Human trafficking is one of the most abominable crimes in human history. The traffic in persons by means of coercion and deception for commercial sex exploitation, forced labor, or slavery, is an alarming global phenomenon. It plagues a country like Nepal, where poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and the suppression of women’s rights in law and tradition, have fueled the problem. Estimates indicate that as many as ten thousand women and children are trafficked annually from Nepal to India for prostitution exploitation.
In 1996, nearly three hundred trafficked Nepali girls were rescued in a police raid in the brothels of Mumbai, India. For six months, they were kept in harsh semi-detention in Mumbai shelters since they could not be immediately repatriated. Nepal’s government refused to accept them since they were seen as “soiled” female minors, and without citizenship papers. When non-government organizations (NGOs) intervened, the girls were finally repatriated. Traumatized, stigmatized and disowned by their families, their prospects of reintegration were difficult and dim. A group of these survivors, however, bravely decided that if society and their own families had abandoned them, then they would have to take control of their lives by themselves. These fifteen survivors, ages fifteen to eighteen, banded themselves into a group they boldly called SHAKTI SAMUHA—in English, “Power Group”—with the aim of empowering trafficking survivors so that they can lead a dignified life. While the group started work right away, they could not register their organization, being minors and ‘non-citizens,’ until 2000. SHAKTI SAMUHA is the world’s first anti-trafficking NGO created and run by trafficking survivors themselves.
Surmounting difficulties with the help of partner organizations, SHAKTI SAMUHA has amazingly accomplished a great deal in helping female trafficking victims, as well as women and children at risk of being victimized. In 2004 the group established Shakti Kendra in Kathmandu, a halfway home that has since provided survivors shelter, medical care, counseling, legal aid, educational support, skills training, and start-up loans for income-generating activities. Targeting women and girls at risk, SHAKTI SAMUHA also set up an emergency shelter in Pokhara, where diverse support services are offered for street children, child laborers, and girls at risk. They have carried out awareness-raising programs in trafficking-prone districts in Kathmandu, targeting slums and establishments like dance bars, massage parlors, and carpet factories. They have also organized community-based Child Protection Committees, conducted training for groups including the police, and used such media as street theater in their campaign against trafficking and domestic violence.
Pushing the campaign to the policy level, SHAKTI SAMUHA partnered with international organizations to develop protocols for the repatriation of trafficked victims, significantly influenced the framing of Nepal’s 2007 Human Trafficking Act and the creation of an anti-trafficking unit in the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare. Represented in the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, they are lobbying to revise citizenship laws that are gender-discriminatory and that obstruct the reintegration of trafficked women. Now working in eleven districts, SHAKTI SAMUHA has reached fifteen thousand people in its awareness-raising activities; rehabilitated and reintegrated 678 victims of trafficking and domestic violence; and provided financial support for livelihood and education to 670 women. At the core of these achievements are the group’s founders and the five hundred trafficked women who now constitute its membership. Bonded by a common experience, they are relentless in their drive to help themselves and others like them. As one member declares, “Nowadays, I am ready to fight, to argue and debate against threats and stigmatization. We are trafficking survivors, but no less capable than others in society.”
In electing SHAKTI SAMUHA to receive the 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes its founders and members for transforming their lives in service to other human trafficking survivors, for their passionate dedication towards rooting out a pernicious social evil in Nepal, and for the radiant example they have shown the world in reclaiming the human dignity that is the birthright of all abused women and children everywhere.
Granting the award to Shakti Samuha as the fifth awardee from Nepal is a great honor and pleasure not only for my colleagues and I but also for our partners—funding agencies, media and NGOs, the Nepalese people and the government.
We would like, therefore, to express our deepest thanks to the trustees and staff of the Foundation for working very hard to select Shakti Samuha to receive this award. It confirms that our mission to abolish human trafficking is right and should be pursued. It has been very inspiring for me to see not only Shakti Samuha grow but also to see more people get involved, stay involved, and work harder for the best interests of women and children who are the most vulnerable groups in our society. I am sure this award will facilitate our work in this very hard struggle.
Despite all our success, what we have achieved is still very small compared to the seriousness of human trafficking in Nepal, which needs continuous and integrated interventions to change public attitude and behavior. Breaking ground in the fight against trafficking is dangerous. We have encountered so many obstacles including resistance from unreasonable conservative communities, threats from traffickers, and frustrations in the failure of the legal system to provide justice to survivors. We are also daily witnesses and listeners to violations against women and children.
On a personal note, as a young female survivor-leader I have to overcome problems, such as seniority and negative reactions to feminism. I face challenges in choosing appropriate and responsive strategies selecting rights-based sensitive staff, enabling them to become more professional, and keeping them from burning out. But the suffering of survivors is what motivates us to continue this difficult mission.
We have also learned a lot from this work. First, everything can be changed for the better. But this needs time, persistence, accurate information, and proper planning with inputs from victims and all stakeholders. Second, empowering survivors to deal with problems by themselves needs to be effective and efficient. I am sure no one wants their daughters, sisters and mothers to be trafficked. Third, a leader in this kind of work must be dedicated. If the leader is uncommitted and afraid, members, the staff and the community will be the same. But if the leader is committed and brave, they will follow. Then, everything is possible. Fourth, coordination and networking is necessary for success to gain strength and confidence from people and institutions that they work with.
We struggled from our past when we spent a dreadful life which was like living in hell. After struggling, we realized that being trafficked was not our fault, and we turned our tears into power. This is why we are now able to stand up. So I have learned to be optimistic in my life and in this Shakti Samuha journey.
We at Shakti Samuha believe that society can be peaceful and prosperous only when men, women and children hold hands together with equal dignity and respect. This can be attained only with the participation and support from all sectors not only from women’s groups.
To conclude, we are very encouraged by your recognition. Shakti Samuha would not be as successful today without the help of our supporters. We hope the support continues.