Every morning in the 1990s, Nepali native Anuradha Koirala would walk by Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath Temple. She would meet women begging on the streets, and she would stop to talk to them.
She then found out that they were all survivors of gender-based violence. Since she had dealt with the physical and emotional trauma at the hands of an abusive ex-husband, triggered by her traumatic personal experience she decided to change careers.
In the 1990s, she had already been working as a teacher for 20 years, but at this point, she decided to do more.
“Every day, there was battering. And then I had three miscarriages that I think [were] from the beating. It was very difficult because I didn’t know in those days where to go and report [it], who to…talk to.”
She then realized that her path was to help these women, and pursue an even greater calling: protect women and girls from abuse, trafficking, and exploitation, that eventually made her Nepal’s Mother Teresa.
Her purpose in life was to always help the needy as she grew up with the teachings of Mother Teresa.
She started with 8 women only and gave them 1,000 rupees each from her meager earnings to start small street shops. Through a portion of their profit — the two rupees that she would collect from each of them daily — she was then able to provide security and economic opportunity to other women in need.
Her work quickly grew. She educated them about women’s empowerment and encouraged them to stop begging.
By 1993, she founded the non-profit Maiti Nepal and addressed a massive problem in Nepal: sex trafficking.
Nepal was an ideal place for traffickers due to the high rates of poverty and illiteracy. They spoke about making the dreams of employment or money come true while hiding the gruesome reality of sex trafficking from them.
“These are poor regions with high illiteracy rates. If a relative or friend turns up offering someone a job, it is often the girls’ parents themselves who encourage them to go, without realizing what is really happening. “
Girls and women were taken from underprivileged sections of Nepal and sold into sex slavery in India.
Yet, Koirala found a way to start rescuing them.
The 1,750km border between Nepal and India is open and porous. Maiti Nepal works with local law enforcement to rescue operations across 26 different points on the border.
After the 2015 earthquake that ravaged large parts of Nepal, Anuradha says that the numbers of women and girls being duped into thinking they are going to a better life in India have massively risen.
“The earthquake hit many places where trafficking was already a huge problem. In the year after the earthquake, 4,000 women and girls were intercepted by the guardians at the border between Nepal and India.”
It has been reported that human trafficking across that border has increased by 500% since 2013, and NGOs in the field estimate that the number could go up to 40,000 in a single year.
Maiti Nepal runs 11 transit homes that shelter recently trafficked women since their families shun most.
Nowadays, it conducts a wide range of activities, including organizing awareness campaigns, community sensitization programs, rescue operations, apprehending traffickers, providing legal support to the needy, women empowerment programs, trainings, providing antiretroviral therapy (ART) to children and women infected by HIV are regular activities of Maiti Nepal.
Koirala’s aim is to help these women become independent and productive in society. Her organization employs former victims to conduct searches at border transit points and has trained them to identify possible trafficking victims.
Moreover, Maiti Nepal has recently also opened a cafe in Kathmandu where previous victims act as cashiers, chefs, and waitresses.
It also runs two hospices for children and women with HIV/AIDs, a formal school, and three prevention homes for at-risk girls to educate them about the dangers of trafficking, and caters to more than 1,000 children.
Koirala has also helped catch trafficking criminals, assisting in the prosecution of over 700 traffickers.
Her work has brought her 38 national as well as international awards, including India’s prestigious civilian award, the Padma Shri, and CNN’s Hero of the Year in 2010.
Some of the other national and international awards include Prabal Gorkha Dakshin Bahu Medal- Nepal 1999, Trishaktipatta Award 2002, Best Social Worker of the Year Award- Nepal 1998, German UNIFEM Prize 2007, Queen Sofia Silver Medal Award 2007, The Peace Abbey, and Courage of Conscience 2006. Thanks to her continuous struggle, the Government of Nepal now recognizes 5th September as an anti-trafficking day.
As an honor to her contributions, she was also appointed as a former Assistant State Minister of Women Children and Social Welfare.
Koirala has managed to rescue more than 18,000 women and children over the years.
Even today, at the age of 70, Nepal’s Mother Teresa still works relentlessly for this cause and has no intention to give up soon.
“When I see their pain — their mental pain as well as physical pain — it is so troubling that I cannot turn myself away. This gives me strength to fight and root this crime out.”
In a video played during the 2010 CNN Heroes program, she stated:
“Just imagine what would happen if your daughter was standing there, and if your daughter was there, what would you do? How would you fight? So you have to join hands. You have to take each child as your daughter.”
With tears in her eyes, she added:
“I want a society free of human trafficking. I hope I will make it happen one day.”