Dr Meena Poudel, former Director of Oxfam in Nepal and an alumna of Newcastle University, was so inspired by the work of Professors Nina Laurie and Diane Richardson, and Dr Janet Townsend, that she decided to assist by offering her expertise.
Dr Poudel explains what the team has achieved to date.
When 148 Nepalese girls and women were rescued from trafficking in a police raid on an Indian brothel in 1996, it would have been easy to assume their fortunes were about to change.
However, this was just the start of a traumatic new chapter in their lives, which saw them stigmatised, labelled as prostitutes and HIV carriers and locked away in remand homes in India where conditions were as bad as, if not worse than, prison.
On return to their homeland they struggled to regain self-esteem, social acceptance and even basic human rights. Rejected by their families and communities, they were left believing they were to blame for being trafficked.
First in the World
The beginning of this story is all too familiar to survivors of human trafficking, who often face extreme challenges in accessing citizenship and establishing new livelihoods after escaping their ordeal – and whose voices, until now, have not been heard.
But this particular group of women from Nepal – aged just 15 to 18 years – have fought back, setting up the first ever non-governmental organisation to be founded by survivors of trafficking, which they boldly named Shakti Samuha – or Power Group.
Newcastle University’s major research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out in partnership with the women of Shakti Samuha and the International Organisation for Migration Mission in Nepal, was one of the first in the world to systematically analyse women’s experiences after they have been trafficked.
Most work in this field addresses the causes and characteristics of trafficking to help rescue victims, so the next phase of their victimisation is often overlooked.
The Newcastle team works with the survivors themselves, helping women build new lives and changing public perceptions about survivors of trafficking.
New demographic processes
“Our project has been a co-production from the beginning”, says Dr Poudel. “From our first meeting with Shakti Samuha, they told us they wanted to be the authors of their own stories, and our role was to guide them through the process and show them how to carry out their own research to bring about change.”
New democratic processes, supported by national and transnational communities, are unfolding in Nepal. Anti-trafficking advocacy is highly visible and, through the country’s new Constituent Assembly, there are fresh debates about returnee trafficked women. By bringing this issue into the spotlight the project is helping to generate a new research and policy paradigm for understanding the relationship between sexuality, gender and development.
The project has been instrumental in the creation of the Human Trafficking and Transportation Control Act, part of the Interim Constitution of Nepal (2007), which is designed to protect the rights of women returned from trafficking and to prevent them from being exploited.
Shakti Samuha is now represented on the National Committee in Controlling Human Trafficking and the group is lobbying to revise citizenship laws so that survivors and their children no longer need to get the permission of a father or husband to be recognised as a citizen. Currently, without this permission basic services and schooling are denied.
Award winning work
The women of Shakti Samuha are a constant source of inspiration. In 2013, they received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for their work. Asia’s highest honour, it is widely regarded as the region’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize.
“These women have such incredible spirit and determination to create new lives after suffering horrendous experiences that most of us cannot even comprehend. We are proud to be playing a part in helping them to explore the opportunities they so richly deserve”, says Dr Poudel.
Dr Meena Poudel now works for the International Organisation for Migration as Policy and Programme Advisor.