Children at risk after quake
Many women and children affected by the devastating Nepal quakes have also been subject to sexual and domestic violence. Post-disaster, the nation has become a breeding ground for traffickers, as Murali Krishnan reports.
The monsoon is in full pelt in Nepal. It has been raining heavily over the past weeks. Yet thousands of people affected by the devastating earthquakes which struck the impoverished Himalayan nation in April and May continue to camp out in the open.
More than 8,600 people died in the quakes which destroyed nearly half a million houses and left hundreds of thousands of families desperate for food, shelter and water. The UN estimates eight million people - nearly a third of Nepal's population - may have been affected by the disaster, with at least two million people needing tents, water, food and medicines.
Abuse and violence
Already struggling for survival in some of the worst-impacted areas, some families now have to counter a recent surge in sexual violence. Due to poor security conditions in the camps and temporary shelters, girls and women - particularly those who lost their families - are now at increased threat of rape, abuse and trafficking.
"I have not only lost my home and entire livestock but have also been unable to locate my daughter for over a month. I am very worried," Ashish Shresta, a woman farmer from Sindupalchowk, one of the worst-hit districts by the quake, told DW.
In one particular refugee camp in Kavre, nearly 60 kilometers from the capital Kathmandu, there have been complaints of sexual abuse and harassment.
"Intruders come here from neighboring districts and behave mischievously with the women. They come in drunk and sometimes turn violent," said Preeti Khasla, a refugee. In the past fortnight Khasla, along with a few other women, have formed a vigilante group to keep watch of inmates in her camp and ensure that trespassers are kept at bay.
Stories like that of Shreshta and Khasla abound in Nepal, especially in the rural outback where camps are scattered in remote locations. But it is not just women who are victimized. The health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of children also hangs in the balance.
In fact, thousands of them were already trafficked into India every year to work in prostitution and as child laborers before they quake, according to the UN children's fund (UNICEF). And the situation may worsen as traffickers target newly vulnerable children and families following the earthquakes.
"Loss of livelihoods and worsening living conditions may allow traffickers to easily convince parents to give their children up for what they are made to believe will be a better life," said UNICEF Nepal Representative Tomoo Hozumi last month. "The traffickers promise education, meals and a better future. But the reality is that many of those children could end up being horrendously exploited and abused," Hozumi added.
Gender-based violence usually increases in times of disaster due to the displacement of communities, the absence of law and order, and the breakdown of social support networks. And this is no different in post-quake Nepal where first indications of exploitation have begun emerge.
"There are reports of child abuse and the abuse of women by the inmates from the surrounding camps. Yes, this is a very bitter fact," Shree Shankar Pradhananga, the national director of SOS children's villages, told DW.
He pointed out that "anti-social elements were capitalizing on the trauma and dislocation of earthquake-affected women and girls.
"We have to work very hard so that our girls and children are not trafficked. Protection is a crucial issue, particularly given the rising number of reports about missing children and girls. We have to find out how we can get them back," Sanjeev Shakia, Nepal's chief humanitarian officer, told DW.
An ongoing struggle
There are no precise figures as to how many children or adolescents have been trafficked following the quakes. But according to international relief agencies, nearly 250 children have been saved from traffickers or being sent to live in orphanages since May - a development largely attributed to unprecedented step taken by the central government in late May in which they banned children under the age of 16 from travelling outside their home district without a parent or another adult approved by the district's Child Welfare Board.
Nevertheless, the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), a paramilitary force in charge of guarding the 1,751-kilometer long India-Nepal border and collecting intelligence on suspicious activities, still managed to apprehend about 50 young girls and boys who were allegedly being traffcked.
And in June, the force arrested some 15 suspected traffickers who were making young boys and girls cross the border illegally. The authorities fear they could be have been force used for variety of purposes including prostitution and forced labor.
"We need to be more vigilant. And security has been beefed up on some vulnerable routes," said SSB Director General B D Sharma. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter remains that the country has now become a fertile ground for human traffickers who are constantly on the prowl.