Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Bleeding Wound of Nepal: sex trafficking

This is a story I am researching and hope to be able to cover on location:

Draped along the spine of the Himalayas, Nepal is a land of sublime scenery and deep, rich culture. It is also a country from where some 10,000 girls disappear each year. Most never come back.

The majority of them, aged 14 to 16, are trafficked to India, where they are sold into slavery or debt bondage to brothels in Mumbai and Kolkata .These tsukris, as these young slave prostitutes are called, are totally confined within the brothel for an average of two years, after which they are allowed out only with guardians. They end their period of bondage at 18 to 22 years old when they have “repaid their debt.” During that time, the brothel owner has made a profit four to 20 times the price paid for the trafficked girl.

When they are finally freed, the tsukris are no longer girls, but older, shop-worn women with “less market value” - often mentally and physically scarred, ill or HIV positive. Unable to return home to Nepal because of the stigma of prostitution, most remain in India. There, illegal, isolated and with no other means of surviving, nearly all return to sex work, this time as independents. The most entrepreneurial of them become brothel owners, buying their own tsukris - and so the system perpetuates itself. A few, however, have managed to go back to Nepal, where they patrol the border, trying to prevent other girls from being trafficked.

Although slavery was long ago legally abolished in the State of Nepal, and despite national and international efforts to prevent trafficking, the number of girls trafficked from Nepal has significantly increased over the last decade. A Nepali newspaper called it: “The Bleeding Wound of Nepal.” UNICEF estimates that 300,000 Nepalese women and girls have been sold into forced prostitution mostly to India, but also within Nepal and to Gulf countries, and their numbers are swollen every year by new arrivals.

Girls are trafficked from all over the country, but mostly from poor rural villages. Rural communities live in extreme poverty and life for women is harsh. (Nepal is one of the rare countries in the world where men outlive women). Women are expected to work harder than men, but are considered an economic hindrance and have no voice. They are also poorer and have limited access to education and health care. Their precarious situation makes them more vulnerable to being lured away with promises of employment, marriage or a better life across the border. Others are simply sold by their families, who may not know the full horror of what awaits them in India. The border between Nepal and India in vast (1,100-miles long) and porous and towns across the border create a natural market for trafficking. Trafficking, of course, is immensely profitable...

A few women are fighting back: Maiti Nepal, a local charity in Danghadi, Kaili, is trying to intercept trafficked girls at the border before they can reach their final destination in Indian brothels. They rely on young women - some are former trafficked persons - patrolling the border at checkpoints, working in conjunction with the police to interrogate suspicious parties. Former trafficked women say they can always spot a trafficked girl, having been there themselves.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Maggie, the Gypsy Queen - preserving Gypsy culture

Depending on whom you ask, Maggie Smith-Bendell is a grandmother from hell or a tireless campaigner for Gypsy rights. For the past decade, this feisty, self-taught 68-yer-old Romany grandmother has been helping Gypsy families securing private land - sometimes by stealth - and advising legislators on planning issues.

Now, “the grandmother of land grab” has written a beautiful memoir to “try to explain to house-dwellers who we are and how we live.” She also wants to record a way of life that has more or less vanished. “I didn't want my father's memory and the era of the wagon and horses and our ancient ways to die out,” says Maggie, who was born on the edge of a pea field near Bridgwater in Somerset in 1941.

I've found her book fascinating because it vividly describes the transition from the early decades of the twentieth century, when Gypsies were still able to live according to their own rhythms and follow seasonal work, through to the period when agriculture changed and councils began to clamp down on Gypsies who stopped on the roadside or common land, and finally to the present situation where Gypsies try to buy their own land on which to live outside the restrictions of council-run sites.

“So much of our way of life is over,” she told me when I went to interview her in Somerset a few weeks ago. “I miss being on the move, the rhythm of our horses' feet and the comfort of our wagon, or running alongside it with our little Jack Russell rabbiters. Summer or winter, we would wake up on a morning and fall out of the wagon to sit beside a good, hot fire. That fire was the centre of our lives.

“That's part of my hope for the families I get planning for. On a private site, we can return to our traditions, for to have an outside fire to cook upon and sit around is forbidden on authorised council sites as a hazard. If you sing and dance on a council site, you're likely to get your marching order for making noise; if you bring a horse back to the site you're causing a nuisance to others.”

I wrote a piece on Maggie for the Guardian (published last Saturday). Read it here.

Our Forgotten Years: A Gypsy Woman's Life on the Road by Maggie Smith-Bendell is published by University of Hertfordshire Press, £8.99. To order a copy for £8.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846