The Janakpur Girls' Refuge
Probably the most important thing to state at the outset of this blog post is that we only support institutional childcare in Nepal as an absolute last-resort. Boys and girls belong with their families and for the most part, children who have lost one or both parents can still be cared for within the extended family. That may necessitate a little bit of financial support, but that remains a much cheaper option than operating a "children's home" or "orphanage". And a children's home can be an emotional wasteland where "carers" are merely doing a job rather than providing love. Moreover, institutional care serves only to weaken the family links that are so vital within Nepal society as the extended family is a safety-net even for adults when times get tough - as they so often do in Nepal. Granted, there are a few exceptions that do provide first-class care when that last-resort sadly becomes necessary. I think for example of Ama Ghar and Laliguraas Baal Uddhyaan (LBU) in Kathmandu that are the initiative of Westerners Bonnie Ellison and Florence Krief who have invested so much of their time and love over decades of personal and professional commitment. And there remains the need to have residential facilities that can provide short term residential care, protection and rehabilitation for lost and brutalised children who may come to the attention of the Nepal authorities. This includes offering a lifeline to the victims of Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The need for a refuge is one that we are currently addressing, uniquely within southeast Nepal.
GBV in Province No 2, southeast Nepal
The range of GBV experienced in south Nepal beggars belief. It spans rape and attempted rape (including marital rape), sexual abuse, dowry violence, child marriage, retribution for alleged witchcraft, Illegal abortion and burns (including through acid attack). According to data from the Nepal government's Women, Children and Senior Citizen Directorate, there were 15,662 recorded cases of GBV nationally in 2019/20. Of these, 4,069 (25.98%) were in Province No 2, which is far and away the worst affected of Nepal's seven provinces. The second worst, Lumbini Province, had 40% fewer cases. Similarly, of the 1,094 cases of domestic violence registered nationally, 28.61% were in Province No 2. Violence levels soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a survey conducted by the European Union and UNFPA on "Gender Based Violence in the Covid-19 context in Nepal" revealing that 66% of GBV survivors had not sought any help or talked with anyone about resisting or stopping the violence they had experienced. This was broadly consistent with a UNDP GBV factsheet for 2017 that reported 76.4% of women aged 15-49 who have ever experienced violence had never sought help or told anyone. In some ways this is scarcely surprising given that of the reported cases 42% are "resolved" informally under social or political pressure with very few cases ever making it to court. Criminals are escaping justice.
In March 2021, in spite of the operational challenges presented by COVID, Pipal Tree and our UK registered charity partner Our Sansar set up a girls' shelter in the Provincial capital, Janakpur. This involved a great deal of hard work initially, shared between our local partner NGOs Mithila Wildlife Trust and Our Sansar, before the Our Sansar NGO continued as the lead implementer. The task involved Saroj and Dev doing much more than identifying and furnishing premises, recruiting and training staff and carers. For we also had to build relationships with the local community social workers, the communities themselves and the local authorities so that everyone knew we existed and were aware of the services we are providing.
Six months down the line, the project is now fully operational and any girls that need emergency assistance are referred to us by the police and children's authorities. Services we have so far provided include:
- Emergency shelter and protection to vulnerable girls who have nowhere else to stay.
- Our female staff counsellor, Samikshya, offers immediate and ongoing support.
- Non-formal education and recreation through classes and activities at the shelter. The majority of the girls who stay with us cannot attend regular school for safety reasons or due to the trauma they have experienced so we provide them with in-house classes to ensure their development. The classes vary depending on the age and their level of education, and interests. Extra-curricular activities include arts, crafts, sport and music. Recently, knitting has been a big hit with the girls now planning to set up their own workshop.
- Girls receive medicals upon joining and necessary follow ups.
- Outreach: Our field staff member Avinash and social worker Sabita are spending a great deal of time investigating cases of girls who have been referred to us by the community social workers, and also reaching out to communities to ensure victims know whom to contact for help.
- Legal support: We ensure that all correct paperwork has been filed by the families and police in cases of rape or violence so that the perpetrator can be brought to justice. These cases take a very long time and quite often when the perpetrator is from a high caste or influential family, the police are not keen on taking action, or the families of the girls are too scared to file any charges. Our staff are assisting these families and also press the police to take action when necessary. We are planning to expand this vital aspect of our work over the coming months.
- Training support: As soon as girls are considered to be stable, we identify training opportunities in line with their interests. This can include being allocated training places with our Kathmandu-based partner, the social enterprise Lily's Leaves.
- Research: We have been informed that up to 100 girls as young as six years old are working at local brick factories. The factories have been closed throughout the rainy season and will reopen in November. Our staff are staying in touch with the local communities in those areas and will start their thorough investigation in November. After we finish our first-hand investigation, we will make a plan of how we can help these children and their families. The issue is huge and very complicated, so it will require a lot of planning and funding.
To date, we have helped 34 girls through the shelter, with the majority reconnected with their close or extended families. Ten girls are currently staying at the shelter. Here are a couple of case studies, with names changed:
Amrata, age 15, was raped by a son of the house owner where she used to work as a maid. After the rape, she found herself pregnant and the man's mother forced her to have an abortion; at that time she was in her sixth month. Nevertheless, the case against the man was filed with the police, an arrest warrant was issued and he is now on the run. Amrata is staying safely with us while we help the authorities locate the culprit.
Kiran and Ayusha, 4 and 6 year old siblings, referred to us by the police. Their mother was in prison for an involvement in a murder case, their father absconding abroad. At the time of the referral, the children were inside the prison with their mother. The children came to our shelter immediately where they remained for a few weeks pending our successful identification of extended family members who were happy to look after them. We continue to monitor their welfare, in coordination with the child welfare authority.
Plan for 2022
We had hoped to set up a parallel boys' shelter this year but this has had to be delayed because of the restrictions we experienced due to COVID. However, we are confident that we can do this in early 2022. In the meantime, any cases that come our way can be looked after at the existing Our Sansar boys' shelter in Birgunj.