The Yorkshire Post, 7 May 2014
Article on Dr Andrea Ubhi, Trustee. www.yorkshirepost.co.uk
Resurgence Magazine, May/June 2008
In My Own Words by Sue Carpenter: www.resurgence.org
YOU Magazine, 30 September 2007
The Bigger Picture by Sue Carpenter: www.suecarpenter.co.uk
YOU Magazine, 9 August,1997
The Woman who Saves these Girls from Prostitution, by Sue Carpenter (the article about trafficking in Nepal that inspired Peter Bashford to set up Asha Nepal)
NB This is an edited version of the original article, since details have changed. The names of the refuge and the founder have been changed
Kamala's eyes were blank. It was as if all light and life had gone from them. As if she were looking but not seeing. Five months earlier she had been sent from her native Nepal to Saudi Arabia as a maidservant by a crooked employment agency. Her employers' repeatedly raped and ravaged her until her young body was so torn inside that she was no longer of any use.
They put her on a plane to Kathmandu, where she was rescued by Mala, who runs a refuge for young women and children in need. Since setting up The Refuge in 1993, she has saved hundreds of girls, many of whom had been abducted and sold to Indian brothels, as well as victims of domestic violence, children of local prostitutes and abandoned children.
Today, in the basic surroundings of the Refuge's Kathmandu headquarters, Kamala, 24, sits compliantly for photographs, cocooned in a dark saffron sari reminiscent of a Buddhist monka's robes, as if this will protect her from the outside world. She doesnâ't speak. She has barely uttered a word since she arrived, a month earlier. She is evidently in deep shock. All that is known about her was gleaned from a diary she kept in Saudi Arabia. The full details, Mala, 47, declines to reveal. What is clear is that, although Kamala's body is healing, her spirit is broken.
Of some 140 people currently sheltered at the Refuge, the most shocking group is the 40 returnees from Indian brothels, most of whom are HIV-positive.
Typically, a naive, uneducated girl in her early teens, living in a remote, poor region of Nepal, is lured by a trafficker, who may be a trusted local man or woman or even a relative, to Kathmandu with the promise of work in a carpet factory. Life is so tough in the hill country of Nepal, with no hope of betterment, that a girl and her family will jump at any chance to escape the poverty trap. The factory, however, is often a front, and the girl finds herself bundled in a car and driven the rough 1,150-mile journey to Bombay or 600 miles to Calcutta, where she is sold to a brothel for anything from £50 to £400, depending on the girl's age and beauty.
In India, Nepalese girls, particularly those of the Tamang ethnic group, with their almond eyes and high cheekbones, are much prized. Extreme youth is a bonus, as it ensures virginity and therefore no risk of the HIV virus.
The wife of the British Ambassador to Nepal has made the Refuge one of her personal projects. ˜It is very hard for people to imagine, she says, when they sit in their safe, comfortable homes in Britain, that such a heinous crime could be taking place. We're not talking about the devastating effects of an earthquake or floods. This is a man-made crime, where the indigenous flowers of Nepal are being trafficked to the steamy slums of India."
While the Refuge is not the only charitable organisation to address the problem, Mala is one of the feistiest campaigners against trafficking. She works with police and frequently goes to court with victims to try and ensure the conviction and appropriate sentencing of girl traffickers. In a move, so far highly successful, to stop the problem at source, she has set up a number of prevention camps, to spread awareness among communities which are prey to trafficking.
Occasionally, an abducted girl will be lucky and wrenched, often literally,“ from the clutches of a brothel keeper in a police raid. Despite the dangers, Mala is often in the vanguard of these missions.
She describes the brothel raids with characteristic matter-of-factness. In Bombay, state law decrees that brothels should be raided monthly for minors but, says Mala, the brothel owners pay a bribe so they don't raid her, or else she hides the girls she wants, and picks out the ones who are sick or a problem. When we go in, the owners will massacre us, hit us with anything they can get. The police pretend they are protecting us, "Run away! Run away!"Â, but really they are protecting the brothel owners. It is really very violent. We snatch whoever we can and put them in the van.
Bhinmaya, 19, found prostitution so abhorrent that she risked death to escape. She had been working with her brother in a carpet factory in Kathmandu, when a cousin brought a stranger to see her. He told me I must marry him. "You will have a better life," he said. I refused, but the man said he would die if I didn't marry him, and then my brother and I would be put behind bars. I was frightened. If my brother was locked away, who would look after my parents?"
So she agreed, a mock marriage took place, and she was taken on a long journey. "They told me it was his sister's home, but when I started asking questions, a woman laughed and told me I was in a brothel in Bombay." Bhinmaya protested so much that she was beaten and put in a dark room for a week without food or water. She was forced to submit.
For a month, she worked as a prostitute, but one night could bear it no longer. "˜I had made up my mind it was better to die than stay at the brothel," she says. She jumped from a third floor window, breaking her back and both legs. Taking courage from her, four more teenage Nepalese girls who had been trafficked by the same gang, also leaped. Two each broke a leg, but the other two, miraculously, were unharmed and able to help their friends to safety. Some Indian men helped them on to a train to Lucknow, where they were handed to the police, who sent them to one of the Refuge's transit camps. From there they went to hospital and on to the Kathmandu sanctuary.
