Known as the “Mother Teresa” of Nepal, Nepalese activist Anuradha Koirala (born 1949) has dedicated her life to ending human trafficking. Koirala founded Maiti Nepal in 1993. Since then, the notfor-profit agency has rescued and rehabilitated more than 12,000 women and girls who had been victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, or exploitation.
For the thousands of women and girls rescued from abuse or slavery by the humanitarian organization Maiti Nepal, agency founder Anuradha Koirala is seen as a hero. “I got a new life which wouldn't have been possible without her,” one rescued teen told the Nepal Mountain News. “I feel blessed to be able to get her love. Now, she's like my mother.” Koirala could not see herself doing any other type of work. “God has not only made our eyes to see those who are suffering, but He also made our hands to serve them,” she told David Holmstrom of the Christian Science Monitor.
Koirala was born April 14, 1949, in Rumjatar, Okhaldhunga, Nepal, the daughter of Colonel Pratap Singh Gurung and Laxmi Gurung. Her father was an army officer and Koirala grew up in an upper-middle-class family. She received an education at the Catholic-run St. Joseph's Convent School in Kalimpong, India, where courses were taught in English. She became a teacher and spent two decades educating children in Kathmandu.
Koirala married young and endured a marriage characterized by terrible abuse. “Every day, there was battering,” she later told CNN online contributor Ebonne Ruffins. As a young wife, Koirala had several miscarriages, which she attributed to the beatings. “It was very difficult because I didn't know … where to go and report [it].” This situation led her to understand that women in her position had nowhere to turn for help. After three decades of marriage, around 1989, her husband brought home another woman. At this point, Koirala left, taking her son with her, and this was a bold move within her culture.
In the early 1990s, Koirala sought solstice and comfort by visiting the Hindu Pashupatinath Temple grounds in Kathmandu. Every day, she walked past the hordes of female beggars and wondered what had brought them there. She gave thanks that she had been able to escape from a bad situation without ending up on the streets. Koirala later discussed her temple conversations in the TEDx talk posted online as “Stop Selling Our Girls.”
“I started talking to them every day, and I was trying to tell them about empowerment of women … violence against women,” she noted in her TED talk. “I told them I will give them some support if they leave begging.” As Koirala soon learned, all of the beggar women near the temple had been victimized by violence; helpless and illiterate, they were still able-bodied. As Koirala recalled to Washington Post writer John Ward Anderson, she provided pep talks to these women, telling them, “You're healthy with two arms and two legs. Why do you beg? Start doing something on your own and stop forcing yourselves and your children into such a filthy place.”
Seeking a means to empower women to take control of their lives, Koirala hit upon the idea of issuing micro loans to those forced into poverty by violence. Koirala gave them 1,000 rupees each so they could open their own street stalls in Kathmandu and sell vegetables, cigarettes, and candies. “I made it clear that they had to return two rupees to me every day so that with that money I could support another woman,” Koirala explained in her TEDx-Gateway talk.
Once Koirala's organization became official, she broadened her mission. Instead of just helping mothers and taking in children, she turned her attention to rescuing Nepali girls from the sex trade. Many Nepalese girls ended up in India because Indian men found them highly attractive due to their light skin and because of superstitions that Nepalese virgins had special curative powers. Soon Koirala was taking in girls as young as 13 or 14 who had escaped from brothels with broken limbs. She took in girls no one wanted. She housed babies left in trash bins, girls who were HIV-positive, and young women who had been sent to mental institutions.
Through her efforts, Koirala heard horror story after horror story among her rescued victims. She learned that during a “breaking-in” period, many girls were subjected to gang rape. On a typical work day, some girls serviced 30 men a day, receiving as little as $1 per client. Girls as young as 12 were locked up in houses or cages and kept until they got too old to satisfy the customers or until they caught a sexually transmitted disease. To ensure compliance, girls were shocked with electricity. Even girls as young as eight were sold into the business.
The more Koirala learned about the brothels, the more determined she became to end human trafficking. She rescued a 13-year-old girl who had been sent to Mumbai and suffered four years of physical and sexual abuse. Through education and rehabilitation, this young woman became strong enough to face her trafficker and see him put behind bars. In this way, the mission of Maiti Nepal expanded again with a goal of helping victims seek prosecution against the sex traffickers who placed them in the business. By 2016, the nonprofit agency had aided in the prosecution and conviction of more than 1,200 traffickers.
The human trafficking problem was even larger than Koirala imagined: U.S. Department of State estimates suggested that, by the 1980s, as many as 12,000 Nepalese women and girls were taken to India annually. Koirala soon realized she was fighting not only the traffickers, but a culture with a long-standing tradition of placing women in subservient roles, thus contributing to the problem. With limited opportunities for the future, many village girls freely chose to go to India, viewing it as a chance for a better life. Koirala also discovered that many of the girls who ended up in India had been sold by desperate family members who did not understand the ramifications of their actions.
