The hero of heroes

EMPOWERING THE EXPLOITED

The hero of heroes

Her life, Her mission: Anuradha Koirala at the ‘CNN Hero 2010’ award ceremony

An English teacher visited the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu every Saturday. Week after week, as trucks sped by on the main road and shop workers hounded visitors with their ware, a few men sat at a distance, taking lazy drags from their cigarettes, while their eyes followed young women beggars who ran after people for money and smiled at the clink of coins in their begging bowls. Week after week, the English teacher tried chatting up these women beggars, but in vain. However, her insistence upon spending a good part of her money on things which she saw they needed, made the women beggars open up their hearts to pour out their woes – they begged as nobody employed them owing to their inability to provide good references. They also related their everyday struggle to ward off unwanted male attention. Moved by their plight, the English teacher set up pavement shops for them and housed their children in a two-room house. But her meagre income was unable to support them for long. That was when women and child trafficking for commercial sex was rampant in Nepal and she came across four teenagers who were back from brothels in India, badly bruised and affected by HIV/AIDS. She immediately took them under her protective wings and offered the kind of emotional and material support they had least expected from a fellow citizen. Overwhelmed with gratitude, they lovingly addressed her ‘Dijuu’ (elder sister in Nepalese) and called her home, Maiti (mother’s home). This English teacher is none other than Anuradha Koirala, who was recently named CNN Hero 2010, chosen in an online poll of more than two million people, for her untiring efforts in fighting human trafficking, sex slavery and exploitation of women and children.

Daughter of an Army officer stationed in India, Anuradha had her early education in Kalimpong, West Bengal. Right from her student days, she was inspired by the ideals of Mother Teresa and nurtured a desire to lend a helping hand to the needy. Frequent reports of women and child trafficking also affected her a great deal. When marriage led her back to her native Kathmandu, she took up a job as an English teacher at a reputed school. However, her passion for social work was burning bright in her heart and saw her give up teaching to set up Maiti Nepal, a non-profit, child rights and women’s rights social organisation to find sustainable solutions to issues related to trafficking. This was way back in 1993. Today, 18 years later, Maiti Nepal has grown into a big family as Dijuu’s heart beats for women and children who are tricked into prostitution and land in various brothels located in the dark alleys of the big, bad cities of India.

“The sole aim of my life is to end women and child trafficking and I’ll go to any extent to achieve my goal,” says Anuradha. In her trademark crisp cotton saree, a ready smile and twinkle in her eyes, she has taken in her stride a lot of criticism, hardship, a little controversy and even a lot of backbiting in her 18-year-long journey in the ruthless world peopled by heartless traffickers. “No regrets whatsoever. I have lived every moment of this 18-year-long struggle to put an end to trafficking and I shall continue to do so till the day innocent women and children are able to live peacefully in their homes, without the fear of being trafficked,” she states, and the horrific experiences the many cherubic faces around her relate, only reinforce her resolve to end trafficking.

“The youngest child trafficked for commercial sex was only seven years old. Though she was rescued seven years later, she was already HIV+ and badly bruised,” says Anuradha. Yet another 12-year-old was recently rescued from a brothel in Chennai, two years after being trafficked. Fortunately, the girl is physically healthy, but her trust in people has taken a severe beating. She requires regular counselling and attends LKG at Teresa Academy, the school run by Maiti Nepal, where she sings rhymes in Nepalese and learns her alphabets and numbers. However, she has no friends, she confesses. For, two years in the darkest of dark rooms of brothels has taught her not to trust her fellow-beings, irrespective of their age.

A brothel in Mumbai.Yes, each and every woman and child housed in Maiti Nepal has such heartrending stories to relate, of horrendous experiences in Indian brothels. Anita (name changed), a 16-year-old from a village in Nepal, knew not her real parents. She lived with her foster parents and called them her family till one such day when a man came and took her away from her so-called home with the promise of a lucrative job in the city. That was just the beginning of her ordeal. She landed in a brothel in Mumbai where she was forced to cater to an endless flow of customers. “If we refused to work, we would be beaten badly and not given food. So we preferred to work quietly,” says Anita, who is now in the safe environs of Maiti and can’t thank her stars enough. “If not for Maiti, I would have still been rotting in kothis and that would have been my end,” she says in fluent Hindi that she picked up during her two years in Mumbai.

The rescue operations that freed Anita seem like a scene straight out of a movie script. A good-hearted Marathi customer once took pity on her, revisited her a second time, and got the police to raid the place. Two days at the police station later, Anita was in the caring arms of Dijuu who, along with her staff, nursed her back to normalcy. Today, she is an office assistant at Maiti and is all set to begin school the next academic year. Sadly, she doesn’t have any dreams, but is glad that she doesn’t have to fear hormone injections and cater to over 20 customers a day, mostly on an empty stomach.

As Maiti abounds in such stories, Anuradha has only one question to ask, “Why do people exploit innocence?” A question to which she is still seeking answers. Even as her heart bleeds for the hapless victims of trafficking, she says the scourge of human trafficking will not end unless traffickers, brothel owners and politicians who work hand-in-glove with traffickers, see their own women and children in trafficked victims.

