From the 16th to 20th May 2011, CNN’s Hero of the Year 2010, Mrs. Anuradha Koirala, and the director Maiti Nepal, Mr. Bishwo Ram Khadka, were hosted in Singapore by Mrinalini Venkatachalam from UNIFEM Singapore, Aparna Thadani from Prospero World and assistant film producer of The End/Beginning, a film on Mrs. Koirala’s life, Karishma Chanrai, for a week-long awareness raising stint.

Mrs. Koirala was voted CNN hero out of a pool of 10,000 initial applicants. Her work has gained international recognition for its tremendous efforts to fight against the trafficking of women and children in and out of Nepal.

“More than 10,000 girls between the ages of 9-16 are sold from Nepal into the brothels of India”  Anuradha Koirala

Mrs. Koirala’s organisation Maiti Nepal not only rescues and rehabilitates trafficked girls and women, but also works to prevent trafficking and illegal labour through education programs amongst girls at high risk.

The purpose for Mrs. Koirala’s visit to Singapore was to start a momentum for action and bring the harsh reality of the inhuman practice of human trafficking to the public. Within the metropolis of Singapore, where the issue of trafficking is rarely discussed or acknowledged, the organisers wanted to expose audiences to the brutality of the industry. They arranged events with different banks, corporate groups, schools and universities to raise awareness within a diverse group from a range of backgrounds.

Mrs. Koirala was greeted with incredible reverence and respect by all the guests. The Nepal Society was in awe of her presence and took great pride hosting their local Hero. Furthermore, the documentary The End/Beginning was screened for the first time at this event and it brought tears to Mrs. Koirala’s eyes as she watched the story of her life unfold.

For the audience, the documentary took them back to their homeland. They saw first-hand accounts of girls who had been offered fake job opportunities and fraudulent marriages – all manipulated to be sold into an exploitative and illegal trade. Madhu, your ordinary 15-year old, had walked into the drop in centre at Maiti Nepal when Ms. Chanrai was on location for shoot. Her team were able to film the exchange between Madhu and Mrs. Koirala. This girl’s father was promised that Madhu would get a respectable job in Saudi Arabia. However, two years later, when she returned home, she was covered in scars, bruises and her teeth had been broken by her employer. She had been working as a domestic helper and was tortured and abused at her workplace.

It was evident that the ladies from the Nepal Society were moved by these girls’ stories and inspired in the presence of Mrs. Koirala. Ms. Venkatachalam noted how they clustered around Mrs. Koirala, asking how they could do more to protect the girls of their country.

Even more heartening was the response from the younger students at United World College. During the Q&A session the issues they raised were insightful and intelligent. The sincerity of their concerns and response to act was inspiring. The second question raised during the Q&A was: what can we do to help? From the events at United World College, over SG$8,000 was received in cash donations, almost half of the total donations raised during the week.

The evening event at UWC brought in the Singapore context strongly with the participation of Braema Mathi, a specialist on human rights in the region. She discussed the controversy concerning girls in Geylang – the red-light district of Singapore – questioning whether they are working as prostitutes out of their own free will or if they have been trafficked and sold into the sex industry.

“Not everyone can dedicate their lives to the cause like Anuradha… what we can do in Singapore is to organize information gathering on the issue to help those working in the field.” Braema Mathi

Whilst Mrs. Koirala inspired people across the board in Singapore, it was also a two-way process. Introducing her to banks such as UBS brought up the importance of transparency and financial mechanisms, issues of concern to Maiti Nepal. Mr. Khadka stated that one of the most pressing issues of the organisation was to secure its financial sustainability and improve upon its giving mechanisms in donor-friendly ways. This was a crucial topic of discussion given that Maiti Nepal has recently lost one of their largest grants of US$200,000/year owing to the financial recession.

Mrs. Koirala admitted her fear of the sustainability of her organisation after she passes or can no longer continue her awareness raising trips.

In the UBS and INSEAD events, the conferences were live streamed, a tool which may become increasingly useful for Mrs. Koirala. Both were virtual conferences, reaching audiences in countries across the world simultaneously. One of our viewers from the INSEAD event who tuned in from Paris voiced her outrage as she listened to Mrs. Koirala recount an incident with a higher level politician, who reprimanded her for bringing HIV positive girls into the country. According to him these girls should be confined and prevented from contaminating the rest of Nepalese society. To that she wittily replied “All of us have biological needs… you have gone abroad, how do I know that you don’t have HIV? I have not tested you.” Broadcasting these stories to a global audience exposes the enormity of the situation. The lack of awareness is not limited to the girls alone but pervades all strata of society.

The roots of human trafficking stem from a range of socioeconomic issues such as gender discrimination, lack of education/awareness, superstitions/taboos and poverty.

The work of Mrs. Koirala is not simple, yet she dedicates her life to eradicate the trade of Nepalese women and children. Ms. Thadani mentioned that even when Mrs. Koirala was sick, retching in pain on her last day in Singapore, instead of willingly going to the doctor, she tried to attend the last few conferences of the visit.

Mrs. Koirala’s dedication was palpable to the Singapore community.

“Mrs. Koirala’s strong commitment to saving trafficked victims and combating the ills of such exploitation is an inspiration, mirrored in her care of each rescued survivor as individuals as they rebuild their lives at Maiti Nepal.” Gerald Chan, CEO, UBS Singapore

The response has been overwhelming:  from the doctor at The Bonham Clinic who diagnosed and treated her for free, the housewife who wants to organise a donation drive in cash and kind, to the employees at one of the banks who are setting up a sustainable fund to help Maiti Nepal cover all basic necessities. Even an online company, Urban Journey picked up on Maiti’s work and began selling its bags online to raise funds for the girls.  From every strata of society, people have innovatively used the resources at their disposal, coming up with different ways to support Maiti Nepal. Over the five days, Mrs. Koirala and Mr. Khadka were in Singapore, Maiti Nepal received SG$20,000 in cash donations.

The real power that fuels Maiti Nepal’s work comes from the strength of the survivors. Though something inside Mrs. Koirala dies every day as crime rates continue to rise, it is the girls who now patrol the borders, the little girl in Gokarna fighting HIV and the hundreds of rehabilitated women fighting to put their traffickers behind bars that will keep her going until Nepal is free from human trafficking.

 

-   Mrinalini Venkatachalam