Nepal: Getting child migrants out of the impasse
Four years after the earthquake, Nepal is emerging from the ruins, but children are still suffering from the effects of the devastation. Many of them have migrated to Kathmandu in search of a means of subsistence, but there they become the targets of sexual exploitation. Terre des hommes (Tdh) helps them to find alternatives.
Drowned in dust and pollution, Kathmandu looks like a faraway mirage. A mythical crossroads for the western tourists who flock there before going on their way to the trekking routes, the Nepalese capital also attracts tens of thousands of children from rural areas who are looking for work. “We were poor, but we got even poorer after the earthquake,” says Devi*, 17 years old. “I left home because that meant one mouth fewer to be fed.” The teenager had only just left school when she took the migration path after the two violent quakes that ravaged the country in 2015. Her destination soon proved to be a dangerous dead end.
“Child migration existed before this, but the situation has got much worse since the disaster,” says Julien Bettler, the Tdh delegate in Nepal. “The girls often land in stripper bars or in diners with separate rooms for clients who want intimacy. This often slides into sexual exploitation.”
Like many of the other young migrants, Devi came to the day reception centre of the Nepalese NGO Biswas, Tdh’s local partner, looking for someone to talk to and for support.
The boss of a diner led her to believe she could make a living, but Devi quickly felt trapped in this snack bar at the edge of the town, where lorry drivers could be private with the waitresses. “The boss pressured me to flirt with the customers...,” Devi told us.
Sitting next to her, 19-year-old Maya* said: “I went through that, too.” This young woman has gained a lot more hindsight and can talk about it, and it has become her vocation since the team of Tdh’s local partner got her out of a dancing bar. Now working as a social worker at the day reception centre, Maya tells about her experiences to win the confidence of the other young girls. “It’s seen as a stigma in our society,” she says. Prostitution is not only illegal but is also extremely taboo in Nepal. The victims of this type of exploitation thus suffer double discrimination.
6000 young victims of sexual exploitation
The sun sets in Kathmandu, but the day is not yet over for many young Nepalese. One of Maya’s colleagues, Bishnu Paneru, waits for night to fall before he goes to the tourist quarter of Thamel. His mission: to discover the girls in the bars and to negotiate with the bosses.
Over six thousand young people are the victims of sexual abuse in the capital. “We tell them about what we offer at the day reception centre and give them an emergency phone number,” explains the social worker.
The young man heads towards a dance hall with a discreet entrance. Inside, a teenager in heavy makeup that hardly covers her unhappiness, mechanically carries out a dance routine for the tipsy customers. “Many of them are Nepalese just passing through Kathmandu, or Indian tourists. They come because they know they can get sexual services here,” comments Bishnu. “These young girls can be the victims of blackmail,” criticises Tdh’s delegate: “The bosses pay cash advances to the parents and then use this debt to put pressure on the girls. It is a form of modern slavery.”
If the role of the police is to remove the victims when such abuses are identified, Tdh’s approach is to offer them long-term assistance and to prevent risky migration. We offer the youngsters free meals, we support families financially so that their children can continue schooling, and we take over the costs of legal aid for the underage victims of abuse. We also offer job training to help them get out of the situation of exploitation.
Devi decided on computer science. “I’ve found my dreams of the future come true! I’ve even started to write poems again, and that’s been my passion since I was quite small!”
*Names were changed to respect privacy.