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A Safer World for Girls

The life of Laxmi Koirala of Surkhet, Western Nepal, has not been easy. Her father once earned a good living working as a security guard in India. However, when his mental health declined, he was sent back home. With no money for treatment, he committed suicide when Laxmi was only six years old — just as she was succeeding in second grade and dreaming of a future in medicine.

A good student, Laxmi fantasized of becoming a doctor; but studying medicine is extremely costly. Since business programs are available for a negligible fee, she reluctantly settled for studying commerce.

“I wanted to be a doctor. I was talented in studies. I could study medicine,” she said. “But, after father died, there was nobody at home to earn. My mother couldn’t afford the costs, so I chose to study commerce (business).”

The death of Laxmi’s father not only made her career in medicine unlikely, it also increased her vulnerability to forced labor and sexual exploitation due to poverty, since her mother was the sole breadwinner for three children — one of whom suffered from health issues.

According to the 2019 U.S. Department of State’s Annual Trafficking in Persons report, Nepal is a source, transit point, and destination country for exploiting men, women, and children, subjecting them to forced labor and sex trafficking. Nepali women and girls from her area — particularly those from impoverished and illiterate households, low castes, and/or marginalized indigenous groups — increasingly fall victim to these heinous crimes.

To halt these human rights violations, USAID’s Stop Girl Trafficking Program worked closely with girls and women, family guardians, and civil society to address girl trafficking through education, awareness, community engagement and counselling.

Stop Girl Trafficking, implemented by the Rural Health and Education Service Trust, connected with Laxmi through school-based outreach when she was 14. While Laxmi came from a vulnerable family, she was also a bright student with a passion for helping others; so she was selected to work as a teacher trainee.

Laxmi explained, “Since my childhood, I have liked to share with others what I know. When I am happy about something, I just want to share. And when I see others in pain, it doesn’t feel good. I am also pained.”

In her role, Laxmi worked with teachers to reach students and parents through local school sessions held on Friday afternoons — after regular classes conclude for the week — to raise awareness about sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

After several years as a trainee, she started teaching classes of her own last year, earning 400 NPR (about $3.50) for each hour-long session. During her classes, she teaches 20 to 50 children and their parents how to protect themselves and their children from sexual offenders and traffickers.

“If somebody does anything that you don’t like or that hurts you, and if it involves your body, then that is a type of physical offense,” said Laxmi. “It may include touching you in any part of your body without your consent or making you captive somewhere, beating you, and things like that. Likewise, if somebody speaks offensive words, blames you unnecessarily, or tries to defame or ostracize you, it is a type of mental offense. In both cases, we need to be aware of it and stop the offender right then and there.”

Laxmi also performs short plays to illustrate how students can protect themselves. In one play, she travels on a bus, and the person next to her tries to touch her. She stops the offender’s advance and tells the bus driver to stop the bus.

Laxmi explains, “If you are caught up in a situation where sexual offense or violence seems likely, then don’t keep it within yourself. Magnify your anger and yell with full strength — make a sound as if a bullet is fired. The other person will become shocked, and you will have a chance to escape.”

Students and parents are quite impressed with her. Knowing that the situations Laxmi portrays can happen to anyone, they’re given valuable tips on how to face these challenges.

“Not only our daughters, but even we parents may become victims,” said Man Kumari Koirala — a mother who attended the class. “We send our children to school, and they are alone at that time. By coming to this class, I have learned how to be careful about different situations we and our children may face. It helps us be more prepared to save ourselves.”

“I had no idea we could face such situations also,” said tenth grader Deepa Lamichhane. “Now I know how to raise my voice against it.”

But Laxmi’s zeal to help others is not limited to the classroom. When she sees issues in her community, she doesn’t stay silent. Instead, she travels to villages to talk with families who are experiencing problems and counsel couples, teenagers and young children.

“Laxmi didi (sister) also comes to our village — sometimes alone and sometimes with her colleagues,” said Deepa. “She talks with us, our parents, and tells us awful stories of girls being sold. We become very concerned. She tells us to be aware of people who try to show us dreams of a bright future abroad.”

However, when Laxmi talks with victims of sexual exploitation, their reluctance to open up sometimes becomes a hurdle in trying to provide support to them.

“It becomes challenging when first the victims of sexual exploitation try to avoid us, especially girls. But, after we befriend them, they open up a little bit,” she said. “When we can understand what they are feeling and relate to it properly, they start crying and tell us their stories.”

Now 18, Laxmi is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business from Sahara College. While she plans to start a career in banking, she admits that her work to halt GBV and human trafficking is far better than any vocation she could imagine.

“I will take a banking career…But that would only be a job,” she explained. “I would love to continue helping my community.”

Thanks to her training from USAID and her intimate experience as a teacher, her one true mission is to keep girls and women safe from harm.

“It (human trafficking) has to stop,” she said. “I feel it is up to us youngsters to fight it. If anybody can make a difference, it is us.”
    While USAID’s three-year Stop Girl’s Trafficking Program ended in July 2019, the program-initiated classes still continue through 135 trained teachers such as Laxmi. Overall, the program educated about 13,000 Nepali girls and women and provided scholarships that enabled 3,800 girls from low income families to enroll in school. Ultimately, the program empowered women and girls, and built awareness among them, their families, and communities to work to reduce child labor and sex trafficking, domestic violence, early marriage, unsafe early migration, and sexual abuse in Nepal.

Quote of the Day:
“Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”

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