Sumitra is tall and model-thin with waist-length black hair and large, almond eyes. She’s 16, a beautiful, studious girl who speaks Nepali and English fluently. She loves biology and discusses it at length with Chris, bringing schoolbooks to him on the family’s balcony to further their conversation. She and her girl relatives are among the luckiest in Nepal.
The female literacy rate here is 41 percent and only 38 percent of girls are in school after the equivalent of 8th grade. Thirty-two percent of Nepali girls ages 15-19 are married; 55 percent of Nepalis live below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day.
Sumitra and her sisters are members of a well-situated family that truly values education. Many girls in Nepal are not so lucky.
One night last December I was at home in Utah, watching the annual CNN Heroes Award program. I never miss it because the nominees are always inspiring. The top winner was Anuradha Koirala, a woman who saves girls in Nepal, some as young as 8, from the sex trade. I never imagined I’d visit Nepal as I watched the program, didn’t know that before the next annual show I would meet and instantly love eight Nepali girls and their family. But that’s how the world works.
During the broadcast last winter, I learned of another way the world works sometimes, the terrible exploitation of girls. Girls and their families, especially those from remote areas of Nepal where education rates are low and poverty runs high, are tricked by traffickers who promise legitimate jobs in faraway restaurants and the like, and after they’re taken from their homes, the young girls are bustled across the border into India where they are forced to work in brothels. Some girls as young as 12 are reportedly forced to be with more than a dozen men in a day.
Anuradha Koirala and her helpers station themselves at the border, watching for girls who appear to be traveling against their will, girls who look afraid, girls traveling with men. Koirala will boldly approach the men, demand to see their papers and take the girl aside to ask questions.
The global sex trade is only worsening. Now women are traffickers as well, boys are victims as well, and Nepali girls can be found in brothels all over Asia and in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The girls saved by Koirala’s organization, Maiti Nepal, are given a safe place to live, time to heal, schooling, the opportunity to learn a trade. Some rescue newly-trafficked girls.
I visited Maiti Nepal recently, at their big campus in Kathmandu. I took a few offerings: blankets, school supplies, a small cash donation. I learned that 20,000 Nepali girls are trafficked each year. Three of 10 girls rescued are pregnant; there are 450 small children there, in addition to the girls and women. There’s a hospice because 38 percent of the girls and some of their babies are HIV positive.
Before leaving, I pause near the gate. It has been a dream of mine to visit here. Girls and women walk past, some carrying babies. If I met them in the market, I’d never imagine what they’ve been through.
I depart with mixed emotions: joy for Sumitra and her sisters, heartbreak for all my sisters in dire situations around the globe; gratitude for Koirala and others who don’t wait for someone else to act.
Barb Guy writes on her travels.