Stage 1: Recalling the experience
This experience took place in the year 1996, in Kathmandu, the capital of the Kingdom of Nepal, in the latter part of my seven years of missionary life in Nepal.
It was the month of March 1996; the College of Social Work in Mumbai,my Alma Mater, invited me to participate in a seminar in GOA, in India. The topic of the heated discussions was the Trafficking of Girls and Women for sex work.
Among the many related issues discussed, one that was of prime concern was the pathetic state of young women from all over India and Nepal, picked up on raids by Mumbai Police from the brothels in Mumbai. They were placed in various rehabilitation homes for women in distress, and in the Beggars’ Home. The media had it out in the newspapers and on TV but I had not understood the seriousness of the matter. They were raided because of a court order to pick up minor girls from the brothels, as the numbers of HIV/AIDS cases were on the increase. Human Rights activists, NGOs and Social workers were up in arms against the haphazardly and inhuman way the raids were done. The women were forcefully placed in various institutions. They lacked facilities, and many of these places were unhygienic. There were cases of deaths due to neglect. The media in India and Nepal had many of their stories and incidents published.
The decision we arrived at the seminar was to send the sex workers back to the State from which they came, to hand them over to the State governments. Special trains were arranged for this purpose. However, the Nepal government would not budge. Their argument was that the Nepali Girls, (hundreds of them) were used as sex workers in the Industrial/financial Capital of India (Mumbai) and if they took them back to Nepal they would run the risk of spreading HIV/AIDS in Nepal. I was asked by the organizers of the seminar to pressurize the NGOs in Nepal to take this issue up and see that the Nepali girls who wish to return to their country could be taken back and rehabilitated.
On my return to Mumbai I was able to present the matter to number of Nepali NGOs working for the cause of Women and Children. We had several meetings. It was decided that Gauri Pradhan, the director of CIWIN (Child Workers In Nepal) would go to Mumbai for the next meeting of the Mumbai NGOs as well as to interview the Nepali Girls so that those who wish to return could be brought back to their country.
On the 22nd of July, 126 Nepali sex workers landed at the Thribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu. Ten NGOs including ours (Navjyoti Center, managed by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth) were at the Airport to receive the girls whisked away to our centers, protecting them from photographers and media paparazzi.
We (Sisters of Charity of Nazareth) took 14 girls to our center, Navjyoti. In no time we were pestered by phone calls to by media persons, asking numerous questions about the girls, as well as requests for interviewing girls. Though we denied access to the girls, the requests continued for days.
From the next day onwards we NGOs were much under criticism of some media personnel and the government. The government officials of the Social Welfare department accused us of running parallel Governments. I remember participating in a debate on Nepal TV, on the appropriateness of the action done by the NGOs in taking the sex workers back in the country. It had become an International issue, covered by media around the world.
The Girls we took in turned hostile towards us. They refused to eat the food we offered, and threatened to jump down from the three-story building where they were accommodated. They wanted to be taken back to Mumbai where their earnings of the past years (some of them were in their twenties and thirties) were kept. We assured them that we would make a sincere effort to redeem their valuables. A list of each ones’ items, the name and number of the brothels, and the owner’s names were prepared. We promised them that we would make an earnest request to the India Embassy in Nepal to redeem these items.
2. Recalling changes during the course of the mission experience
It was a real challenge to work with them, to mellow them down with love, care and intensive counseling. It took much patience and courage to work with them. My community supported me and the staff of Navjyoti centers especially, Sister Cecilia Simick, SCN, a nurse by profession. We held literacy classes and other skills training for them. In a few days time, the as the girls began to experience our compassion and love and genuine interest in their welfare, most of the girls calmed down and we were able to establish a friendly relationship with them. We played and ate with them. We attended to their illnesses. Voluntarily they shared their stories of how they were either lured for promising jobs as domestic workers or in the factories of Mumbai. They had gruesome stories to tell about the way they were mistreated by the brothel owners as well as some of the customers. Some were kidnapped, while the middlemen took others or their own relatives to Mumbai.
While in Mumbai the girls had to give up all their freedom and their culture. They spoke with feelings of nostalgia how they missed their food, festivals and connection with family and community. Their needs increased as they became victims of consumerism. This was evident as they made demands for varieties of food and clothing that we found difficult to provide.
By the end of the first month, as a result of intense counseling, all of them voluntarily underwent the HIV/AIDS tests. They had placed a condition for the test to be done. That was, that I would let them know the test results. Earlier, blood samples were taken from some of them in Mumbai and Pune, in India but they were not told the test results. This had infuriated them.
I was shocked and pained to find that nine out of our 14 girls turned out to be HIV positive. Meeting with the nine of them one by one to impart the sad news was the hardest thing I did during this intervention. With the girls we discussed the future course of action. Those who wished to continue with their skills training were welcome to stay on at the center and others would be accompanied to their homes. Six of them decided to stay for the training.
The most exciting and happiest day for me during this whole intervention was the Christmas gift we received on the 25th of December1996. As we were getting ready for the Christmas meal with the girls, we had a telephone call from the Police Head quarters saying that the trunks and suitcases of the girls had been brought back by the Nepal Police. A truck full of it was brought to our center the next day! Hats off to the Indian Embassy and Nepal Police! Our girls felt very privileged being with the sisters as they shared this story to the girls being rehabilitated at other centers.
