Hubert Burda Media

PROTECTOR OF THE POWERLESS

ANURADHA KOIRALA is a former teacher who has waged war against human trafficking but prefers to highlight the bravery of others instead. By Lauren Tan

PROTECTOR OF THE POWERLESS

In 1993, former English teacher and victim of domestic abuse Anuradha Koirala started Maiti Nepal (“mother's home”) in a small house in Kathmandu with what little she had of her savings.
Inspired by the work of Mother Theresa and influenced by a desire for social justice, Koirala and the many volunteers of Maiti Nepal devote themselves to combating the trafficking of women and children, and the rescue and rehabilitation of these flesh trade victims.
Some of their most trailblazing work has been in the surveillance of border crossings between Nepal and India, where trafficking survivors cooperate with police to help them identify and intervene in potential trafficking situations. Each day, about five girls bound for an Indian brothel are rescued, and in all, an estimated 25,000 have been liberated over the last two decades.
In addition to operating three prevention homes, 10 transit homes, two hospices, a high school and launching regular cross-border rescue missions, Maiti also actively works to find justice for the survivors by waging criminal investigations and legal battles against criminals.
Not only has her fearless crusade, resulted in the Nepalese government designating September 5 as Anti-Trafficking Day, Koirala, 63, has been honoured with numerous awards including the Manhe Peace Prize, CNN Hero of the Year, Queen Sofia Silver Medal and the German UNIFEM Prize.
What led you to start Maiti Nepal?
Through some of my friends, I came to know of a girl, Geeta, who had been sent back to Nepal after being trafficked to India — she was the first person in Nepal to be diagnosed as HIV-positive. I had two rooms, so I said she could come and stay with me in mine, and my son would have the other. At night, she wouldn't let me sleep. She would share with me all her experiences in the brothel and tell me about the way she was treated. She was about 21 and had been trafficked at age 11. It was horrifying. And that is why I started Maiti Nepal.
What are the wider implications of trafficking for the flesh trade?
The fact is that trafficking is related to many diseases. When the girls are taken, they are as young as six — the average age is 16 — because in India, many men believe that if they have sex with a virgin, they'll be cured of HIV/Aids. Many of the children who have been rescued have said the clients do not use condoms. So many contract diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B, and also multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, which is airborne and can spread by proximity.
You oversee cross-border raids and rescues where the criminals can be ruthless. Do you fear for your life?
Everybody faces danger in their lives, not just in my profession. But since we do confront traffickers and the whole nexus of mafias, there definitely is no guarantee of coming back alive. But if you were to say you don't want to do this work, than who will? Someone has to do it.
Do you run into problems with the police?
We have a mutual understanding with the authorities at the border. So that's working nicely. But because corruption still exists in some places, there have been instances where our girls' identification of a trafficker, or a girl who has been trafficked, has been dismissed by a policeman who has been paid off.
What is it like for those sold into prostitution?
I'll tell you a story about five Nepalese girls who had been working in a brothel for five years. Each day, they have to get up at 5am. Work starts from 11am through the night to about 2am, with only one meal a day. One day, the madam told them they had to start performing oral sex. The girls refused, so she locked them up without food. The five of them agreed they wouldn't do it even if they had to die, so they jumped out of a window eight-stories high. They managed to runaway without realising that they had multiple fractures. With some help, they endured a three-day train journey in all that pain and when they reached the border we took the girls in. Their bravery is very moving.
How long do the girls typically stay with you at Maiti?
It depends. When a girl comes to us, we don't put her back into the community immediately. We try to catch the criminals first. During the court case, which can take about one to one-and-a-half years, we give her training to reintegrate into society, as well as training for job placement so that she can start earning money and slowly forget the ordeal she's been through. The girls are not returned home until after the court case because of the danger of the girl being hostile towards her parents, who may have been bribed by the traffickers.
The social stigma must persist.
You know, I was quite close to one of the girls who was HIV-positive and when she expired, I had to take her to the cremation ground. The price of cremation is 850 Nepalese rupees (S$12.50) but the person there asked for 7,000 Nepalese rupees. He said: “She's from Maiti Nepal. She must have HIV/Aids.” I felt really sad. This girl had lost her maidenhood and even after death there were no human rights for her. All her rights had been exploited. People always talk about human rights, women's rights, child rights, but what are they doing for those like her? She touched me a lot.
Do you think you are making progress putting an end to human trafficking and the sex trade?
Definitely, yes. But the dimensions of trafficking have also changed. Now in India, we've struck enough fear that the brothels in Mumbai are moving to other cities. That is an improvement and we still make raids every month.
A lot of the rescued girls now work at Maiti or have found jobs through the organisation. How proud are you of them?
Very proud. Just two days ago, one girl came back to distribute chocolates. We had sent her to a five-star hotel for training in housekeeping and she has just been made a permanent staff. Three years ago, her salary was 1,500 Nepalese rupees, now its 10,000 Nepalese rupees. And if you go to our workshop, the way the girls design small accessories — jewellery, key chains and bags — is very satisfying. The whole garden of Maiti Nepal is also taken care of by a woman, Radhika, who was exploited twice by her husband. He sold her kidney and later took her and her child and sold them off to the brothel. Now she takes care of the whole garden and seeing her passion for flowers and plants will make you happy.
Are you able to detach yourself from work when you go home?
I never have the time to detach myself. The traffickers are constantly changing their methods so I have to change my strategies and confront them with other actions. What I tell everybody is that I work the whole day, but 11.30pm at night, I “die”, and the next day, I'm all refreshed to work again.
www.maitinepal.org