Today, in one of the Refuge's spartan rooms, little more than a garage, Bhinmaya lies flat on her back in a brace, her legs in plaster. She is lucky: she can sit up and is not paralysed, and neither she nor her four friends contracted HIV. She is resolute. "I want to get better so that I can go back to my village and catch the criminal who took me to Bombay and have him put behind bars."
You might imagine that a returnee's one desire is to go straight home to her family, but Bhinmaya is representative of the majority in preferring to learn the skills that The Refuge offers â€“ literacy, needlework, art, jewellery-making that will allow her to sustain herself and her family for the future.
Sadly, not every girl is blessed with such resilience. A week before my visit, 17-year-old Masuami arrived at the Refuge, her body raw with 60 per cent burns. A local prostitute, she had had sex with a gang of four men, who then refused to pay her the agreed sum of 1,000 rupees (about £10). When she argued, they poured petrol over her and set her alight.
On my arrival, she is sitting on a patch of concrete in the searing mid-morning sun, clutching her knees and rocking. Her arms and legs are suppurating and peeling, but she won't sit in the shade. Her head has been shaved because it was infested with lice. Every so often, she breaks into a stream of animated talk or crazed laughter. "˜She is talking nonsense," says one of the staff. "She just said she wanted my red shirt." The staff member is wearing green and black.
Clearly, the Refuge does not have the resources or expertise to care for someone not just so physically harmed but also mentally disturbed. But there is nowhere else for her to go, and Mala's policy is never to turn anyone away. The night before, Masuami ripped the foam mattress in the sick room to shreds and, later that day, I found her huddled in a corner beside it, alternately crying, laughing, jabbering and gesticulating. "We don't know what to do with her," sighs Mala. "˜The psychiatric doctor is coming... When the sores get better they'll admit her into mental hospital for some time. We can't handle her here."
As we look round the residential quarters for girls who are HIV positive and/or have tuberculosis or hepatitis B, we come upon Anju, 14, crouching by a tin kettle in a dark kitchen. She looks up shyly and flashes me a warm, beautiful smile.
Anju is one of the youngest cases of abduction for the sex slave trade. She was just seven when she was taken to Bombay. When Mala rescued her a few months earlier, she couldn't walk or eat. She was left semi-paralysed after being tortured, and now has HIV and TB. Now happily walking and cooking, there is nothing about her sweet, open face to suggest the horror of her past or the sad finality of her future.
As the Ambassador's wife says, "The Refuge is picking up the pieces of these crimes, but the traffickers need to be nailed." The problem is not one of legislation but of enforcement. I went to see Meena Panday, the new Minister for Women and Social Welfare, to find out what she intended to do about it. After being kept waiting for some time, I was asked to write down my questions, and later received a photocopied statement, expressing the government's commitment to "control girl trafficking activities and abolish exploitation towards women".
Mala, however, is sceptical of such commitment. In her country, females come bottom of the social heap. Despite being a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Nepalese government has taken little action. Mala has seen too many traffickers set free. "There is law," she says fiercely, "but there is bribery and corruption also. It is well known that an ordinary person's vote is one vote, but a criminal's vote is worth 1,000 votes, money, muscles and power."
Pashupati Shamsher J.B. Rana, a direct descendant of the aristocratic Rana family that ruled Nepal for 104 years, is MP for Sindhupalchowk, one of the prime hunting grounds for traffickers. We met to discuss what he could do in his constituency. He pledged to make sure the known criminals in his area were caught and prosecuted. However, as he talked, in crisp Oxford English, surrounded by the Baroque paintings and engraved mirrors of his inheritance, I felt he had little understanding of his countrywomen's plight.
"Where people have been duped [into sex work]," he told me, "you can take legal action. But people are aiding and abetting. Even the parents are collaborating. They see it as a way of getting out of poverty. Normally in Nepal, nobody wants a girl child, but in these areas parents pray for a girl."
Mala finds the suggestion that parents are knowingly selling their own daughters outrageous. "Bhinmaya is illiterate, very poor. Her mother came and I thought she was going to hit her but she jumped on her and cried. Yesterday her brother came and he cried too. Parents are not selling, they are sending them to work, thinking it will bring in the money. We have seen 300 girls come back from India. None of them has been sold by their parents."
So much of her time is bound up in campaigning for justice, legal paperwork, snatching girls from brothels, fund-raising and meetings, I wonder whether she has time for the girls any more. "Definitely," she says firmly. "We get up at 5am and my mornings and nights and Saturdays are always with the girls. I am so satisfied, so happy with this work. I wish I could do more and more, but I really think I have done something. Yesterday I was speaking with the girls, and I said you must always have a b-i-g heart. What do we need? Two-times-daily food. That's all we request of God. You don't have to have luxury, you have to have peace of mind, affection, love, honesty, faith, belief in each other, that's the best thing."