Human trafficking is one of the world’s fastest-growing crimes, the United Nations says, with nearly 21 million people falling victim each year. More than half of the victims of forced labor are from the Asia-Pacific region, the International Labor Organization estimates. It’s a major policy challenge and in Asia, Nepal is leading the way in terms of legislation, according to the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation.
Yet passing laws and implementing them are two different things, lawyers and activists say. In its 2012 report, the U.S. State Department warned that anti-trafficking laws were “not well implemented” in Nepal.
Six years after the country passed landmark legislation to fight trafficking, the challenge is how to enforce it, said Sapana Pradhan Malla, one of the prime architects behind Nepal’s Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act.
We caught up with Ms. Pradhan Malla, a lawyer and advocate at Nepal’s Supreme Court, this month after she received a Lotus Leadership Award from the Asia Foundation in New York for her work against human trafficking.
Here is an edited version of the telephone interview:
Q: What projects are you currently working on?
A: Back in 2000, we found 118 legal provisions in Nepalese law that were discriminatory against women. While we’ve made significant progress, we are still working to tackle the two discriminatory laws left in Nepal: polygamy and citizenship. Compared to other Asian countries, Nepal has strong laws against human trafficking. But now the challenge is how to implement the human trafficking law.
Q: What are key challenges?
A: There are some serious problems with policy in Nepal. For example, in order to protect women from being trafficked, the government has a restrictive policy for foreign employment. Because of this, women who want to seek foreign employment are forced to use fake passports to illegally move to another country.
Another issue is how to measure justice for survivors. I recently worked on one case involving the trafficking of six girls from Nepal. The trafficker was sentenced to 117 years’ imprisonment. When we asked the victims if they were satisfied with the length of the sentence, they said, “Yes, but what about us? The accused doesn’t have any property and the government doesn’t have any mechanism to compensate us.” Justice is collectively demanded and individually experienced. Even if we have laws, how do we ensure that survivors feel like justice is being achieved?
Most importantly, the root cause needs to be addressed — the poverty, illiteracy, corruption. In many human trafficking cases, people are lured by economic benefits.
Q: How many cases have been reported using Nepal’s human trafficking act?
A: I have represented hundreds of cases, but the number is still very low. An International Labor Organization study found 12,000 to 15,000 women are trafficked in Nepal every year but no more than 180 cases are reported each year.
Q: What are the reasons for the low levels of reporting?
A: Victims sometimes don’t want to go to court because they worry it will further stigmatize them.
Intimidation is another problem. We’ve had six or seven cases where, during their hearing of their case, the victim either changed their statement or didn’t appear as a witness. We’ve found that in the majority of cases victims are either threatened with their lives or lured by economic benefits.
We don’t have the resources to provide adequate security and protection for victims and witnesses.
Q: Are there men who use Nepal’s human trafficking act to press charges?
A: It used to be that sexual exploitation was the main form of trafficking in Nepal. But now there are lots of cases of trafficking for cheap labor, forced labor, trafficking for marriage, trafficking for organ transplants. The law is gender neutral, but the majority of cases still involve women and girls.
Q: What is the current situation of human trafficking from Nepal into China?
A: There are a lot of reported cases of Nepalese women being trafficked into Tibet. Sometimes they migrate for work, but other times they end up in the sex industry. A lot of Nepalese have been deported, but we haven’t been able to initiate any bilateral arrangement to deal with this.
Q: Do you have bilateral arrangements with other countries?
A: No, unfortunately. But at least with India, we have informal mechanisms between N.G.O.’s. There are also some mechanisms that exist for joint investigation and legal assistance. But those informal mechanisms don’t exist with other countries.
Q: Are you hoping for similar informal mechanisms with N.G.O.’s operating out of Tibet?
A: We don’t know if there are any N.G.O.’s working on this issue there. I think it has to be government to government. India and Nepal have a different type of problem because of the open-border policy.
Even though Nepal shares a long border with China, it isn’t very accessible, particularly compared to the Indian border. The Chinese government hasn’t paid any attention to the issue. We need to implement cross-border mechanisms to monitor and implement strict work permits. It’s the early stages and if we take it seriously, there is a possibility we can work with China to handle the situation.
Q: What is the most important thing Nepal can do to fight human trafficking?
A: Nepal is currently in a very politically fragile state. When a country is in transition, women will also be in transition, justice will also be in transition.
We need to create political stability in the country. It is most important to create opportunities inside the country, especially opportunities for economic empowerment.
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