Nepal – The land of Everest and Human Trafficking

 

 

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March-June is the height of the trekking season in Nepal. Travelers come from all parts of the globe to climb the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest. Unfortunately, there is a lesser known but more profitable trek between Nepal and India that is limited to women and children. Poor families in rural areas of the country are fooled into selling their children to traffickers so that they can pay for food for the remaining children. Women are lured into the sex industry and then kept prisoner with violence. The trafficking of women and girls from Nepal to India is considered one of the busiest sex trafficking routes in the world, involving 5000-10,000 females a year.

Bethany Richards, an artist in California, recently had the opportunity to travel to Nepal with the Wall of Hope Campaign. Never having traveled internationally prior to this experience and purchasing her ticket on a whim after meeting one of the mural artists, Bethany had no idea how this trip would change the trajectory of her life. She signed on with the idea that she would be the support team – cleaning paint brushes, mixing paint and hoping that she may get a few brushstrokes on the wall. When one of the artists needed to leave early, she was thrown into the intense day-long process of creating life-size art that was meant to bring awareness to sex trafficking as well as empower girls and women to break thru the cultural barriers that allow this practice to continue.

I know Bethany only peripherally; she is the daughter of my church’s pastor. I recently saw some of her Nepal mural paintings on social media, posted by her proud parents, and was intrigued to find out more. Two hours spent at a coffee shop with her was not near enough time to tell the entire story.  But what I did hear was fascinating and worth sharing here.

Wall of Hope had commissioned two murals to be painted on the European Union and Australian embassy walls in Kathmandu. The first day was spent cleaning and priming the wall, while explaining to passersby the intent of the paintings. 5 – 12 hour workdays later the first wall at the EU embassy was completed.

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The story depicted in art moves from right to left, from darkness into light and from the street to the door of the EU embassy. The woman clothed in a red drape, measuring 6 ft tall and 12.5 feet wide,  is seen reaching out for help with her feet entangled in chains. As your eye moves to the left, a bird is seen breaking thru the chains of bondage, leading to the possibility of freedom. This is followed by the eyes of a Nepali girl, the first eye with a teardrop for sadness/empathy and the second eye bordered on the lower lid by a lotus flower, symbolizing strength and resilience.  The girl is able to see the violence against girls and women in her culture,  but unable to change her circumstances. Behind the eyes is an image of paradise drawn in the style of a traditional Thangka painting, a Tibetan style of art popular in Nepal. The wall appears to have “broken” in this area, allowing the girl to see a paradise that has previously been hid from view. The final painting of a girl and clouded leopard faded into each other is representative of the ability to become powerful even when threatened with extinction.

During the week numerous school groups visited and helped to paint while hearing explanations of the various elements of the painting, a form of art therapy designed to increase awareness about violence against women. Midweek a small group of women from a local women’s shelter visited the wall. Without explanation, they were able to interpret the individual elements of the mural because they had lived the experience of moving from bondage/abuse into a better life.  One of the girls stated that she felt that she didn’t yet have the power of the leopard but she hoped in the future to possess that quality.

The second mural was painted on the wall of the Australian embassy and broadened the them to include child labor. The artists were concerned that the Nepalese would be angry that a Western based organization was exposing a shameful part of their culture. Instead, they received only affirmative responses from the crowds that gathered to watch to week-long painting marathon. Most adults were aware of trafficking and child labor and appreciative that the paintings were not only sensitive to their culture but also that outsiders were helping to tell stories that increased awareness of the problem. One young man shared his story of engaging in sex trafficking and felt that society didn’t condemn his behavior enough. He stayed for 4 days to help with the painting as a way to absolve his behavior.

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 On the left, smoke from a brick factory that exploits child labor is invading the room next to a picture of imprisoned children behind a barbed wire. The bed beneath the frame is representative of sex trafficking; the propped up doll reminding us that these are still children despite their circumstances. Serving tea is a universal welcoming gesture in Nepal with the words on the cup spelling out harmony below the peace flags. The steam emitting from the tea ceremony encircles the grandmother’s smile, signifying the ability of elders to look back in time and find degrees of happiness within hardship. The dancer is performing a Buddhist traditional dance with her expressive hand gestures representative of reflection and being grounded in the past while also looking into the future. The final symbol is the bookshelf in front of an open window, symbolizing that education brings knowledge and can be a window to the future and a better world.

The end of the trip culminated in a gathering of 800 students, ages 13-17 and mostly girls, for International Women’s Day. Bethany was asked to speak and share her personal story with the students. But this wasn’t a story about the paintings. Bethany had another story to share. Despite growing up in a stable family with loving parents who  were able to provide her with food and shelter, Bethany had been the victim of sexual abuse. Not once, but twice. Following is the transcript of her speech.

 

I had no choice. My innocence ripped away from me the first night I went to college. Infant, I don’t remember most of the event. I remember tripping and falling, the rough hand that grabbed me and the mean voice that yelled at me for crying and slowing him down. I remember the next morning waking up alone and realizing what had occurred because my pants were caked in dried blood and my insides hurt. I remember the shame and the pain I hid and carried for over a year before anyone else knew.

