by Christa Hillstrom
It’s a well-worn path, several lanes wide, that flows from one nation into the other: sprawling, spectacular India, and the snug mountain gem of Nepal. The actual border is hard to discern because passports are rarely examined where the meager sprawl of Nepal’s Birgunj breaks for India’s simmering sister town, Raxaul. No one stops the men in trucks carting Indian goods up into the Himalayas, sides ablaze with folk art. Or the auto-rickshaws and chortling buses that taxi day laborers back and forth in the clingy heat. Hundreds of migrants snake through the traffic—pedestrians spilling out on a sunbaked floodplain; past two tan-clad officials smoking bidis at a card table, shunted almost out of sight and sprayed with what looks like hand-drawn letters: “Indian Customs.”
As with most major crossings, the lanes bubble with commerce, ambition, and the promise of futures both real and imagined. For some, these will shortly be swapped for confinement, betrayal, and death.
It was a few miles from a passage like this that a broker of women ushered a small band of girls through the brush to avoid the border’s activity. When the authorities caught him, they discovered that he’d trafficked women down this route before, including his own pregnant wife. He sold her to the Indian brothel circuit for $100.
Shanta Sapkota is not astounded. She’s heard this story, in its shapeshifting forms, literally hundreds of times already. But the first surprise about Shanta Sapkota is that she tells it with serenity.
She’s sitting in a sunlit Minneapolis apartment, thousands of miles from her native Nepal, with hands folded across her belly. Her smile is weary with jetlag and the exhaustion of relaying tales like this throughout the U.S. to rally support for Peace Rehabilitation Center, a Kathmandu sanctuary for girls returning from the sex trade. But it doesn’t prevent her from starting at the beginning. Her expression holds neither desperation nor rage.
Perhaps 23 years as the founding director of the Center, or PRC, have taught her that rage is more potent when repurposed as compassion. And the hundreds of women who have passed through her walls, besmirched with scars both inside and out, have proved again and again that the story doesn’t end at the border or in the brothel. It doesn’t even end at the safehouse, in counseling. It continues ever deeper as women and children are brought home—both to their villages and in their hearts. There’s little space for despair in this line of work: Sapkota’s in the business of resurrection.
The black boom of sex trafficking is one of the more despicable side effects of globalization, in company with innumerable others. India hosts nearly eight million women in prostitution, many of whom have been imported from slightly poorer neighbors like Nepal and Bangladesh. An estimated 100,000 – 200,000 Nepali girls are currently on the Indian sex market, with between 5,000 and 12,000 secreted over the border every year for sex, as well as domestic servitude, begging, and sometimes even the circus.
Nepal—an undulating accent on the map above the far more expansive India—is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its human development ranking puts it on par with Papua New Guinea and Togo, claiming the 138th spot out of 169 countries ranked in the U.N.’s 2010 report. Trafficking here, as elsewhere, is fueled by a confluence of endemic problems like extreme poverty, political instability, gender inequality, the degradation of rural livelihoods, and insufficient law enforcement—many spurred on by broader global power dynamics.
Traffickers have targeted families with susceptible girls here for years. Today, the trickery is nearly flawless. It’s often relatives or close friends of the family who come, offering wage-earning work for those with few other options when it comes to providing for the needs of girls. Sometimes a “bill of sale” is even drawn up, sealed with the hapless fingerprint of an illiterate parent who can’t read the meaningless document. It’s that easy for so many girls to be flung down a road that will take them through beatings, rape, starvation, and sexually transmitted diseases, thousands of miles from home.
Sapkota’s heart is full of these hundreds of thousands of what she calls “daughters,” not because she’s ever been locked in a Mumbai brothel, but because she’s shared a darkly similar, if less dramatic experience: She was given away by her father at 12 years old, trafficked over the threshold of an older man’s house—as his bride.
“My mother had five children, and three of them died,” she remembers. “Only my sister and I survived. My father wanted a son, so he got another wife.”
That childhood pain, some of it on her mother’s behalf, is thousands of miles and decades distant, but it rings keenly within her all the same. The original sting of abuse, neglect, and the devaluation of women has congealed into something blunter—and softer—whose circumference she can trace and understand. “That lack of love was so important. Love is more important than antibiotics.”
At 12 years old, Sapkota was braced for the same burdens borne by both of her father’s wives. “No one,” she shakes her head with introspection: “No one listens to women’s voices.”
She joined the 60 million girls worldwide (by today’s figures) who are married before the age of 18.
Two older Nepali girls instruct younger children about the dangers of underage marriage.
Photo courtesy of the United Nations Development Programme.
Sixty-three percent of women in Nepal are believed to be married as minors. The practice is common in poor, rural communities, and although it is mostly condoned as a provision for economically vulnerable daughters, the social, psychological, and physical consequences are only beginning to be studied. Women married off as children statistically suffer more intense social isolation and higher rates of domestic violence, not to mention the health risks that stalk premature sexual activity and pregnancy—from obstetric fistula to HIV.
