AFTER any natural disaster, the list of humanitarian needs is clear: food, clean water, shelter, and medical care. These essentials were all required in Nepal after the country — ranked by the World Bank as the 31st poorest nation on earth — was devastated by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake six months ago, on 25 April.
Aid agencies, however, are increasingly adding another priority to the list: protecting children from exploitation. In the fractured aftermath of a humanitarian catastrophe, children are especially vulnerable to being trafficked into prostitution or sweatshops, with or without the knowledge of their parents.
Susree*, a 14-year-old girl, and her 12-year-old sister, Phulmaya*, sat awkwardly on a wooden bench inside a classroom at the children’s home they had lived in since the earthquake. Susree, the more talkative of the pair, said that she was sweeping the floor of her home when the earthquake struck.
“The earthquake came, and I started running, but the stones on the stairs were falling from the house and struck me. I was injured,” she said, in a low, matter-of-fact tone. Phulmaya was with her grandfather, cutting grass, while he dug potatoes out of a field. “We were very, very scared,” Susree said, and she started quietly crying.
It becomes apparent that the girls’ parents did not survive. After sheltering in the fields under a tarpaulin until the aftershocks had subsided, the girls ended up at their uncle’s home, one-and-half hours' travel from their village.
But their ordeal was far from over. “My uncle asked me to make a passport to go to foreign country,” Susree said. When strangers arrived to take the pair to Kathmandu, the girls, knowing that they were too young to apply for passports, realised that they were, in fact, being sold to traffickers, and decided to run away. As they recount the details, both teenagers now have tears trickling down their cheeks.
“From the village, we walked four hours to the nearest town. We came to a checkpoint, which brought us here,” Susree said.
The children’s home that the girls were taken to was in a rural area in the north-west part of Sindhupalchok, a region that is simultaneously one of the poorest in Nepal, has a long history of child exploitation, and was one of the worst hit by the earthquake.
The story of Susree and Phulmaya is not an isolated one. Aid workers and government officials in Sindhupalchok admitted that their fears that traffickers would exploit the chaos and poverty have been at least partly realised.
The regional child-protection co-ordinator for the charity World Vision, Kumar Bhandari, told us that, by August, about 200 children had been saved from traffickers in Sindhupalchok. Vital to tackling the problem were three checkpoints, manned by police and social workers, which had been established on major roads in the district soon after the earthquake had subsided.
“If they find children travelling, they start an investigation if they are alone, or if they suspect [they are being trafficked],” Mr Bhandari said. “Many of the children are travelling to Kathmandu.”
The local government officer for child’s rights, Balkrishna Basnot, echoed these comments. Speaking in his cramped office in the regional capital, Chautara, Mr Basnot said that 73 children from Sindhupalchok had been rescued at the three checkpoints.
“This is a problem district. There is a big historical background of the trafficking. It started many years ago. After the earthquake, it is easy to get these children. We have told every village that children can be trafficked, and to warn them. They are taking it very seriously.
“[The traffickers] come to people’s homes, and say they will give the children an education and a job,” Mr Basnot explained. “But when they take the children, they use and exploit them: use them for prostitution or organ trafficking.”
He said that awareness of the problem was growing. In one case, three men arrived in a village saying that they had come from a children’s home in Nepal’s second city, Pokhara. They persuaded one family to let them take three children — a girl and two boys — with them, for a “better life” in Pokhara.
But other villagers were suspicious, and called Mr Basnot’s team on their 24-hour hotline. After a brief investigation concluded that there was no such children’s home in Pokhara, the traffickers were intercepted on their drive back, and the three children were reunited with their parents.
When asked whether traffickers caught red-handed like this ended up in prison, Mr Basnot smiled, and shook his head. One or two cases had been filed with the authorities, he explained; but they were unlikely to result in prosecutions.
“It’s hard to prove it. Every case cannot be a success, but this is my duty. I will try my best, but what kind of outcome will come . . . it is not my area. If you can stop just one child, that is a victory.”
The thing that would make the biggest difference would be for parents to take more responsibility for their children, Mr Basnot said. “Often, the parents do not want the responsibility of taking care of their children; so they are keen for the traffickers to take them. It’s hard for us to educate the parents.”
