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Ramon Magsaysay awards: Nepali trafficking survivors find power in numbers

Members of Nepal’s Shakti Samuha (Power Group)

MANILA, Philippines - Nepalese Sunita Danuwar was only 14 years old when she was trafficked to India to become a sex slave.

“I remember there were two guys who offered me sweets and afterwards, I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I was in a brothel in Mumbai, raped by seven men,” said Danuwar, one of the founding members and currently the president of Shakti Samuha, an organization founded and run by trafficking survivors in Nepal.

Shakti Samuha is one of this year’s recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for helping victims of sexual exploitation get back on their feet and build new lives.

When Danuwar was in the Mumbai brothel back in 1996, she learned there were other Nepalese girls who were imprisoned there.

A girl two years younger than her was sold by her own family and forced to have sex with 80 men a day. She learned there were actually 200 Nepalese girls in the brothel. Most of them were infected with HIV and were very sick.

“I have no chance to go out, no chance to die or even kill myself. I didn’t like this kind of work but nobody was there to help me,” she said.

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After a month, she and other girls were rescued in a police raid.

Instead of being repatriated, they were kept in a detention center in India because they had no passports and the Nepalese government didn’t want them for fear of infecting people back home with AIDS.

With the help of an NGO, Danuwar and others were finally able to go home. But their troubles were far from over. Back home, their families disowned them.

“Our government did not accept us, even our families rejected us, they made us feel that it was our fault why we ended up as prostitutes,” Danuwar said.

Despite their plight, Danuwar and her friends said giving up was not an option. They decided to rely on each other for support.

“The 15 of us who lived in the same room in the Indian shelter promised to stay together and carry on with our lives,” she said.

With the help of Raj Bhandar, president of Women’s Rehabilitation Center in Nepal, Danuwar and her friends formed a group they called Shakti Samuha – in English, “Power Group” – with the aim of empowering trafficking survivors so that they can lead a dignified life.

The group opened up halfway houses that serve as the homes of trafficked Nepalese women from India.

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.

Trafficking is still a major problem in Nepal. According to a US State Department report, some 12,000 women and children are trafficked annually into prostitution in Indian brothels.

“Our ultimate goal is to eradicate trafficking in our country, that’s our major goal,” Danuwar said.

Shakti Samuha has also 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 15,000 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 500 trafficked women who now constitute its membership.

“Our common experience is what bonds us, this is what drives us to keep on helping girls like us, who are constantly being victimized and the cycle never ends,” Danuwar said.

“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,” she said.

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 toward rooting out a pernicious social evil in Nepal, and the radiant example they have shown the world in reclaiming the human dignity that is the birthright of all abused women and children everywhere.

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