OM ASTHA RAI
KATHMANDU, Sept 25: They were children of underpriviledged parents most of whom were displaced during the Maoist insurgeny and they had landed in a missionary school in Tamil Nadu, India where they were living a decent life and receving a good education.
But all that changed dramatically for the 23 Nepali girls who were “rescued” by a Nepali NGO that has since failed to take proper responsibility for the consequences of its action.
“The foundation officials who brought us to Nepal from India had assured us that they would help us with our education,” says Elina Chauhan, 19, who was studying in grade 10. “Once in Nepal, they broke their promise. They now say they are not responsible for helping us continue with our studies.”
Bhaskar Jung Karki, deputy director of Esther Benjamin Trust, Nepal, which has been supporting the foundation in rescuing children, especially those trafficked to India, says, “We have not made any promise to anybody. However, we will try to ensure that the rescued girls need not give up their studies.”
And this is what frightens those girls. “None of those who abruptly brought us to Nepal is able to tell us about our further education,” says Elina. On September 7, Elina, along with all the other girl students, were asked to pack up overnight to leave. They were taken from their hostel the next day. As things happened so fast and unexpectedly, nobody thought of obtaining transfer certificates from their school, which has now made it extremly difficult for them to enrol in schools in Nepal.
Worse, most of the parents of the rescued girls are financially so weak that they can´t afford to pay for their education. It´s precisely becasue of grinding poverty that most of these parents, who were displaced from their villages during the Maoist insurgency, had agreed to send the children to India, hoping they would be given a good education and a future they couldn´t dream of providing.
Many of the parents eke out a living selling vegetables in the streets of Kathmandu. They are now furious that their childern were forced to leave their school and brought back to Kathmandu without informing them, let alone seeking their consent.
Originally from Kavre district, Elina´s father Kaji Babu Chauhan, who ran a tea shop in Panauti, was disappeared, presumably by Maoists, during the insurgency. His whereabouts remain unknown. Having lost her husband, Elina´s mother Kamala came to Kathmandu and started selling vegetables to feed the family. Kamala found it terribly difficult to educate her children.
Through one of her acquaintances, she sent Elina, along with her sister Elisha, to Tamil Nadu, hoping they would get a good education and live a life of dignity. Elina and Elisha were given Christian names in the missionary school, but Kamala had no complaints. “To me, all religions are the same,” she says. “It´s okay so long as our children get to study. There was no reason at all to rescue our children.”
She felt shattered when she got a call from her children´s school saying they were taken away by some Nepali organization. “For the next 16 days, I could not get full information who took my children out and why.”
Then Indian and Nepali TV channels started covering the story. Several Indian channels covered their journey back to Nepal. “Our children were exposed on television as if they were rescued from brothels,” said an angry Indira Nepali, whose 14-year-old daughter Bipana was also rescued, adding, “We had sent our daughters away as we are too poor. We had not sold them. But television treated them as if they were into prostitution.”
A single mother, Indira lives in a congested room in Ason, Kathmandu. Like Kamala, Indira sells vegetables to make a living. “How will I educate my daughter now,” she asks. Her daughter was in grade 7 in Tamil Nadu.
Elina, who had a relatively comfortable life in her hostel, has been unable to come to terms with her mother´s modest circumstances. Kamala lives in a single room with no proper toilet and bathroom. She eats sitting cross-legged on the floor. “My daughters have been crying ever since they came back,” Kamala says, adding, “It´s as if they have plunged into a hell.” Parents of the rescued girls are preparing to lodge a written complaint against those who brought their chidren from India to Nepal.
In an apparently impulsive act, the foundation, in collaboration with Indian activists and police, went to Tamil Nadu to rescue four children from the missionary school. “We went to rescue them after they complained of abuse,” says Karki of Esther Benjamin. “We had no intention of rescuing the other 19 girls in that school.”But Karki says the school decided to send back all 23 Nepali girls and his foundation had to reluctantly bring them all.
Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Puja Singh, now overseeing the case, said that even the four girls who were said to have complained of abuse, were not tortured or exploited. “I asked the girls if they were abused or exploited and they say they had no complaints.”
But Karki argues that the rescue was needed as none of the Nepali girls was registered in authentic Indian government agencies. Besides, they were converted into Christianity and kept as orphans. “They were actually kept in an orphanage adjacent to their school,” karki says. “The orphanage looks dubious. We had to intervene.”
In the wake of the rescue, some local Hindu organizations demonstrated against the school, accusing it of converting Hindu girls. This has made it impossible for the girls to return to the school. “It looks like a hasty act,” DSP Singh says. As far as the children being kept as orphans despite having parents is concerned, she says, “Even in Nepali orphanages, almost half the children have parents. In this particular case, though, most of the girls have mothers alone. And, they are very poor.”