You can’t tackle a problem as heinous and ingrained as sex trafficking without being an unshakeable force of nature. Bursting people out of brothels; intercepting kidnappings at national borders; haranguing Governments and community leaders for more funding; offering emotional support whatever the hour, wherever the place — these are not the work of the fainthearted individual.
So it’s just as well that Anuradha Koirala is no ordinary person. Over the past 25 years, through her charity Maiti Nepal, she has rescued tens of thousands of women and children from situations of violence and provided pastoral and financial support they need to reintegrate into society.
The teams she works with have provided rehabilitation services to 25,000 people, legal services to 18,000 — paving the way for the prosecution of 1,600 traffickers and 344 rapists — and mediated 11,000 domestic violence cases. The self-designated ‘argumentative’ advocate’s work has prevented 40,000 girls from being trafficked across the border into India, led to international acclaim through a celebrated TED talk, and resulted in her being selected as CNN´s Hero of the Year in 2010.
How’d she get started? According to her TEDx talk, by just paying attention to the world around her and focusing on local injustices.
Koirala explains that while a teacher in Kathmandu, she used to walk by a lot of women begging on the street. “I was very curious, and I asked them why they were there.
“Each of them were victims of some forms of violence — trafficking, HIV AIDS, polygamy, rape, domestic. So I started talking to them everyday about the empowerment of women and violence against women. I told them I would give them some support if they left begging.”
She provided eight women with 1000 rupees each and starting small shops on the street, but made it clear that they had to return 2 rupees to her each day for a fund to support other women.
And the charity just grew organically from there. She rented rooms to look after some of these women’s children, providing food, clothes and medicine in a rudimentary shelter. The efforts then formalised as an NGO, with a focus on violence against women, and the group started running hospices and educational campaigns to ensure as many people as possible were aware of the threat from traffickers — and dissuaded from participating in such exploitation.
Trafficking is an enormous issue in Nepal. Girls in rural villages are often promised better work in the big cities, then trafficked into terrifying conditions: stories abound of children being forced into regular brothel work from as early as nine years old. It´s estimated that between 10-15,000 girls and women are trafficked into India every year.
“The patriachal society in this region and the violence against women in this region is so high, especially the stigma against HIV AIDS,” Koirala added in her talk, telling a story about how even in death, the women that she works with are hit by exploitative prices for a burial or cremation.
“The ultimate goal of Maiti Nepal is to empower women,” added Bishwo Kadhka, Director of Maiti Nepal, in a 25-year anniversary video. “The first goal is to prevent trafficking in the first place, and secondly, if it ever happens, we try to bring them out of their trauma and teach them skills that they want to learn and help them rehabilitate back into society.”
The charity also runs a school, which has had nine cohorts of students and has educated 1,200 pupils. Often these are the children of rescued women, or sometimes simply children found to be living rough on the streets.
“When the girl first comes to Maiti Nepal, we never, never ask them a question. We just let them [be] for as long as they need. We let them play, dance, walk, talk to a friend,” Koirala said in an interview with CNN. “They are afraid at first, but eventually they will talk to us on their own.”
“I cannot say no to anybody. Everybody comes to Maiti Nepal.”
Koirala’s work has not gone unnoticed within Nepal: she has been appointed Assistant State Minister of Women Children and Social Welfare in recognition of her work. She has also been awarded 38 national and international awards, and in recognition of her actions, the Government of Nepal now recognises 5th September as anti-trafficking day.
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