After the rescue of 23 Nepali girls from an orphanage in Coimbatore in southern India two weeks ago and writing my report for Nepali Times (A far-away rescue, #571), I was following up to see how many of them had been reunited with their parents.
The girls, mostly from Humla, had been taken to Michael Job Centre (MJC) in Coimbatore when they were between three to seven by the infamous human trafficker, Dal Bahadur Phadera. Ten years later, the girls were found by the Esther Benjamins Memorial Foundation (EMBF) living in the centre as "orphans" of "Christian martyrs" killed by Maoists during the war. In all these years, the children except for those whose parents worked with the traffickers, had no contact with their families in Nepal.
When all girls were handed over and brought back to Nepal,we had expected this to be received positively back home and that it would spur up similar rescue efforts of other children sold and trafficked in India. But instead of being commended for the rescue, EBMF has been condemned in an orchestrated media campaign. It has been blamed for forcibly bringing back the girls from a 'good English medium school'. A television channel broadcasted footage of angry parents badmouthing the rescuers for endangering the future of their daughters. With their irresponsible and badly researched coverage, sections of the Nepali media ended up helping the trafficker.
They never bothered to check that in Bhairawa last week, when the children arrived, Phadera was there as well with the parents, most of whom are his relatives . A UML member, Phadera was convicted for human trafficking but used his political connections to get himself released after serving just three years. Now, he is using all his influence to slander the rescue and sadly, many reporters have played along.
The Coimbatore school is supposed to be an orphanage, but the girls were no orphans. The girls were said to be Christian, they were not. They were said to be victims of Christian martyrs killed by the Maoists, they were not. At anytime, if the Indian authorities had closed down the centre, the girls would have been homeless.
The police here have also been trying to pass the buck to cover up their lack of action. DSP Puja Singh said this week that it wasn't a big deal if the girls were falsely kept as orphans in India because "half the children in Nepal's orphanages are not orphans either" and that forcible conversion of minors is fine too as the country is secular now. Such comments prove how deep Phadera's political connections are and how everyone from the police to sections of the media are complicit in this crime.
There is not a shred of doubt that the Humla girls were trafficked to India to make money for the Michael Job Centre. The people who have objected to their children being embarrassed in public by the rescue might do well to remember that their girls were being advertised globally as orphans in the centre's website. The images and profiles of the girls were displayed online for sponsors to choose from. The centre has removed its website after being exposed. (See archived webpage of the centre)
Some parents were not happy to get their children back, they would rather that the girls stayed in India without them having to worry about their upbringing. But many are happy to have their children back. (See box).
What has got lost in all this is that the presence of the girls at the centre in India was illegal. It is no longer the question of whether the girls or their parents want them to stay in the orphanage, they had to come back or face an even more uncertain future in India.
It is typical for the parents of girls rescued from circuses and brothels to disown them. Many Nepali parents also sell their daughters off. We could not help but wonder if some of those parents would have reacted as bitterly if the children were not girls but boys.
But most surprising was how the media chose to argue in favor of traffickers by implying that children of poor parents are better off in foreign orphanages. The problem is in fact not so much with foreign traffickers as with Nepalis themselves.
Afterall it is often relatives who sell their daughters, sisters and wives to middlemen. Unless we stop, they won't. The rescuing organisation is ready to take charge of the girls if the parents are not interested. Instead of making ruckus about the future of the girls which the organisation is willing to look after, we would do better to rally against dangerous people like Phadera and their political patrons who sell Nepali girls and get away with it.
Sabita Kadel, 14, from Nawalparasi has finally came back home after five years of living as an orphan in Michael Job Centre in Coimbatore in India. After the rescue, her aunt Mina Paudel came to receive her in Kathmandu.
"I can't explain my happiness. For five years, I looked all over for her, two years ago I travelled to Coimbatore but I was humiliated at the Centre and they refused to give me back my daughter."
They did not even let Mina talk to Sabita over the phone for all these years. In the Centre's newsletter, Tortured For Christ, July 2009 issue, Sabita aka Fay has been mentioned as the child of a murdered Christian mother whose other relatives were also slaughtered in a killing rampage by Maoists.
Mina says that her family is Hindu and that the child's father died of kidney failure while the mother left when Sabita was young. "When we got to Bhairawa I saw parents refusing to take responsibility of their girls because they were hand-in-glove with the traffickers," Mina told Nepali Times. "I felt so sorry for those girls."
For her part, Sabita was ecstatic as she talked of her journey home: "I am so happy. I want to go places and be with my family and then continue school."
Cashing it big on children, THOMAS BELL
Adoption is just one part of the larger trafficking problem in Nepal
How our media helps sell children (by asking the wrong questions), USHAFT