Pregnancy is now the leading cause of death worldwide for girls between 15 and 19 years old. In some parts of the world, marriage has even become a risk factor for HIV transmission. It’s little wonder that women married as children often show lifelong signs of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder: despair, helplessness, and severe depression.
Which is why Sapkota’s story is all the more stunning.
As a preteen bride in an unfamiliar household, she had no power and few rights, enduring abuse from her husband as well as his family. As she matured, she grew into a searching curiosity about the books on the family shelf— the Koran, the Bhavagad Gita, the Bible—all of them forbidden to her. The last, she hid in her knapsack one day on a trip to gather water and stole a few minutes with the “Book of Genesis.”
In the following weeks, a shy child bride from a Nepali village gleaned what is not always easy to glean from the first five books of the Bible. She rationed it out day by day on her regular trips to the water pump, imbibing a strange and foreign revelation of love—the voluminous, unlimited, tenacious love that is in motion throughout the universe.
It was through tending that fledgling and yet-to-be-named faith that Sapkota mustered the courage, at 25 years old, to finally leave her husband. She never looked back, and, perhaps miraculously, he never came after her. The faith that she came to rest in —Christianity—came with a vocation, and she plunged into an education that prepared her to be a practitioner of sorts. For years she weighed within herself the charge to heal the emotionally dispossessed and its at times harrowing consequences, all the while being pulled irresistibly toward ground zero of one of the most egregious human rights violations of our time.
There is a Kathmandu that tourists adore. Trekkers trickle through Thamel, the city’s eerily cleanswept, Epcot-center version of itself, where the streets crumble charmingly in front of lit-up windows for mountain outfitter showrooms. Monkeys scrabble over rooftops in screechy aggression, their mange the color of leftover tea. They leap through alleyways raggedly laced with the boisterous blues, reds, and yellows of strung-up flags—flapping prayers with frayed edges.
Outside of Thamel, the city is swathed in premature darkness from rolling blackouts. The occasional buzz of a generator stirs the air as women crouch, flat-footed in the halflight, scrubbing dishes in basins. The river of trash is soggy and still, its current stalled with soiled food and plastic. The reek settles over it like a haze. Unlike the riotous hubbub of Indian cities, Kathmandu is a murmur: meek, almost soft.
Somewhere on the outskirts is Peace Rehabilitation Center, home to both girls who have been in the brothels and those with a high risk of being trafficked there—including the homeless and orphaned. Sapkota has welcomed hundreds of women into these walls, providing the stability and space that their lives have mostly lacked. Most of them are poor. Many have been violated. Almost all feel, at first, alone. They are vulnerable to every element, but Sapkota describes them first as “loveless.”
In the media, sex trafficking has become almost tantalizing. There’s a tremor of something excitement-like when women are plucked out of the red-light squalor of “Third World” megacities on camera. There’s glamour in the raids. NGO workers, law enforcement, and occasionally even celebrities recover girls who have been kept—sometimes literally—in boxes. The documentation of these efforts has undoubtedly raised a much-needed alarm over sexual enslavement and its entanglement with the global economy.
But the work ahead is far less enthralling and commands weaker attention. Behind the unremarkable walls of safehouses like PRC and in remote villages that are trying, in earnest, to better protect their women, the plodding work of rehabilitation takes place. For caregivers like Sapkota, it’s gradual, wrenching, and also rewarding, coaxing girls back into life when they’ve seen what it has to offer and want no further part. This largely uncelebrated work is undertaken worldwide by thousands of individuals, communities, NGO’s, governments, and even trafficking survivors themselves.
Many rehabilitation centers, including PRC, provide vocational training in skills like sewing, cooking, gardening, and sometimes even mechanics and business. Helping women become economically independent protects them from the vulnerabilities that led to their initial trafficking, breaks the cycle of debt and extreme poverty, and ensures that they will never have to sell their own daughters.
The women are frequently suicidal when they arrive. “Where to go? Whom to trust?” Sapkota asks. “That’s the hardest thing. It takes such a long time for each individual girl. Preaching is easy but building is hard. They’re watching carefully what you do, if you mean it when you care for them, if you spend time with them. After you prove yourself they trust.”
Sapkota gives them space to heal at their own frequency. Some are so angry they want to kill. Others cry for days or weeks. In such situations, Sapkota believes, it’s best to take on a motherly role: “In an environment where you must say Madam, they’re already suffering.” In other words, it’s better to be Mama than Madam for girls who have been injured by too many madams and not enough mothering. Simple girls, simple love, is the motto.
But they are perhaps not so simple as they wade through a legacy of uncorked grief. “There is no medicine for heart healing,” Sapkota acknowledges, shaking her head as if she’s just realized it for the hundredth time. Perhaps there is no easy fix, but there is the gift of persistent listening. This Sapkota gives unflinchingly, belaying her girls down through the caverns of their secret wounds where they cannot go on their own.
Sapkota and thousands of other caregivers like her take on the arduous but life-giving work of nursing the wounds of sex trafficking survivors—both inside and out. Photo courtesy of Peace Rehabilitation Center.
Some girls eventually return to their villages in homecomings that require entire programs of support. PRC staff must talk to the parents and local leaders ahead of time to ensure that no girl is ostracized or condemned for her experience, much less re-trafficked.
