Indian women discussing a receipt

Easy prey no longer.

Working with Indian Civil Society organisation MSS SEVA Rakesh Nair came across one of the worst human rights violation: trafficking in women on the border between India and Nepal. Young women and girls living in the extreme poverty of the Himalayan villages have seen some changes since then.

Rakesh Nair is quiet and modest, and his self-assertion and persistence come to the fore only when he talks about the not-for-profit organisation SEVA. Rakesh is an advocate for a group of people who, for a long time, hardly seemed to register in the public’s attention: women and girls from Nepal who were abducted under false promises and sold in India as sex slaves or cheap labour.

Up to 10,000 young women and girls cross the 1,751-kilometre border between Nepal and India every year. Many come from villages in the Himalayas and mingle unnoticed with the large numbers of people crossing the border each day. Most of the girls are aged between nine and sixteen. According to a UN report, some 250,000 Nepalese women and girls are currently held in Indian brothels. The number of unrecorded cases must be much higher still.

“Poor living conditions make it easy for criminals to convince parents to part with their children in the belief the children will get a better life,” says Rakesh. Although he originally intended to be a doctor, Rakesh was repeatedly confronted with cases of human trafficking during his travels in the remote villages of the Himalayas while still a student. He understood the misery of the local people and was moved by their gratitude – and he stayed. Rakesh joined SEVA, a small non-governmental organisation focusing on the advancement of women in the border regions of Uttar Pradesh. Together with fellow campaigners from SEVA he visited brothels, met with victims and began to inform the public. “When we started to intervene directly on the India-Nepal border in 2002, we were completely alone,” recalls Rakesh. “Human trafficking wasn’t even on their radar. So we had to create awareness in the first place.” A lot has happened since then. The team provided information and worked with other NGOs to hold workshops for more than 6,000 border officials. The Indian governments have now acknowledged the threat. They have bolstered their border patrols and taken their collaboration with SEVA to a new level. More than 12,000 victims of human traffickers have been rescued in the intervening years. They were returned to their families or found sanctuary in facilities run by not-for-profit organisations. 45 human traffickers have been arrested.  

Rakesh Nair receiving the Intercultural Innovation Award of the BMW Group and the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations

Rakesh realised, that besides trafficking from across the border, trafficking also happens within Indian border regions. Apart from this solving the problem involves more than just intercepting, rescue and reunification. Therefore Rakesh takes action at a much earlier stage with SEVA, giving attention to poverty elevation, livelihood opportunity, child education, and skills trainings, as well as topics such as children’s rights, health, disaster and climate change. The focus at all times is on advancement for women and children. This also benefited Reshma, who comes from a small village in the Maharajganj district, one of the most underdeveloped areas in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. With SEVA’s assistance she was able to take out a loan and to purchase and install water pumps that now supply water to village. It was a first step. “We began collectivizing,” says Reshma. If you want to be heard by the officials at all, a collective capability is essential. “Now when we visit them, our voices are heard and respected,” she says.

With support from local and international partners, the team greatly expanded its sphere of influence in the border region, and now reaches around a million people. The small organisation that Rakesh joined nearly 20 years ago has been recognised for its work on numerous occasions, and in 2014 it won the Intercultural Innovation Award, which is presented annually by the BMW Group and the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) for outstanding social initiatives.                                      

Rakesh can be proud of himself, with SEVA he has done a lot. But he realises it will still be a long time before there is any stability in the situation of women and girls in the region.