Contrasting the luminous, lively eyes of the orphanage kids with the sunken, lifeless counterparts of Nepal’s less fortunate children, I shudder to think of what could have happened to the former, had the orphanage not interceded in their cases. The orphan problem in Nepal is dire, due to a variety of factors–the recent civil war, dangerous livelihoods, rampant disease, crippling poverty. While I certainly have no intention of asking the children with whom I live what castes they come from, all sociological indicators–which point to a disproportionate pattern of disease, hunger, and mortality among Nepal’s lowest caste–lead me to logically infer that a disproportionate pattern of orphanhood exists among Dalits.
Between eighty-five and ninety percent of Dalits live below the poverty line, and the majority lack access to clean drinking water–making such individuals more prone to waterborne diseases, gastrointestinal infections, and diarrhea-related deaths. Gynecological diseases–such as uterine prolapse–are especially common among Dalit women, and mothers often die due to childbirth-related causes. Dalit fathers are most likely to work hazardous jobs in unhygienic conditions, leaving them more vulnerable to deadly disease and injury. These factors, coupled with deeply-embedded marginalization in the areas of educational attainment and receipt of government services, beget a lethal combination–a prime breeding ground for high incidences of unexpected parental deaths in Dalit families, and correspondingly high numbers of Dalit orphans and street children.
Orphaned girls and young women, particularly Dalits, face an especially horrific threat: the danger of being whisked away by human traffickers. Due to their marginalization and lack of legal protection, Dalit women and girls are the most likely to be trafficked–primarily bought and sold into brothels in India’s major cities (such as Mumbai, which has the largest number of brothels in the world according to WomenNewsNetwork). Every year about 10,000 Nepalese girls–some as young as six years old, but most between the ages of nine and sixteen–are taken and sold to brothels in India, where hundreds of thousands of other young girls are already believed to be involved in coerced sex work (U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, 2009). I urge you to visit this link to familiarize yourself with the truly heartbreaking and harrowing story of Seema, a Nepali woman who became a trafficking victim at the age of twelve.
Some of the children in the orphanage at which I volunteer have already had firsthand experience with being bought and sold as a commodity. One girl, who is now nine, was found by a government social worker in a busy area of Kathmandu–covered in bruises and with her hands tightly bound by a rusty wire–forced to work as a domestic servant. She’s understandably had a difficult time opening up to the other children at the orphanage, and has not yet spoken in detail about what happened to her while she was held in servitude. However, she has expressed her love of attending school and passion for learning, which suggests that her agonizing past may not prevent her from pursuing a positive, productive life of her own after all. In fact, given the struggles and tumultuous experiences to which all the children in the orphanage have been subjected, I am astounded by how helpful, friendly, and loving they all are toward both the staff members and each other–like a large, but very content, family.
Since arriving in Nepal, I’ve been intrigued with the idea of staying with a local host family–rather than hopping from hostel to hostel as I’d been doing–in order to experience and immerse myself in “real” Nepali life. Relocating to this orphanage has allowed me to fulfill that desire in a delightfully unconventional way. We may not have running water or reliable electricity, but cohesion, compassion and fortitude run deep here. As spoken by the director of the orphanage to the kids: “You are no different from the other children at school. You work hard in your classes, eat dhaal-bhaat every day, and love to sing songs just as they do. The only difference is that your family is a little bit bigger than the other kids’ families.”
Posted By Jessica Tirado
Posted Jul 28th, 2009