Can human trafficking be stopped? CNN’s Hero of the Year may have the answer.

Robert Moreau

Research Analyst/Outreach

Maiti Nepal founder Anuradha Koirala, winner of the 2010 CNN Hero of the Year award.

The serious issue of human trafficking stepped onto the front of world attention with Maiti Nepal founder Anuradha Koirala’s achievement of the 2010 CNN Hero of the Year award in November.

 Established in 1993, Maiti Nepal has grown from an association of 210 awareness activists from different fields into an organization that has helped around 12,000 women and children.

 With the global spotlight on Anurdha Koirala and Maiti Nepal, we should learn from their success. How is Maiti Nepal truly innovative? And as GENESIS is working in Thailand near the Burmese border with its Kid Launch project, how can that region benefit from Maiti Nepal’s example?

Total Care

Maiti Nepal works in a country recovering from a ten-year civil war which ended in 2006; in addition to the trafficking victims it shelters, Maiti Nepal is also caring for 621 child victims of the conflict.

 Nepal’s poverty rate is debated; the country’s National Planning Commission listed it at 25.4 percent in July, while Oxford University listed it as 65 percent, taking a comprehensive view “on the basis of nutrition, electricity, food, energy, drinking water and sanitation, maternal mortality, student enrollment, livelihood and availability of property,” as noted by ekantipur.com in a July 16 article.

 Regardless, the CIA World Factbook calls Nepal “among the poorest and least developed countries in the world…(where) agriculture…(provides) a livelihood for three-fourths of the population.” The median age of its population is only 21 years old.

 The desire of young people to leave in search of a better life is a main reason the country is a center of trafficking, as a 2008 Women News Network piece called “Lost Daughters” notes

 “So, why are most brothel owners (In India) interested much more in owning girls from Nepal versus girls from India…villages like Ichowk, Mahankal and Talmarang in the Sindhupalchowk district in northern central Nepal are full of girls who are more than anxious for a better life.”

A Nepalese mother holds a picture of her missing daughter, who was trafficked to India. From the 2008 Women News Network article "Lost Daughters."

According to the U.S. State Department in 2009, India is the destination for about 10-15,000 trafficking victims per year. Apart from India, over one million Nepalese work abroad mostly in Gulf states, where deception by employers including forced labor conditions is a significant issue. Lastly, about 20,000 to 25,000 girls enter forced labor and 7,500 children annually are trafficked for sex domestically.

 Even after escaping, survivors face a social stigma. “Often Nepal society blames the victims of sex-trafficking, not the traffickers, for choosing a “life of immorality,” notes “Lost Daughters.” Other societal issues regarding the position of women in society as well as attitudes towards sexual matters and HIV/AIDS also contribute towards marginalization of victims.

 Due to the issue’s complexity, the organization takes an all-encompassing view of it as related to education, opportunity, and society. Its goal, noted The Rising Nepal, is to “help these girls become economically independent by training them in some skills and reintegrate them into the society.”

 To that end, Maiti Nepal runs three prevention homes. It explains “Girls who are at risk of being trafficked are sheltered… they receive counseling, training in income generating skills.”

 Besides skills training, Maiti Nepal advocates for improved worker rights in restaurants and dance bars, which are prostitution centers. These establishments are placed into three categories: cabin restaurants, restaurants, and dance bars, with cabin restaurants are at the bottom rung of the system. In a 2005 Sanjaal Gantan piece called “Bar Girls of Kathmandu,” Sudeshna Sarkar wrote

 “The cabin restaurants are the most dangerous for women employees …[where] the worst form of sexual exploitation is on the cards…After an inexperienced girl has done a stint in a cabin restaurant…she moves on to the dance bars…in between dance numbers, [she] has to come and sit at the client’s table for a consideration. There could be proposals for more. While some bars let her do what she wants, some pressure her to oblige.” 

 Nepal Restaurant Entrepreneurs Association President Yogendra Chaulagain was quoted as saying that an estimated 75 percent of the around 30,000 Kathmandu employees are 18-25. Maiti Nepal’s Aprana Shresta argued that in fact over half are children. A lack of certified data compounds the problem.

 Various steps Maiti Nepal has advocated include identity cards and uniforms for employees, job guarantees and fixed working hours, and bans on child workers.

 Lastly, it provides legal services to victims; Maiti Nepal has helped convict 496 traffickers so far.

 Raising Awareness and Victim Involvement

Former trafficking victims work a patrol on the Indian border. Patrols are one critical way Maiti Nepal directly involves survivors in its organization.

Another critical component of Maiti Nepal’s success is its ability to raise awareness of human trafficking to the broader public using diverse groups. Healthlink Worldwide notes “mobilizing people through outreach work…is the key to changing attitudes, but it takes time for people for people to accept trafficking as “our problem” rather than something that happens to other people.”

