further step that is needed to ensure a safety net for children is to have in place a child friendly justice system so that victims have access to justice, including free legal aid, and go through a criminal justice process which does not further traumatise them and coordinates with medical and other social services.

What Nepal needs urgently is to develop a system that can protect our children from the villages to the cities from all kind of abuses, more so the egregious ones. This means that there is a structure established that can prevent and respond to all key violations committed against children; that laws and regulations are aligned to international standards and are adhered to; and that we base our acts and policies upon evidence.

The time to act is now, today. We cannot afford to wait. Too many young lives are at risk, the cumulative result of which will ultimately hurt the nation too. A country where a segment of the youngest and most vulnerable population is exposed to these brutal levels of injustice will not be able to enjoy the dividends of economic growth.

So make that resolution with that next sip of tea you take. Let us work collectively to make child abuse history in Nepal. That is the only way we will be able to look into the eyes of children and say without hesitation that we are doing all we can to keep them away from harm and violence.

Singer is the UNICEF Nepal Representative

Posted on: 2012-11-20 08:53