Young girls share their life stories with photographer Katie Orlinsky at a rescue center in Nepal that helps victims of sex trafficking regain their freedom and happiness.
Regularly described as one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, Nepal is a ‘source’ country for traffickers, and its most marginalised people are also the most frequently targeted. While its capital Kathmandu benefits from a growing tourist economy, in general the country’s economic potential (for example, through opportunities to develop hydropower) is stunted by continued political instability, as well as very poor infrastructure.
Rural Nepalese — some 80% of its people — rely on subsistence farming, which frequently does not provide a stable or sufficient income to feed a family. It is under these already difficult circumstances that the sweet-talking and cajoling of sex traffickers infiltrate and take hold.
Fake migration schemes are one of the most common ways girls end up trafficked. Job options are scarce in Nepal, and around 200,000 women leave to work abroad every year, mostly as domestic servants. Poor, rural women think they are going to be domestic workers in Dubai, but instead end up working as prostitutes in Delhi.
The sex traffickers methods are varied and unpredictable, which is why so many people fall victim to trafficking in this region, despite the initiatives and interventions of extraordinary agencies on the ground.
Shakti Kendra in Kathmandu is one such shelter, managing to educate hundreds of girls. I met fifteen current residents during my stay, all survivors of trafficking to brothels in India or of rape within Nepal itself.
Founded by Charimaya Tamang — the first trafficking survivor in Nepal to press charges against her traffickers and win — all of the staff at the shelter are also formerly trafficked women, some of whom have been specially trained by Shakti Samuha in Japan on how to run workshops and look after their young charges.
The children living at Shakti Kendra take classes at the centre and are also involved in drama, weaving and jewellery making programmes.
As a photographer, the Shakti Kendra shelter was an extremely challenging place to work. It has a strict media policy to protect the identities of all of its members. Still, I wanted to document the girls’ world, but it meant I had to be patient, and make a lot of images with turned backs, blurred faces and deep shadows.
In time, some of the adults opened up and let me tell their stories, but for the children, the policy was non-negotiable. Although frustrating from the point of view of documenting this issue, I respected this choice.
Trafficking survivors face huge stigma in Nepal, where the shame associated with the sex industry is so great that most survivors’ families don’t even want their own daughters to return home if they have been rescued.
A photograph discovered on the internet identifying a trafficked girl or woman could have repercussions — from an employer not wanting to hire them to a man not wanting to marry them.
I was by no means the first foreign visitor to the shelter, but it was hard to tell judging by how excited they were to see me. Some nights I would stay late to watch TV with them, and those were probably some of my most relaxing and memorable evenings in Nepal. I stopped thinking about the pictures and interviews and would just enjoy the company of the sweetest girls in the world as they tried to teach me Nepali and asked me a million questions on every last detail of my life.
Growing close to women and girls who have experienced such a level trauma was difficult and emotionally exhausting at times.
It was particularly hard with the children, like thirteen-year-old Sabina who had been rescued from a brothel in India just six months ago. She had a bright smile and so much love to give it seemed she might burst.
She loved pop music and called me ‘Katy Perry’. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that she was the same age as my niece in New York, and how Sabina has already lived a life filled with more pain than I hope my niece would experience in a lifetime. Sabina dreamed of travelling, studying and getting a good job to help her family, who lived close by. She missed them, and talked about them constantly. What she had yet to understand was that it was her own family who sold her into trafficking.
Trafficking in Nepal is not only something that can be managed and prevented, it can end, and it can happen within our lifetime.
It starts with the work of anti-trafficking survivor-run organisations like Shakti Kendra. These women have the motivation, ability, sensitivity and understanding to tackle the issue from all angles, from prevention and rescue, to prosecution and rehabilitation. They will not shy away from fighting to identify and imprison traffickers and their collaborators, from small-time pimps to local police to family members.
One day these young girls at the centre will take their place as the next generation’s leaders in the fight against trafficking.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA
WRITTEN BY THE LEGATUM FOUNDATION