Anuradha Koirala speaking at an awareness rally. All photos via Facebook
Anuradha Koirala is the founder of Maiti Nepal, a Kathmandu-based nonprofit founded in 1993 that works to identify, rescue, and rehabilitate Nepalese women after they have been trafficked and forced into prostitution. Koirala, 65, says she has saved some 50,000 people from human trafficking, and has positioned Maiti Nepal and its extension, Maiti India, as both border watchdogs and rescue services for Nepalese women who are moved across the borders on a daily basis.
When I spoke to her over the phone recently she related a story about losing 15 children during a rescue raid in a mafia-ridden brothel in Mumbai like she were talking about the weather. It was 8:00 in the morning in Nepal when I called, and she was already hard at work, her grandson yelling excitedly in the background. I didn’t dare ask this woman what she does during her downtime, but as we spoke one thing became fundamentally clear: There is no neat divide or even haphazard line between work and play for Anuradha Koirala—Maiti Nepal is her life’s mission, and any implication otherwise is a complete misunderstanding of her work.
VICE: What is your typical raid like?
Anuradha Koirala: Well, the whole brothel is surrounded by mafia security, so it’s a very scary thing to go and do. It used to be that the police would work very closely with the brothel owners and the mafia, but now they work with us. When we go in to do a raid, we have the police force with us, and they help to rescue the girl.
How do you rescue girls from brothels?
What often happens is brothel clients find girls crying and not cooperating inside the brothel. When this happens the witness will report back to the girl’s parents with a letter that says: “I know where your girl is. Please call Maiti Nepal, and they will rescue her.” The people of India know that Maiti Nepal is working very hard to stop trafficking. After they receive the letter, the parents will walk for five or six days to find us in the city to show us the letter they received. We take the letter and ask for a photograph of the girl. In the villages there are no means of taking photographs, and hardly anyone has photographs of their family—this makes finding the girl much more difficult. We take the address from the letter and send it to our branch in India, Maiti India. We send it to them and then—depending on where the brothel is—Maiti India contacts an NGO in the brothel’s region and works together with that NGO to find the girl. As soon as they find her they send an investigations officer disguised as a client to the brothel. He tells the girl: “Get ready. We are going to take you away from here.” The NGO and Maiti India then work together to raid the brothel and rescue the girl.
What do traffickers say to convince girls to leave with them?
When the traffickers come they never say, “Come with me and I will make you a prostitute.” If they say that the father and the parents will kill the man or woman who has come to take the girl away. What happens is they come and say to the girl, “You will get a big job in the city, and you will earn money.” Then they turn to the father and say, “Your daughter needs money to get married.” With this gender disparity they convince the family. There is also an education issue. The government says education is free, but it is not free. What happens is that families send their boys to school rather than their girls. There are also no job opportunities for girls. It seems like a good opportunity when a disguised trafficker says, “I have a big job for your daughter in the city, where she will make money and get married.”
And they fall for it?
The traffickers give the families a year’s salary up front. They say, “Send her to the city with me now, and when she comes to visit you in a year she will bring even more money home.” The families think their daughter has been given a great opportunity, and so they send her away.
What happens inside the rehabilitation centers in Nepal?
Girls come to the rehabilitation centers from three categories: women and girls who are intercepted at the border; girls who are rescued from brothels; and those who are sent to us by different kinds of people, like police and government officials. In the rehabilitation centers we have different activities. We teach children and have activities for them to go to school.
What happens to the traffickers?
When intercepted girls come to the rehabilitation center we ask them who trafficked them. We use this information to find the criminal and start a court case. We do not send the girl home during the court case. We keep her with us at the center during the case procedure. Throughout the entire procedure period the girls have to be in Maiti Nepal. If they are sent back to the village to be with their family, the case may turn hostile. The traffickers may bribe the family to stop the case. We keep the girl with us to make sure the trafficker is convicted. The case period usually takes from one to one and a half years. During that period we teach the girls different skills and counsel them. They come to know more about Maiti Nepal and become very confident with us. That is how they get into different jobs. After their traffickers are convicted, the girls still want to stay with us and learn.
Are girls ever reluctant to be rescued?
Sometimes those who are intercepted won’t cooperate with us at first. This happens because traffickers tell them that they’ve been taken away to get a big job. They get really angry with us for stopping them. Then when we tell them the whole story about how they were going to be trafficked and cheated, they are ready to file a case against the trafficker. Then we keep the girls, provide them with training, and they start working. Right now we have about 250 girls working in different places in Kathmandu. We also have about 250 girls working with our foundation at the borders. We have different girls working in different places.
Nepalese women after being rescued from an Indian brotehol in Silchar, Assam
Have you ever felt like you were in danger during a raid?
Yes. One time we went to Mumbai for a raid. We took the police with us and went into the brothel. We had been informed that there were many minors in the brothel, so we went inside and took all the minors with us. There were about 15 children in there. Then, right away, the brothel owner asked, “Why are you doing this? We weren’t going to keep the children.” The owner and the other workers suddenly all surrounded us from different angles and started attacking us. They were throwing whatever they could get their hands on. Then—in an instant—all the children disappeared. I don’t know where they went. All 15 children that we had rescued disappeared. We know that the mafia members who were working with the brothel took them somewhere. Now we know that they hide girls under the plywood of folding beds, inside walls, and above ceilings. When we do a raid now we check all the ceilings, walls, and beds. We check everything.
How many people have you rescued?
25,000 women and girls have been rescued through Maiti Nepal so far. We have also intercepted 25,000 women and girls from being trafficked at the borders. We have been doing awareness campaigns in the villages; people now come to report to us instead of the police. Why does trafficking happen?
The whole world would say girls are trafficked because of poverty. I would say that is not the case. Poverty is one of the causes, but there are also no job opportunities and there is no education. There is gender disparity, a lack of literacy, and then, of course, poverty. The main cause is gender disparity. There is such a huge disparity of gender in our country that girls are considered second-class citizens.
What else can be done to help stop trafficking?
I think everybody should be aware of Nepal’s problem. Human trafficking is the third-biggest crime in the world. Everybody should know that this crime is happening in Nepal to girls as young as six years old. The average age of trafficked girls is 16. International government officials need to start lobbying with our government, saying, “If you do not do anything on trafficking then we will stop our aid.” There are many ways that people can get involved, and one of the ways is financial support. I am very thankful that more people have joined this fight. Hopefully you and I together will end this crime one day and make Nepal a society free of trafficking.
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