Nepal’s daughters are slowly returning, and village by village, rural people are coming to understand the pernicious nature of trafficking and the extent to which money and dehumanization—always high-powered partners—attempt to grease every crevice of human activity. Even “simple” people are beginning to see that the same forces that seize their land, trip them into debt cycles, call their sons to the city with sugary dreams (only to leave them groping in the gutter), have also been selling their daughters at night.
The reaction is usually shock. Parents who may not have heard from sent-away children for many years are heartbroken when they find out what happened. Sometimes, the women are coming back sick, traumatized, and seemingly despoiled, and for some families the return is a living memorial to its destitution or shame. These cases can require much mediation.
Highland Nepali villages, with their slopes of terraced gardens and vibrant colors, would look something like paradise without the realities of poverty and its symptoms. The isolation and innocence of these communities add to their vulnerability to exploitation. Photo by Andy Hares.
But advocates like Sapkota are helping to shift the stigma away from women and even families to focus on trafficking as a major global snare into which they’ve been duped. Restoring a girl who has been active in her own renewal back to her home and family—and watching the community change as a result—is the point itself for PRC: Healing comes full circle.
But the truest coming home, for Sapkota, happens privately in each person: reconciliation with the world in one’s own heart. And this isn’t easy, even for her.
If raising one daughter in Nepal is difficult, then mothering hundreds who are stumbling back from prisonlike brothels can be downright excruciating. “My sister,” Sapkota confides, leaning in, “I also am human.”
Nowhere has the throwaway status of so many girls grieved her more than in caring for the dying bodies of children who, having been used up in fulfillment of the world’s appetites for sex and money, are left with nothing but their skin and bones. And these, sometimes barely.
In 1995, PRC got a new influx of girls. Of 128 rescued from an Indian brothel, 13 were sent to PRC. All of them had HIV. For the first few days, some would sleep while others screamed. Then they would switch shifts.
Exhausted, Sapkota took a break from the house, but she was plagued by the specter of everything the teenagers had told her. “On the street,” she remembers, “I saw a woman and a man. In my mind, I thought, she is the woman who was selling these girls. He is the man who was buying them. Then I called my husband and told him, I need a counselor.”
Those were still the early years, and these days—16 years later—Sapkota has come to terms with the ways of the world even while doing her part to change it. So far, three of her daughters have been lost to AIDS. Currently, two in her house are HIV-positive. You never really get used to it, she says of the months and years watching those thinning girls fade quietly away behind PRC’s walls.
“Women and girls, we are not like tissue paper,” she sighs with a guttural empathy that can only come from some fount of shared experience. “We are mother. We are daughter. We are sister. So why do they use us and throw us away?”
It’s nothing short of the work of God himself, Sapkota believes, when a child shows up suicidal and finally learns to love herself. Photo courtesy of Peace Rehabilitation Center.
Jyoti* inhabits a special region of Sapkota’s heart. She spent two years in an Indian brothel. She has both HIV and TB, and she’s lost all her hair to them. For two years after her rescue, she needed a bedpan, and Sapkota nursed her through it all with tender faith that Jyoti’s heart was capable of recovery.
After years spent rebuilding herself at PRC, Jyoti chanced one day upon the broker who first bought and sold her as a child. She watched him pass on the street from a distance, and what she felt surprised her.
“What she felt was forgiveness,” Sapkota says. “She told me, ‘I nearly died in the Indian brothels, but I had a chance to live and come to know love. And for that, I have to be able to forgive him.’”
This, finally—this long-fought-for moment—makes Sapkota sit back in satisfied amazement: at true rehabilitation, the rescue of a wearied heart, even when it’s bald with a bedpan and rife with disease; at bringing it around to a truce with the world and its incomprehensible betrayals; at the defiant and radical possibility of peace. She has labored to bring her own heart here, so she knows it when she sees it.
To have compassion is to be present with someone in their suffering. To experience their chaos and not let go. To actually feel it for no other end but to show them they’re not alone. This doesn’t make sense in a world where starving families sell their daughters to strangers; where men buy women and keep them in cages; where a new global policy can annihilate the security of millions of villagers in one sudden swoop.
But there’s a counterforce at work in that world, Sapkota tells me, refolding her hands across her stomach. That’s how it gets transformed.
She watches me for my reaction, and as I hold her gaze I notice that for the first time, she looks restful.
I don’t need to ask her what it is to recognize the counterforce: That the active ingredient in transformation is love—reckless, resplendent, vociferous love, more powerful than antibiotics.
Visit Peace Rehabilitation Center for more information.
*This name has been changed to protect the identity of “Jyoti.”
Quick Facts from this Story
Graphic by Michelle Ney. Photo by Andy Hares.
Christa Hillstrom is the editor of Human Goods and wrote this article in partnership with Round Earth Media, a non-profit media organization celebrating the next generation of global journalism. She has reported in the U.S. and India on social justice and global health and development, and is interested in understanding how power and language drive global trends of exploitation that commodify people. She currently lives in Seattle.