As those first devastating images of an earthquake-savaged Nepal came rolling in on April 25, my reaction, like that of so many others, was shock at the scale of the destruction.
This rapidly turned to horror as it became clear that the quake was going to exact a massive toll of lives and basic infrastructure. And that was before this poverty-stricken country, already on its knees, was hit by another quake last week. More than 8,500 have now lost their lives to these disasters.
Having been to Nepal several times over the years, it was all too easy to appreciate the catastrophe that had been visited on this small and fragile country and its people. All the more so as I was due to set off to Kathmandu again the week the first earthquake hit. I had planned to head there with a number of work colleagues and donors as part of our efforts to open a project to combat the sex trafficking of girls in the capital.
Of course we postponed our trip, but we also decided to expedite our work in Kathmandu — in the knowledge that one of the many tragic consequences of a massive natural disaster is that it makes many more families and kids vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds, including commercial sexual exploitation.
This has been well explained by one of our Nepalese partners, Shakti Samuha, a grassroots organisation in Kathmandu. Its director, Sunita Danuwar points out:
“This is the time when the brokers go in the name of relief to kidnap or lure women. We are distributing assistance to make people aware that someone might come to lure them. We are getting reports of [individuals] pretending to go for rescuing and looking at people.”
Clearly Nepal needs our help more than ever. And amongst all the help it is getting, there must be a sustained effort to fight modern slavery in all its forms, as Nepal has long suffered disproportionately from this crime against humanity.
A 2010 report shows more than 13,000 girls and women are working in Kathmandu’s adult entertainment sector. As many as half of these workers are aged under 18 and around 68 per cent entered the industry while they were minors. Yet, despite this growth of the adult entertainment and related commercial sex industry in Nepal, there has been barely any government intervention, and donor efforts have struggled to meet the many needs — and that was before the quake.
The Freedom Fund was on its way to Nepal to meet with our partners on the ground and scale up work fighting commercial sexual exploitation. That work is even more pressing now. Many more girls will in Nepal will be vulnerable and at even greater risk of being lured or forced into the industry.
Our goal is to reduce the involvement of girls under the age of 18 in commercial sexual exploitation and in the jobs and industries, which put them at risk of such exploitation in the Kathmandu Valley. We have undertaken extensive research of the risks and challenges in the Kathmandu Valley, and plan to build on the approaches that have shown signs of success in tackling this specific industry.
Already, we’ve expedited grants to our partners on the ground so that they can reach out to girls who were already working in the adult entertainment sector who may be especially struggling to access humanitarian aid. We’re also providing emergency funds to local NGO partners in the most hard-hit trafficking source areas so they can help with essential survival needs while also enabling people to watch out against traffickers and protect children. One of our partners — whose office was destroyed in the quake, together with the homes of its staff — received an emergency grant from the Freedom Fund. It is using these funds to deploy various kinds of support in the emergency camps to prevent trafficking from taking hold.
The Freedom Fund has one encapsulating vision — a world free of slavery. We bring much-needed funding and resources to fight modern slavery. With a global perspective and a passionate, expert team, our aim is to raise $100 million for anti-slavery investments in countries and sectors where it is vital, such as Nepal.
We recognise that fighting modern slavery is an enormous challenge, but evidence has shown that effective interventions can have a measurable impact. In recent years, the collective efforts of governments, companies, local NGOs and consumers have dramatically reduced child labour in cocoa plantations in West Africa. Tough coordinated action by the authorities, both in Asian countries where the abuse takes place and in Europe and North America where offenders live, is helping counter child sex-tourism. In India, the home to almost half of the world’s modern slaves, targeted grassroots programmes are beginning to lift this shadow from lives and entire communities.
The Freedom Fund will ensure our partners in Nepal are supported in the immediate aftermath of the quake, when their needs are nearly overwhelming. But we are also committed for the long haul. We will still be there after the rubble is cleared and people have started rebuilding their lives. And those committed to a brighter future for Nepal and its people amidst all the devastation can help by supporting efforts to fight those who seek to exploit girls made even more vulnerable by this tragedy.
Read the blog on the Huffington Post.