When Hillary Clinton hugged Charimaya Tamang, the 34-year-old Nepali woman had reason to be proud. While all the other nine heroes feted by the US secretary of state were lawyers and officials, she was a former victim of Mumbai's notorious Kamathipura red light area who was being honoured for battling trafficking.
It was a long march to recognition and triumph by the woman who was sold to an Indian brothel owner at the age of 16 and tried to kill herself during her 22-month life of hell in Kamathipura.
“I tried to hang myself,” Charimaya, back in Kathmandu after last month's Washington trip, told IANS. “But the shawl I had used frayed and I was left alive. I thought god must have saved me for a purpose.”
When a raid by Indian cops in 1996 led to Charimaya's release from the brothel along with nearly 200 other trafficked victims from Nepal, she realised during her seven-month stay in a transit home in India what her mission was going to be.
The home was worse than prison and the victims were treated as criminals and untouchables by the warden. The government of Nepal ignored the Indian authorities' call to take the girls back home, a delay that cost lives.
“I will never forget the 14-year-old who had contracted AIDS,” says Sunita Danuwar, another Kamathipura survivor who too was sent to the same transit home.
“When it was clear she was very ill, we begged the warden to send her to hospital but she refused, saying we were no saints and deserved what we got. The girl died soon after that.”
The death and other sufferings made Charimaya, Sunita and 14 more survivors like them decide to stay together when they finally returned to Kathmandu on the initiative of three Nepali NGOs and form Shakti Samuha, the only organisation in Nepal by, for and of trafficked victims.
Today, Shakti Samuha runs two safe homes for survivors in Kathmandu and one for girls in Pokhara. It is also lobbying in 10 of Nepal's districts most vulnerable to trafficking to form survivors' peer groups. Of the founding members, two died of HIV/AIDS.
Charimaya, who is also the first victim to file a police complaint against the eight Nepalis who sold her, says there was little comfort in seeing them receive conviction.
“At that time, the anti-trafficking law was not as stringent as it is now,” she told IANS. “The four main perpetrators received jail terms up to 10 years and are now out of prison. The other four were let off with a few years in prison.”
What causes her even more distress is the stigma that the victims have to live with.
“Being trafficked is a mishap that can happen to anyone,” she says. “But while people don't hold it against men, the women are treated as outcasts. My village would not allow me to enter it when I returned from Mumbai, saying I would defile society.”
The 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report that was released by Clinton in Washington on June 27 asks Nepal's government to increase law enforcement efforts against all types of trafficking while respecting the rights of victims and defendants.
It urges Nepal to ensure that sex trafficking victims are not punished for involvement in prostitution and promote legal awareness programmes to potential trafficking victims and government officials colluding with traffickers.
The report further asks Nepal to work with Indian officials to establish a procedure to repatriate Nepali victims of trafficking in India.
According to the Office of the Attorney General in Kathmandu, in Nepal's fiscal year 2009-2010, 174 offenders were convicted in 119 cases tried in court, a minuscule number given the growing incidence of trafficking in Nepal.Victims have often complained that traffickers have links to politicians, business persons, state officials, police, customs officials, and border police, which protects them from punitive action.