“Poverty and lack of awareness are the root causes of human trafficking,” she confesses, even as she says how poverty-stricken parents and care-takers of young women and children fall prey to false promises of jobs in cities that can bring in extra income to the family. Looking back, she recalls how, in an effort to raise awareness about human trafficking, she mobilised a group of people including young women, lawyers, police personnel, doctors, nurses, teachers and journalists and visited the remote parts of the hilly country and staged street plays. Fortunately for her, the three regional offices located in the Eastern, Central and Western regions of the country, and the programming officers stationed there, now assist her in organising awareness programmes in areas that are prone to trafficking, and among school and college students, village development committees and the agencies concerned. Even door-to-door awareness campaigns are conducted on a regular basis and the message is for everyone involved — girls, parents and possible traffickers.

Children at Teresa AcademySince most trafficking happens across the 1,800 km border Nepal shares with India, Anuradha has set up ten transit homes at major Nepal-India border towns to serve as safe shelters for girls rescued from Indian brothels and also for those who have been intercepted at borders while in the process of being trafficked. Transit homes provide counselling, trace parents/ guardians of survivors, ensure safe passage to their homes, and also motivate them to help identify traffickers. These transit homes, manned by the Maiti Nepal staff, who are mostly survivors of trafficking, work closely with over 4,000 police personnel and Border Security Forces to apprehend criminals.

“Since most traffickers are habitual criminals, rescued women will be in a better position to identify them at borders,” says Anuradha, as a reason for recruiting survivors of trafficking to man transit homes.

Anuradha has also set up three prevention homes in areas highly prone to trafficking, where girls who are at risk of being trafficked are sheltered. “Girls whose sisters or aunts have fallen victims to trafficking willingly come and stay in prevention homes which are almost like residential schools. Here, they receive counselling, training in income-generating activities like tailoring, mushroom cultivation, and handloom weaving, and non-formal education,” says Anuradha, emphasising the point that the objective behind such training is to prepare trainee girls to become social activists so that they can advocate for their own rights.

At Maiti’s rehabilitation homes in Kathmandu, sheltering sexually abused girls, abandoned children, destitute women, prisoners’ children and returnees from Indian brothels, every step is taken to empower them economically. They are taught skills such as sewing, baking, knitting and beauty treatment. Evenings also see them indulging in music and dance therapies.

“The only challenge I face in the journey I have embarked upon is ensuring that Maiti residents are reintegrated into mainstream society. So, we offer them microloans to help them set up their own business. I’m happy to share that most of Maiti’s residents are gainfully employed,” beams the hero whose efforts have saved over 12,000 girls trafficked to India.

What about social stigma? Are trafficking survivors accepted readily in the society? Ask her about it and she is quick to add, “Regular counselling sessions for the rescued, and their families, have helped. While some have gone back to their families, a sizeable number of them have married and settled down in their lives,” she relates.

However, when it comes to talking about women and children who are HIV+, Anuradha gets emotional. Housed in Maiti’s hospice in Jhapa district, Nepal, their needs are well taken care of. “They are suffering on account of somebody else’s greed,” she says, her voice tinged with anger.

Well-deserved recognition:Anuradha Koirala, with actress Demi Moore, who presented her with the ‘CNN Hero 2010’ award.This motherly figure who greets everyone with a sunshine smile and the customary namaste can be quite tough when it comes to dealing with traffickers. She seeks justice for victims by initiating criminal investigation and waging legal battles against such criminals. Till date, she has succeeded in getting 465 of them behind bars. Little wonder then that she is known as ‘Terminator’ among traffickers!

But, Maiti Nepal didn’t happen overnight. This ‘Terminator’ had to undergo a lot of hardship to reach this far. “Initially, I was ridiculed for the cause I took up. I was even branded as a woman with loose morals. All kinds of pressure was mounted on me to deflect me from my goal. But, I did not relent,” says the feisty woman who has even received death threats from human traffickers. But, her courage to fight for a just cause, a cause that could soon see innocence reign supreme in Nepal, helps her blaze new trails.

A strict disciplinarian and a relentless worker, Anuradha begins her day at 5 am and ends at 11 pm, personally supervising each and every activity of Maiti. While the ultra-clean Maiti premises with its well manicured lawns is proof of her efficient management, the ‘missing girls’ complaints that she receives mirror the confidence Nepalese have in their Dijuu.

“Yes! When in trouble, the Nepalese don’t go to the police, but come to Dijuu,” says Sabin Gurung, who has been with Maiti Nepal as its chief programming officer for the past 16 years. “Most Maiti employees have been with Dijuu since its inception, turning down offers from other organisations that promise a much higher salary, only because we all believe in the cause she’s taken up and definitely want to be a part of her war against human trafficking,” he asserts.

Of late, on the financial front, all is not well with Maiti. While UNICEF supported Maiti for a year in the beginning, it was a German couple who had lost their only daughter in a car crash who supported it till two years ago. Having lost its fortune to the global economic recession, the couple is no longer able to fund Maiti. However, post-CNN Hero 2010 award, a few corporate houses in Nepal have offered financial help. “But, that is just not enough,” says Anuradha, whose Maiti family is quite large, and even includes ‘Bal Basera’, a home for children affected by Maoist insurgency.

Though she is a recipient of many awards, she holds the recent CNN award dear to her heart as it has drawn the attention of the world to the seriousness of the issue of human trafficking. Because of her efforts, September 5 is designated anti-trafficking day in Nepal.

At 61, the indomitable spirit in Anuradha dreams of a day when Maiti no longer exists. “Maiti ceases to exist the day human trafficking ends. And, that is the only dream that keeps me going,” says Anuradha, brimming with hope, a hope born out of the conviction that it is possible to make this world a sparkling, safe and peaceful place for women and children.

(For more details, log on to: www.maitinepal.org)

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