And then, three years later, it happened again. A different scenario. My boss and a coworker held me down one night after work while they took turns and choked me while demanding that I repeat words and phrases they dictated. This one, I couldn’t hide. This time, I not only lost my dignity, I lost my job, my boyfriend’s trust and I lost my ability to walk down the street and hold my head up high.
This time, I decided to press charges. This time I went to the hospital. This time, I gave my clothing to the police, gave blood and fluid samples to the nurse and this time, photographs were taken of my bruised body and I repeated my story multiple times to multiple people in order to get the true story. This time, shame piled ever higher.
It’s called the justice system. I thought it would bring me justice, I was told it would ease some of my suffering. A process to right a wrong that was made, to punish the men who scourged my body and who took years away from me through emotional and physical trauma. But the courts didn’t care about me, I was only a number, an unfortunate statistic for their book.
I will never forget the phone call that confirmed this, I was told I had no case because they claimed mine was a he said/ she said situation. There were two of them and only one of me and they said it was consensual, so there was nothing that could be done. The court decided this was not a crime, but if I wanted, I could pursue a civil case.
Just to reiterate, two men almost twice my age, held me down, choked and bruised a 21 year old girl in a restaurant while they took turns sticking their extremities into my orifices and the court system deemed this acceptable.
Think about what that does to a person. Think about the ripples that makes in the life of a girl, in the life of anyone.
In order to prove my innocence to my boyfriend and others who believed the court over me, I continued on with a civil case. I met with a lawyer in a fancy office in a tall building downtown. I was told this would not be pretty, that pursuing a case like this would force me to re-live my trauma and my life would be under a microscope. I would be drilled and have to defend any situation that could be perceived as a lie.
Ultimately, I decided to close the case. You see, I had made mistakes. I took a shower after the event, I didn’t report it until the next day. I had an extensive list of sexual partners, a residual coping mechanism from my first rape; an attempt at normalizing something I had not been able to control. I wasn’t living, I was reacting and I was scared. I did what I felt I needed to do in order to cope with this terrible shame that nobody seemed to care about.
This is why rape happens.
This is why violence toward women continues to happen.
This is why something needs to change.
I married that boyfriend who thought I was at fault in my rape. Abuse and shame were my companions. When the finger of blame is pointing at you from places of power, it becomes truth.
On my 28th birthday, I reached a breaking point, an incident involving a knife was my wakeup. I had had enough. I didn’t know it at the time, but something inside me said, you are worth more.
I am now 31 years old. I have spent the last three years in extensive therapy and I can now proudly say, my body is my own. I relearned basic movements. I relearned how to walk, how to hold my head high. I relearned how to talk to myself and give myself care when needed. I had to relearn how to think of myself as a person instead of an object. I had to relearn how to fear and how to love.
And now?
Now I want to hold all other women in my arms and in my heart. I want to hug you all tight and whisper in your ears that you are worthy, you are strong and you are not alone.
But whispers and hugs don’t stop rape or violence. Abuse, violence, rape won’t stop until we put our collective feet down and say enough. We must influence the perspective of our masses, our countries and our world so that we can heal as a society.
I have found my voice and I chose not to be silent any longer and I call on all of you to join me. Let us all become the role models we need for our children. Join me in saying enough to the perpetrators, the power seekers and the boundary breakers. Remove the stigma of being a victim and applaud them for coming forward. Lets use our voices as a tool to remove the fear and shame of talking about these crimes, because I did not choose for this to happen to me and I do not choose to let anyone think rape and abuse and violence are acceptable. Because I am a human. I am a woman and I have a mind, a soul and my body belongs to me. We don’t have to just survive, but we will all thrive because they might have bruised me, but together we can never be broken.
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Reflecting back on this life-changing experience and being cited as a “modern-day hero” by the audience that day, Bethany has chosen to believe that her past has a purpose – it allowed her to travel to Nepal and share her story, healing not only her heart but also the hearts of many other women and girls. Bethany’s heart has been torn and patched with tears, violence, love and laughter. She has found her leopard and is hoping that other women will hear her story and find the same strength to break free of their chains of bondage.
While the remainder of the team left for other projects, Bethany stayed on another 2 weeks and painted a third mural near a restaurant. Hand prints of girls from the school across the street were used to create the winds of change as a girl in a traditional sari stood in front of the Himalayan mountain range. The owners of the restaurant fed her two meals a day in payment for the painting. Not a bad way to end a life changing trip. Bethany is now working to develop a personal website and explore how she can use her art to empower women and girls throughout the world.
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One thought on “Nepal – The land of Everest and Human Trafficking

  1. Well,

    Human trafficking is a serious problem.
    The innocent girls n children are lured and sold to India.

    And this is happening especially at the rural areas, where there is limited education, awareness and where there is most poverty.

    Apart from this, the boarder areas are involved in this kind of sinful activated mostly.

    Let me tell you, Nepalese people are too innocent to be fooled. And they unknowingly are sold to many parts of India and never came back.

    They mainly are lured for jobs, money and good facilities.

    I don’t deny about the fact that some people might do it knowingly just for earnings.

    This is shame on humanity , whatever may be the reasons.
    Though, there are many organisations fighting for it. Maiti Nepal is one and let’s hope there will be more education, awareness and peace everywhere, to each noooks n corners of the world.

    Human trafficking is a global issue.

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