Protecting children from trafficking and exploitation is not the only challenge. Beginning to heal their emotional and mental scars was another part of the puzzle, Mr Bhandari said.
“Many children also have psycho-social problems, [and] a lot of the children have fear of aftershocks,” he said. World Vision tried to tackle the issue by setting up “child-friendly spaces” — large tents where children could play in safety with each other, and be gradually prepared for a return to regular schooling.
By the time we spoke to Mr Bhandari in September, World Vision’s six child-friendly spaces in Sindhupalchok, which had looked after 366 children in total, had been successfully turned into temporary schools.
As well as the mental wounds, the physical aftermath of the earthquake was impossible to ignore in Chautara, which was one of the towns hardest hit by tremors. Blue tarpaulins plastered with aid-agency logos were roughly tied on to rickety corrugated iron shacks, among huge piles of rubble.
Tangled and rusting fragments of reinforced concrete jutted out in all directions, and telegraph poles stood askew with wires cascading to the ground.
On one of the main thoroughfares in Chautara, piles of bricks spilled over into the street, forcing vehicles to bump over them as they drove past. On one street corner, a yellow digger stood parked beside a mound of smashed bricks and concrete.
A football field had been turned into a dusty aid station, and was dotted with large white tents. One of them was the temporary home of Radio Sindhu. We had come to meet Safalata, a shy 17-year-old who hosts a weekly 30-minute radio show, Children’s Voice, which focuses on children’s rights and youth issues.
As we began asking her about the earthquake, she held her head in her hands. She had been inside her bedroom, studying for exams, when the tremors began. At first, she ignored the shaking, but soon realised that it was a “huge earthquake”. “Nobody else was at home; so I came out [of the house]. The home was completely collapsed, but I had no injuries,” she said.
In the carnage, she became separated from her neighbours; so, for the first five hours, her family were convinced that she had been crushed to death when the house fell down. Now, the family live in a temporary shelter. “It’s very difficult, I am always thinking about when I can move out," she said. "When it’s hot, it’s very hot, and when it’s cold, it’s very cold.”
As our questions moved on to her radio programme, Safalata became more animated. “I felt there was lacking reporting on child abuse,” she said. “That inspired me to be a journalist, and especially one devoted to protecting child rights. I will fight for the rights of deprived children.”
As a family becomes poorer, the prospect of the parents' allowing their children to be trafficked increased, she said. But, besides raising awareness and combating poverty, the scourge could be stamped out only if the government handed out tough sentences to the traffickers.
But her radio show, she believed, was making a difference. Young people in rural areas, such as her own village of Thumpkhar, which is a three-hour drive from the temporary radio studio tent in Chautara, were being “empowered” to claim their rights from the authorities. “Their voice is raised, and people are starting to listen. Positive change is increasing.”
Thick, heavy drops of rain began to fall suddenly from the sky as we left the Radio Sindhu tent, a reminder of the monsoon season's constant threat to frustrate aid efforts. Ten minutes later, as quickly as the rain had started, it stopped.
Back at the children’s home where Susree and Phulmaya had sought refuge from traffickers, other children shared their stories of how they had survived the earthquake, often at great cost.
Sunita*, aged 12, had been at the temple in her village, eating lunch, when the shaking began. She ran out into the open, but her family, who had been indoors, at home, were killed. “I felt like crying, and that there was no one in this world for me,” she said.
“My uncle took me to Kathmandu after that, and two months ago I arrived at the home. The earthquake shattered all my dreams. My ambition is to be an engineer, but after the earthquake it seems difficult.”
Durga Bahadur*, 11, was washing with his siblings beside the family home on the morning of the earthquake. His father managed to escape, but his mother was killed when their house collapsed. Together with the other survivors from their village, the family built a tent with tarpaulins and bamboo poles to shelter in.
I asked him how he had felt in the face of such a calamity. Visibly distressed, his hands fiddled with the edge of the wooden bench he was sitting on as he stared at the floor, and said one word: “Bad.”
