What is it like to be trafficked to a foreign country and forced into prostitution? Just ask Charimaya Tamang. She survived trafficking and now advocates for other survivors
Some Days I Lived, Other Days I Died. Resilience in the face of exploitation
Charimaya Tamang knows all too well how easy it is to be trafficked in Nepal.
That’s because 22 years ago, it happened to her. At 16, Charimaya was alone cutting grass in the forest when she was ambushed by four men. After being drugged and losing consciousness, she awoke in Gorakhpur, near the Nepali/India border with her appearance completely changed — she had on makeup, a new hairstyle and different clothes.
medium – She was transported to the brothels in the Kamathipura red light district of Mumbai, India. Her captors left her in a windowless room with only a bed, table and chair, where she was forced to be a sex worker for the next 22 months.
“Some days I lived, other days I died,” says Charimaya.
Beaten, burned with cigarette butts and repeatedly raped, hope for escape slowly drifted away. Faced with deep social stigma should she ever regain her freedom, despair set in as neither outcome brought justice.
At her lowest moment she tried hanging herself. Fortunately, the cloth around her neck tore and she fell to the floor. Even killing herself seemed impossible. Charimaya says she felt like “a dead person that was living.”
Stories like Charimaya’s are, unfortunately, all too common in Nepal. Widespread poverty has left the country particularly vulnerable over recent decades. Thousands of women and girls are tricked or forced into sexual servitude in India — as well as Gulf and African countries in the entertainment sector — each year, and the April 25 earthquake has only accelerated the rate of trafficking between the two countries.
According to the Indian Home Ministry, there has been a three-fold jump in trafficking since the earthquake. Compared to 2014, trafficking from Nepal has seen a fivefold increase in 2015.
Children and women in the districts most affected by the earthquake are the most vulnerable — living in temporary shelters, they are not only at risk for sexual harassment and rape, but are more susceptible to the lure of traffickers who promise lucrative jobs and a better life in India, Asia and the Middle East.
For Charimaya, who had little hope after nearly two years of captivity, there was a chance to begin again.
In 1996, 500 women under the age of 18 were rescued during one of the largest-ever police raids on Mumbai’s brothels. Charimaya was one of 128 Nepali girls and women rescued that day.
But her return to Nepal was anything but simple. At first, the Nepali government refused to allow the women to return at all, claiming they would bring HIV into the country. Instead, the women were held in shelters in India for six months.
Charimaya still remembers the inhumane conditions at these facilities, which made the women feel like they were in prison. Women were often sexually assaulted and some doctors even viewed them as untouchables, refusing to look at them or treating them only when they wore multiple layers of gloves.
The Nepali government finally lifted the ban and allowed the women to return to Nepal, with several civil society organizations taking the lead in safely returning and rehabilitating the young women. Once back in Nepal, the women received human rights training and counseling that affirmed they were not to be blamed for the exploitation and abuse they endured.
United by the painful days they faced together — including social stigma and exclusion — 15 of those survivors banded together and formed Shakti Samuha, which translates as “power collective” in Nepali. Their goal was to empower (emotionally and physically) other women who had been trafficked so they would not have to face a similar experience.
As the first organization in Nepal established and operated by survivors of human trafficking, Shakti Samuha provides shelter, legal aid, and vocational training and counseling. Today, the organization partners with USAID, and includes a network of 73 adolescent groups, 22 survivor groups and three women’s protection committees led by rural women.
Increasingly recognized for its work to bring the voices of survivors to the forefront, Shakti Samuha won Nepal’s Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2013 — considered the Asian Nobel Peace Prize.
medium – Charimaya emerged from her trafficking ordeal a stronger woman. Rather than succumbing to stigma and devastation, she has dedicated her life to helping other trafficking survivors also find hope.
In 1997, she won a personal victory, as she filed and then won a human trafficking case against all eight offenders in her case. However, four perpetrators were sentenced to 10 years in jail, while another four were sentenced to only a couple years following the existing law. Once the perpetrators were released, Charimaya and other members of Shakti Samuha worried about their safety. In similar cases, victims have received threats from released offenders.
These challenges illustrate that the fight for justice and more effective enforcement of anti-trafficking laws in Nepal that protect and justice for survivors is far from over.
USAID recognizes that trafficking in persons is a global human rights challenge that preys upon the vulnerable, breaks down rule of law, corrupts global commerce and diminishes development goals.
Since 2001, USAID has committed over $200 million to counter the major forms of human trafficking, including support for victim protection activities by partner organizations like Shakti Samuha.
In December, Shakti Samuha President Sunita Danuwar, who is another founding member of the group, received the 2015 Asia Democracy and Human Rights Award at a ceremony in Taipei on International Human Rights Day. The $100,000 prize will help the group continue assisting victims of human trafficking.
Additionally, the Government of Nepal is beginning to recognize trafficking as a serious human rights violation, and established an annual anti-trafficking day in 2007.
Although much more needs to be done to protect the rights of trafficked victims and survivors, these small victories give Charimaya and other survivors hope — hope for a future in which no girl or woman has to endure what they have.
About the Author
Jessica Benton Cooney is the Communications Specialist for USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance. Before joining USAID, she lived and worked in Liberia and Afghanistan, telling the story of several USAID partner organizations. She also covered elections, politics, and the House of Representatives as a staff writer and production editor for The Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C.