June 13th, 2011

How she became indomitable

From prosecuting more sex traffickers than the Nepal government to helping former sex workers start new lives, activist Anuradha Koirala is living proof that nothing is impossible.

Nepalese activist Anuradha Koirala is often photographed, and with good reason. The 56-year-old founder and executive director of Maiti Nepal, a non-profit organisation that helps victims of sex trafficking, has received much international attention for her work.

This includes awards and accolades from the United Nations, the International Peace Council, and the Oprah Winfrey Show, to name just a few. In 2010, after she received CNN’s Hero Of The Year Award, a huge crowd turned up at the Kathmandu airport to welcome her home.

But Mrs Koirala is not often photographed smiling – no, not even when she clutched her CNN Award proudly amid throngs of cheering supporters. Perhaps there is also good reason for this pensive demeanour. She has been candid about how living with her abusive ex-husband – which meant enduring daily battering, verbal abuse and three miscarriages – spurred her to help women victimized by sex trafficking and domestic violence.

Since it was founded in 1993, Maiti Nepal, which means “mother’s home” in Nepali, has provided more than 12,000 women with shelter, work, education, counselling and medical assistance. It also runs a hospice for HIV-positive women and children. That’s more than 12,000 tales of woe. One might guess that the plight of these women weighs heavily on Mrs Koirala, perhaps accounting for her deeply furrowed brow in so many photographs.

But these photographs do not really convey what becomes immediately obvious when you encounter this petite, sari-clad former school-teacher in the flesh – namely, that she is made of steel; and a surprising glint of wry humour tempers that formidable strength of character.

Speaking to AWARE on May 18, when she was in Singapore for several fund-raising events, Mrs Koirala’s response to our question about the dangers her work exposes her to was swift and emphatic: “I am not scared. Why should I be scared? The traffickers try to stay away from me, they are scared of me.”

They have good reason to be. Because Maiti Nepal rescues and shelters former sex workers, the organisation is able to provide crucial testimonies from these women when it goes after sex traffickers in court. To date, its legal team has been responsible for the prosecution and conviction of 415 sex traffickers. That’s a success rate that bests the Nepalese government’s prosecution record considerably, says Mrs Koirala.

Border patrol is another area where Maiti Nepal’s efforts are trumping government efforts. To catch sex traffickers in the act, the organisation deploys a total of 50 women to patrol 10 official border crossings between Nepal and India.

“Most of these women are survivors of sex trafficking themselves, so they are the most skilled in identifying the techniques of the traffickers,” Mrs Koirala tells us. She adds, with discernible pride, that Maiti Nepal’s border guards stop an average of 40 to 50 women from being trafficked across the border daily.

These border patrollers are not volunteers. Rather, they are paid by Maiti Nepal. “Having jobs helps them get their dignity back, and become financially independent,” she says.

This emphasis on economic self-sufficiency is consistent with her earliest attempts to help disadvantaged women. As a school teacher, she used to loan female beggars 1,000 rupees each, taking the money out of her meagre salary so they could start small businesses.

Giving victims of sex trafficking the means to earn their own keep through measures like micro-credit loans, education and training is particularly important, she stresses.

Nepalese communities remain extremely resistant and unwelcoming when these women try to re-integrate back into mainstream society. Mrs Koirala believes that these prejudices will fade if these women are business-owners who can provide the community with jobs. “Because if you have money, people will forget even if you were a murderer, you see,” she notes. “They will forget about anything.”

The quip has the succinct power of a deadpan punchline, but you’re not really sure if it’s okay to laugh. Mrs Koirala tends to speak very very fast, each word running full speed into the next in her firm, no-nonsense tone. It can be hard to tell if she’s being intentionally humorous, like when she says the lodgings at Maiti Nepal are “very very clean, very very nice, people say it should be a five-star hotel”. You’re only sure when she breaks into a sudden, brief smile – it has the feel of a fairly rare occurrence.

Hopefully, she will have more reasons to smile in the near future. After all, from where she’s standing, things are looking up. The very existence of Maiti Nepal is testament to a more open society in Nepal. “Before 1990, the political situation was very different. Nobody could speak,” she recalls of Nepal’s former system of absolute monarchy. After a parliamentary monarchy was introduced, “many NGOs came up championing the rights of women and children”.

Maiti Nepal is one of these groups, and when she first started it, Mrs Koirala says she barely knew what an NGO was. With her fellow activists, she went village to village, organising camps to raise awareness about how to help sex trafficking victims. Her numerous international awards and high profile in Nepal show clearly that these efforts have borne fruit.

Getting more stable and sustainable sources of funding for Maiti Nepal’s 21 shelters remains a pressing issue, she acknowledges. The organisation needs US$1million a year for its operations. But all in all, she says: “Everything is very encouraging. People are starting to recognise the issue of trafficking, and even the Nepal government is changing – they’re changing slowly.”

Find out more about Maiti Nepal, here.

– Reporting by Kylie Goh

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