Girls at risk as ever

The Kathmandu Post, June 24
COVER STORY
Girls at risk as ever
BY SURENDRA PHUYAL
DARJEELING, June 23 – Orphaned at age three, Nima grew up with her neighbors in the shadow of Mt Makalu.
Today she’s 15 years old. And in the shadow of Kanchanjungha, in this predominantly ethnic Nepali hill town in northeast India, she is struggling to grow into a normal woman of dignity. But only after she got trafficked, exploited and sexually abused by her “relatives” who shipped her out of eastern Nepal.
That happened about two years ago. Then she was just 13. “My grandpa brought me to this place via Dharan and …,” she narrates as her teachers seated next to her in her dormitory encourage her to speak. She was sexually abused en route. At her distant folks’ place at nearby Alubarai village here, more exploitation followed.
Months later, she fell ill. Suffering from rheumatic fever, she arrived at Edith Wilkins’ School with one of her friends. It was there that she got a new life. Nima is just one among 233 other children — mostly Nepali girls — benefiting at this shelter by the Chaurasta slope.
By all standards, these kids are lucky. But there are many more unlucky ones. They are in the thousands in impoverished pockets of Nepal and other areas in the Eastern Himalayas such as Sikkim, Darjeeling, Assam, North Bengal and Bhutan, say experts. They are trafficked for child labor — and a life of bondage and slavery in the fast-emerging “sex markets” across India.
From eastern Nepal alone, around between 1,500 to 2,000 children — among them teenage girls — are trafficked across the border into this part of India every month, according to a recent study by the Edith Wilkins’ Foundation, India, and Maiti Nepal’s eastern branches at Ilam and Jhapa.
About 30 kilometers from the Nepal border, the bustling town of Siliguri serves as transit to North East India, mainland India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.
In worst cases, says Wilkins, 48, who’s spent 24 years in West Bengal with the needy, “Children are also traded like animals in the bordering towns [of Siliguri, Kakadbhitta etc].” Generally, they are taken to new places by their close relatives. “It’s a very chronic situation, and needs to be changed.”
Overall, 12,000 Nepali children and women are trafficked to India for commercial sex work every year, according to International Labor Organization (ILO). India serves both as destination and transit for trafficking of women and children.
There are over 200,000 Nepali girls who have been sold into prostitution in different metropolises of India, according to a ten-year-old estimate. That number, activists fear, could be much higher today. As per children trafficked for hazardous work, no data exists.
But does anyone care?
Non-profit organizations like the Wilkins’, Maiti Nepal, Concern in the ‘chicken neck’ of Siliguri and dozens of others that have mushroomed in the region seem to be doing their bit, occasionally rescuing some and, sometimes, even taking them into shelters.
Yet the trend of inter-state and intra-state trade in children and women, fuelled by the region’s widespread poverty and illiteracy, is showing no sign of tapering off.
The West Bengal and Sikkim governments, and the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), which governs Darjeeling hills, for instance, spend millions of rupees every year for the welfare of the areas’ women and children. The Council also gives away monthly IRs 600 to every child as nutrition allowance, and funds some NGOs.
Still, trafficking of children and women from here is an issue the Subash Ghising-led DGHC administration has not been able to properly deal with, says a local journalist who doesn’t want to be named. “Children are exploited and girls are being trafficked from here, but the administration is doing little,” he said. “The problem is that rulers here are low on vision and high on corruption.”
South Asia-wide, while NGOs’ transparency records are often under scanner, some NGO-led drives have yielded encouraging results. Two years ago, activists with a coalition of NGOs called the Global March Against Child Labor rescued nearly two dozen minor girls, mostly Nepali, exploited by a north Indian circus company.
These days, however, very few children are working in circuses, claims Kailash Satyarthi of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which is part of the Global March. “There’s hardly any girl child from Nepal or anywhere in India who’s working in an Indian circus today,” he says.
But other activists fear the region’s vulnerable children could be ending up in other hazardous professions like camel jockeying and other small-scale industries.
In recent times, the United Nations-run UNDP and UNIFEM may be endlessly talking about “safe migration”, but here in Darjeeling and down in Siliguri “high risk children” are on the move as ever. After arriving at New Jalpaiguri Railways Station and the nearby bus and truck stands, “they can be easily approached and lured,” says Dolly, a teacher at a nearby school.
Street children don’t understand development buzzwords like “safe migration”. So until safe migration can be ensured, nobody knows what’s in store for them? Nobody knows where they will end up? “Safe migration is not possible unless there’s a fair amount of government-to-government dialogue,” says Anuradha Koirala, of Kathmandu-based Maiti Nepal. “That doesn’t seem to be happening.”
In Darjeeling, meanwhile, Nima is growing into a healthy girl, undergoing stitching and beautician training and learning how to read, write and speak Nepali, Hindi and English. Would she want to return to her village in Makalu some day? She has no answer. She bursts into tears and expresses her quiet, ‘No’.
Posted on: 2006-06-23 20:42:06 (Server Time)

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