Those who stayed back were able to learn some skills that would help them to enter in to gainful employment. We did several follow up visits to the girls. Some of our girls have died of AIDS. Several of them are married. Some have disappeared from the village!
Stage2: Understanding what has changed
While in Mumbai the girls had to give up all their freedom and their culture. They spoke with feelings of nostalgia how they missed their food, festivals and connection with family and community. The girls’ needs had increased, as they became victims of consumerism. This was evident as they made demands for varieties of food and clothing that we found difficult to provide.
We were able to contact the families of some of them and have them come to visit the girls at our center. A few of them went home with their family members while we accompanied the others to their homes. We did some family counseling, too. We had expected that the families would be happy to have the girl’s back but in some cases the responses of the families were disappointing. They said their daughters are spoiled and now they will not be able to marry them off as per the custom of the place.
There was a marked change of attitude in all of us who served them. From the initial feeling of aversion and stay away type of attitude, we went through a conversion experience of acceptance and feelings of empathy for the victims and anger towards the system that perpetuated such crimes against women.
Stage 3: Evaluation of the Impact of these changes on the local people
Visiting the homes of the village homes of these girls gave me a different understanding of village life in Rural Nepal. The people seemed simple and innocent and ignorant of the realities out side their villages. It gave me insights into the causes of trafficking of women and girls. Most of them lived in the rural and interior hills of Nepal where life is hard. Poverty, hunger, illiteracy, low status of women and attraction for life in the cities, the push and pull effect has led many girls to leave their villages. Their own parents or relatives sold them to earn some money.
Some of the families were unaware of the type of work their daughters or sisters had to do in Mumbai to send them money, to support them. They were saddened and angry when they heard of the inhuman conditions in which the girls were forced to work. Some of the families’ economic status had improved over the years. They were able to discard thatched roof and have tin roof over their houses, a status symbol. Some of the village folks expressed the return of girls as a burden on them as they now have to feed one more mouth. The girls themselves felt that they were defiled and unworthy to live with their families and communities. After living a different style of life, of comfort and plenty (food, clothing, and cash to spend) for years the girls found it hard to adjust to the village life of hard work and scarcity
Stage: 5 Reflecting on your personal experience of these changes
These changes have made me feel sad about the situation of the poor people in the rural villages. I have experienced a righteous anger within myself when I think of the untold sufferings that the girls had to endure, as they became victims of deception, slavery and exploitation.
I feel as missionaries we often work with the victims of the injustices in society but do not go deep into the analysis followed by action to root out the causes of injustices.
If I were to begin all over to address the problem of trafficking I would want to address gender inequality as the root cause of violence against women. My approach to mission calls for looking at the persistent and pervasive societal discrimination against women, their lack of access and control over economic, social and political resources. I would want to plan out with the village communities some effective strategies to combat trafficking.
Through the work that is being done by the NGOs against trafficking through various awareness programs, and the development programs taken up both by government and the NGOs in the trafficking prone areas have had its impact in the village communities. The Police and the administration are a bit more on the alert about his problem. The communities have been educated. Some of the girls rehabilitated are working with NGOs to build awareness in communities against trafficking of girls and women for sex work.
My own spiritual values call me to look at ways in which I have embraced consumerism in my life. I believe in the dignity of each and all of God’s creation. Hence, I fight violence against women in the form of trafficking–a serious crime against humanity and human rights of the individuals concerned.
Stage 5. Imagining the future mission
Globalization has played havoc in the lives of these poor girls, which has led them to cross borders to meet the demands of it in the industrial city of Mumbai. These masses of people on the move have become a source of social concern. They are forced to give up their familiar environment and culture forced to embrace another consumerist culture. The macro-economic policies of both the developed and developing countries have made the rich richer and the poor poorer, leading to unemployment, increasing poverty, forcing women into unsafe work places, into prostitution. It has forced them to leave their homes and adapt a culture and way of life that is so dehumanizing. It had reduced these girls into commodities to be sold and bought.
As I look back into those days of accompanying these girls in their time of loss and grief, I know that it was the God in me who prompted me to the incarnational spirituality of walking a risky path with them. Affirming them as persons and assisting them in building their self-esteem, has helped to enhance life and restore dignity of persons. I knew I could not stand and wait as a passer by, for others to move into action. In their pain I have witnessed the suffering face of Jesus and in their joy His resurrection. My own religious and church communities have become sensitive to and are willing to work on these issues. These have become a part of our prayer and reflection.
Advice to the someone entering the field of mission today
The greatest challenge and requirement for the missionary is to understand the local culture and problems from the perspective of the people to whom you are send in mission.
It would be advisable that the missionary enter in to the field of work with an open mind free of any preconceived ideas of how to minister. Allow the people whom you serve to be your guide.
Reading the signs of the times and responding to the urgent needs of the people would be the way to bring the required changes. The process of action reflection action with the co-workers and the target group is a must.
Problems faced by the people need to be understood today within the context of globalization, industrialization, economic liberalization policies, consumerism and modern development concepts. As the divide between the poor and the rich is on the increase, the missionary needs to be alert to policies both micro and macro which further impoverish the poor and their means of sustenance.
Be free of any religious biases