Given the situation, Koirala realized that education was necessary to alleviate human trafficking. “Families are tricked all the time,” she told CNN online contributor Ruffins. “The trafficking of the girls is done by people who are basically known to the girls, who can lure them from the village by telling them they are getting a nice job.”
In the 1990s, Koirala began visiting the mountain villages of Nepal to educate residents about the reality of human trafficking. She went door-to-door, explaining that traffickers might try to trick them into giving their daughters away for marriage or offer the girls a nice job in the city, told they would get jobs as dancers or housemaids or employment in a garment factory. Koirala told the villagers that this scenario was unlikely and that if they let their daughters the girls would probably end up in a brothel. Over the years, Koirala enlisted the help of college students and other social activists to join her visits to mountain villages in the hope of educating families. The program also encouraged informants.
Koirala discussed her education program in an interview with photojournalist Mikel Dunham that appeared on his blog. “It's not like just talking, talking, talking,” she explained. “We put up posters, distribute pamphlets, and sing popular Nepali songs as a means of gathering the people together. And then we disseminate the message. Police accompany us and they explain to the villagers that there are laws against these crimes. Then the lawyers explain what the penalty for trafficking is. Then the nurses tell them about HIV-AIDS. So this is how we go around in all the districts.”
Besides education, Maiti Nepal set up transit homes along the Nepali border to try to intercept traffickers and rescue girls. As of 2016, the organization ran about a dozen transit homes, which housed surveillance teams who worked with police to grab women and girls being taken across the border. Many of the transit homes were staffed by rescued girls who worked to educate police on how to spot pimps. Transit team members spent their days at the border checkpoints working with police to stop cars and question occupants. When Maiti Nepal workers found a vehicle with a young girl inside, they would offer her a way out and take her back to the safety of the transit house.
Although it was dangerous, another prong of attack for Koirala included accompanying police on brothel raids. In 1999, she went to Mumbai to raid a brothel and had kitchenware and shoes hurled at her. Raids allow for the direct rescue of girls and women. Once rescued, victims are taken to one of Maiti Nepal's rehabilitation homes. Besides receiving food and clothing, these girls are offered psychological services and taught skills to make them self-sufficient in the future. Many receive vocational training or instruction in sewing, horticulture, handicrafts, or furniture making. The goal of Maiti Nepal is to ensure that the girls leaving their care have a skill that enables them to earn money so they do not end up on the streets or become tempted to return to prostitution.
Besides rehabilitation homes, Maiti Nepal runs prevention homes that provide shelter for babies, as well as for women in their 30s. Women at the prevention homes are taught vocational skills, too, in an effort to prevent them from turning to prostitution. The organization also runs two hospices, which house rescued girls suffering from AIDS or other fatal illnesses. Girls who return from the brothels with AIDS are often not wanted by their families. Koirala has sought to provide them with dignity in their last days.
By 2000, Koirala was recognized as a leading activist in the field and was asked to speak regularly at global conferences on human trafficking. In 2010, she was awarded CNN's Hero of the Year Award, which garnered a prize of $100,000 for her organization. Winning the award brought greater awareness to human trafficking in Nepal. Afterward, Koirala partnered with U.S. actress Demi Moore for the CNN Freedom Project documentary Nepal's Stolen Children.
Despite the success stories, Koirala felt heartbroken that her organization kept growing. “My wish is to close Maiti Nepal as soon as possible because it will mean that trafficking has been completely eradicated in Nepal,” she told the Nepali Times. “The day I can close down Maiti Nepal will be my happiest day.”
Christian Science Monitor, April 14, 1999, David Holmstrom, “Saving Nepal's Girls: One Woman's Efforts to Stop the Trade in Girls for Brothels,” p. 11.
Washington Post, April 14, 1995, John Ward Anderson, “Nepal's Shame: Girl-Trafficking Meets a Determined Roadblock,” p. D1.
CNN online, http://www.cnn.com/ (April 30, 2010), Ebonne Ruffins, “Rescuing Girls from Sex Slavery.”
Maiti Nepal website, http://www.maitinepal.org/ (December 15, 2016), “Anuradha Koirala.”
Mikel Dunham blog, http://www.mikeldunham.blogs.com/ (April 19, 2013), Mikel Dunham, interview with Koirala.
Nepal Mountain News online, http://www.nepalmountainnews.com/ (December 18, 2016), “Anuradha Koirala Risks Her Life Rescuing Sex Slave.”
Nepali Times online, http://nepalitimes.com/ (November 12, 2010), “Nepal's Hero.”
TEDxTalks website, http://tedxtalks.ted.com/ (February 26, 2015), “Stop Selling Our Girls/Anuradha Koirala” (video).❑