Image by Childreach Nepal

By Dr Tshering Lama

I grew up in Sermathang, a mountain village in the north of Nepal. It’s an eight-hour walk from the nearest bus stop. While our school didn’t have proper sanitation – we had to go to toilet in a nearby forest – I was one of the lucky ones who managed to finish my studies before Maoist insurgents bombed it.

My village was without that school for eight years. And we knew, when people didn’t go to school, the results could be terrifying.        

When I was young, we’d hear stories about girls from nearby villages who stopped going to school, and then suddenly disappear. No one knew where they went, though their parents would sometimes buy a new tin roof sometime after they had gone.

There was one village, in the Nuwakot district not too far away, where there were no girls over 10 at all. We all wondered what happened to them, but daren’t ask. Were they abroad? In a big city? There was no way of knowing.

It was only when I was older and completed my education – I received my PhD in telemedicine from Northumbria University in 2011 – that I began working in the non-profit sector and eventually came to understand the terrifying extent of child trafficking in Nepal, connecting the missing girls from my own district to the issue.

The United Nations estimates that as many as 20,000 children are trafficked from the country every year. The International Labour Organisation believes 200,000 Nepali girls are working in Indian brothels, most of them between 12 and 18. They are often duped into believing that they will be going to a better life to provide for their families. Instead, they end up in forced prostitution.

When I first read Patricia McCormick’s book, Sold, it felt so familiar. The story of 13-year-old Lakshmi, who hopes to buy her mother a tin roof, and is then duped into going away to work, little knowing the fate that awaits her in a brothel in Kolkata reminded me of those girls who had gone missing in the villages nearby when I was a child. It made me angry. It made me want to do something.

I helped two film-makers, Jeffrey D Brown and Jane Charles from the US, adapt the book into a Hollywood film, Sold, which tells the story of thousands of girls that Lakshmi is based on and stars Gillian Anderson and David Arquette as well as a beloved Nepali comedy duo, Madan and Hari. Its executive producer is Emma Thompson, and all the cast and crew have become activists now, raising awareness of child trafficking and helping to fight the problem.

The film is aligned with Childreach Nepal and Childreach International and our campaign #TaughtNotTrafficked. With this campaign, we will enable over 2,000 of the most vulnerable Nepali children to finish primary and lower secondary school, educating them about the realities of trafficking.

Working with other NGOs, and the Nepalese government, we will bring trafficking survivors into schools and villages to share their experiences with over 35,000 people, and help children raise awareness themselves through school clubs. We will make it easier and more pleasant for kids to attend schools, but building separate toilet facilities for girls and boys, and funding school lunches, so children don’t go hungry while learning.

Where I’m from, people used to blame the parents for selling their kids into slavery. But that’s not what happens: children go willingly and their parents let them, under false promises from traffickers of a good job and a better life.

We did extensive research over the past four years – interviewing local families, survivors and government officials – to fully explore how young people were being driven out of school in Nepal.  We found that teachers were not trained, that hygiene in schools wasn’t good enough, and some of the buildings were two or three hours’ walk away from where people lived.

The school system was failing, which made the option of going away to work an appealing one. We realised we needed to get children to finish their schooling as our number one priority.                   

As a start, with the help of some fellow former pupils, I managed to reopen the school in my old village several years ago, and the results have been staggering.

Over 70 students enrolled on the first day, coming from across the entire local region. Since then, lots of parents have moved back from the city to the village. People have opened shops, renovated their houses, and begun cultivating their fields. The village has been revitalised. All thanks to better education.                  

Education can overcome discrimination, geographical barriers and stop child trafficking for good. Traffickers don’t just take one girl’s life away. They take away the life of a potential mother, and maybe a grandmother’s too. They affect the whole village. We can’t gamble on that. With #TaughtNotTrafficked we hope to ensure that one day all children can complete their education and begin work on their own terms, not as slaves.


·         Dr Tshering Lama is the Director of Childreach Nepal, where he is working on the #TaughtNotTrafficked campaign to keep children in schools so they are less vulnerable to trafficking: www.childreach.org.uk/taughtnottrafficked

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