 One critical group is young people, who are most at-risk for trafficking. Maiti Nepal states

“involvement of young people as educators through plays, talk shows, discussions, songs, and real life stories not only gives trafficking a human face, but it also helps to reduce stigma and discrimination by providing a forum for community members to discuss the issue and build shared accountability for preventive action.”

One example of this ongoing involvement is a school oratory competition that took place in October.

Trafficking survivors play a role in the organization, creating a visible presence. “Another cool, even badass, component of Maiti Nepal? An active border patrol made up of trafficking survivors who can spot the crime a mile away and stop it in its tracks,” noted Angela Longerbeam on change.org. The average rate of girls saved per day by these patrols, which are coordinated with Nepali police, is four.

 Survivors in the organization have created a cultural troop that puts on performances related to the issue as well as taking up other positions such as vocational trainers.

How can this be applied to Thailand/Burma?

Burmese Rohingya refugees apprehended by the Thai navy. Thailand has faced criticism for its failure to create a consistent policy for Burmese refugees escaping persecution.

As mentioned, the Kid Launch program is one of GENESIS’ major initiatives. Active in a village in Sangklaburi District of Kanchanaburi province in Thailand, near the Burmese border, it works to provide “community education and outreach in support of children that may not otherwise have access to schooling,” including the construction of a new schoolhouse.

Kid Launch works in an area where mass migration is creating an environment ripe for trafficking. A report by the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University states “in 2002, it was estimated that 10,000 women and children from Myanmar enter into prostitution in Thailand every year alone.”

 The reasons so many Burmese are fleeing to Thailand are to flee persecution and junta rule. A 2009 Congressional report states “over 3,200 ethnic villages in Burma have been destroyed since 1996 affecting over one million people. Probably more than 300,000 have fled to Thailand as refugees (the majority being Shan and not recognized by the Thai government).”

 Thailand has historically lacked protections for victims; the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation states “trafficked Burmese women and girls are considered illegal immigrants in Thailand. They are arrested, detained and deported back to Burma.”As of 2004, the deportation figure of Burmese workers from Thailand was over 10,000 per month.

 The Thai government created a law recognizing a protected status for trafficking victims in 1997, but it was criticized for not taking into account male trafficking victims as well as labor workers. It allowed police to detain those it suspects to be victims of trafficking, but not traffickers. 

 The BBC, in a June 2008 article, noted of the confusion in status “A case in point is that of the survivors of an incident two months ago in which 57 Burmese migrants suffocated in a container smuggling them into Thailand. The police argued that they were illegal immigrants, jailed and deported them.”

 After an earlier incident in 2007 where several deaths occurred after Rohingya fleeing persecution were forced back to Burma on motorless boats, two NGOs demanded the Thai government give consistent human rights protection to Burmese refugees.

International criticism led to the creation of a newer law in 2008 to establish penalties for traffickers. 

In Thailand, NGOS have historically been the main party in repatriating victims. With the 1997 law, the government has taken on an increased role mandating “victims of trafficking to be placed under custody of the….Ministry of Social Development and Human Security” and given health checks, counseling as well as vocational development training if needed.

It is good that the Thai government has recently been taking steps to further address the issue, but a consistent policy must be applied with regard to Burmese refugees. More avenues of cooperation with the NGO sector should be emphasized, for example pursuing the idea of border patrols similar to the ones Maiti Nepal conducts alongside the Nepalese government. 

Beyond this, a general lesson from Maiti Nepal’s success is that NGOs should embed themselves into the society. Of course, a network such as Maiti Nepal’s is the product of years of time and effort. But prevention initiatives and awareness within communities are achievable.  

In its Kid Launch project, the GENESIS Network is operating on this principle through emphasizing education as a preventative tool, with the goal of ensuring its school and support initiatives in Sangklaburi can be sustained by the community itself. Though it is a relatively smaller initiative, it provides an example of the kind of efforts that should be made. 

Questions for discussion: What intrigues you the most about Maiti Nepal’s success? How do you think GENESIS and other NGOs working in Burma/Thailand as well as other areas can learn from it? What specific challenges on the Thai/Burmese border area may make it difficult to use an organization in Nepal as a model? Answers to these, as well as any other questions and comments are more than appreciated.

Robert Moreau is Research Analyst/Outreach for the GENESIS Network. A 2008 Master’s graduate of the University of Massachusetts Lowell in Regional Economic and Social Development, Moreau has been working for GENESIS since July 2009. His work has included freelance newspaper pieces and a newsletter published for a Lowell-area social services agency in 2008.

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