I was privileged to sit in on an intimate lunch with Anuradha Koirala, the founder of Maiti Nepal. The foundation has rescued 12,000 Nepali girls and young women from sex trafficking, many who were sold across the border to brothels in India. Koirala was also the CNN Hero for 2010.
The stories we heard were chilling; trafficked girls were forced to service as many as 35 men a day. Girls as young as 13 were living with full-blown AIDS. Those who resisted were tortured and punished.
Koirala said that poverty was the lowest common denominator in this equation. But the real push factor to the sex trafficking trade was gender inequality. Girls continue to be uneducated in the villages of Nepal, and sexual exploitation persists as men try to exert their power over these impoverished, imprisoned girls.
I realized that the problem was not about rich vs. poor, or about developed vs. developing countries. The real issue was global: How women are continually treated as second rate. You do not have to be one of Maiti Nepal's survivors to have been told you are inferior to men. You could just as easily be the single woman passed over for the promotion because someday you will need to take maternity leave, or cut back on hours once you have children. You could be the woman paid 81 cents to the man's one dollar at your office.
Sex trafficking may not be a problem in your part of the world, but gender inequality persists everywhere. Even in the recent Strauss-Kahn debacle, I was shocked when I read about the French media's reference to him as the “Great Seducer.” The attitudes towards men's sexual prowess even in the West are not too far a cry from the men who force themselves on girls to show their power.
Koirala spoke about villages in Nepal where in the same family, the education for sons was prioritized over daughters. How intrinsically different is that from education in the West where girls are often funneled into the liberal arts and boys are encouraged to progress in math and science?
A man of considerable affluence at the lunch asked Koirala about how this problem could be stopped. Was it a supply problem or a demand problem? “Girls are not commodities, sir,” she replied. “There's no supply or demand issue.” Even among an educated, wealthy audience in Singapore, the attitude was disappointing.
Maiti Nepal highlights gender inequality at it's worst. But there has to be a cry for a change in this mindset wherever you are.