Unable to continue his education in their shattered village, Durga Bahadur was brought to the children’s home so that he could carry on going to school. The project is run by a local women’s group, supported by UNICEF and Save the Children, and funded by an Indian bus company. It consisted of little more than a handful of rough bungalows, with corrugated iron roofs, surrounding an open patch of trees and grass.
A local UNICEF co-ordinator for child protection, Khechar Nath Acharya, explained that, besides the trafficking victims and orphans looked after by the home were some children whose parents were simply unable to cope after the earthquake.
The initial sadness at being away from home has turned into happiness as the young children have settled in at the project, enjoying regular schooling and a safe space to play.
“They are very happy, and they say 'We don’t like to go back [to] our home,'” Mr Nath Acharya said. “That, I think, is not a good thing, because we are ready to reintegrate with their parents. But the parents are not ready to take these children.”
Having initially planned to look after children for only a few months, the scheme had to be extended to six months, when it became clear that most of the parents were unable or unwilling to resume their parental responsibilities.
When I spoke to Mr Nath Acharya, the six-month mark was weeks away, and he said that most of the children would not go back home. “We believe parental care is better than organisational care, [but] the parents are not ready to take children, because they are vulnerable and poor.”
As we talked, children wearing colourful matching T-shirts and shorts shouted at each other while they played a game in the dust with sticks. An 11-year-old, Sareena*, said that she liked it at the project, and did not want to go back home. “I will find everything is different from before the earthquake.
“I won’t be going to school when I go back to the village; I will miss it. Because of the earthquake, it is impossible for me to follow my dreams.”
Children's fears of no more fun
IN MANY villages hit by the earthquake in April, the school was one of the most damaged buildings. Although the need for food and tents was pressing, humanitarian agencies knew that the longer children were out of education, the harder it would be to reintegrate them, and the more Nepal’s long-term development would be set back.
In the village of Fulpingkot, deep in the valleys of Sindhupalchok, and several hours’ drive from any town, World Vision and UNICEF had collaborated to replace the community’s partially destroyed school with a “temporary learning centre”: a series of tiny classrooms built out of bamboo poles, corrugated-iron sheets, and white tarpaulins.
The head teacher, Chitra Shrestha, said that when his pupils had first started attending the temporary school, they were still frightened about more aftershocks, and would seize hold of each other at any unexpected noise.
“But now, the fear of the children is hardly there,” he said. “Education continuing is very necessary, otherwise the children would still have fear, and their exams will be lost. When they come here, they feel more sure.” The restarted school also freed parents to begin rebuilding their own homes, as they no longer had to look after their children during the day.
Mr Shrestha also had reconstruction on his mind. His three-storey house had been damaged by the quake — the middle storey was crushed “like a sandwich” between the top and bottom floors.
The ruins of the brick and concrete school were a contrast to the beauty of the village, which sits on the banks of a river, with steep, forested hills rising up on either side. In the distance, the peaks of a mountain range were wreathed in cloud.
I gathered a small group of four pupils to find out how life had changed for them since the earthquake. Speaking through an interpreter, the ten- and 11-year-olds said that, as soon as the tremors had begun, they had fled towards the open field, fearing for their lives.
As well as the loss of their homes, the destruction of the school had hit them hard. “They were very sad when they realised their school was destroyed. They thought that they would not be able to study any further, and would not meet their friends again,” the interpreter explained.
The teachers seemed pleased to have some form of education continuing, but the children told us that they did not have hope for the future. “They were very happy to see their friends again, and to study again, [but] they are not satisfied with the temporary learning centre. They want proper rooms to study.”
As we spoke, there was a minor tremor which went unnoticed by me. But the young pupils were aware of it because of almost imperceptible noises, their nerves and senses still on edge after surviving the massive quake in April.
“They say they won’t be able to go back to normal life soon,” our interpreter summarised. “They think there won’t be any fun things to happen again. This is it. It is going to last forever.”
*Name changed to protect child's identity
Tim Wyatt travelled to Nepal as a guest of World Vision. To donate to the charity's Nepal fund, visit donate.worldvision.org/nepal-quake