By Anubha Rawat, Communications and Partnerships Director
Imagine for a moment that you are a parent of a child and living in the midst of a civil war. You are desperate to protect your child, to make sure they are safe, and sheltered from the significant possibility that they could be taken by warring armies as a child soldier. You anxiously think about your child’s future and worry about how they will get to school and whether an education will be possible at all, in the midst of raging war. Imagine then, that someone offers you a getaway for your child, a chance for them to escape the crisis, the poverty and the struggle, and to begin a new life in a bustling city where war seems far away, and education and good nutrition are promised. Would you take that opportunity?
This was the question facing many parents who live in Humla, a remote, impoverished region in north-western Nepal, in the Himalayas. During the civil war that raged for more than 10 years in the region, many desperate parents sent their children away to what they were assured would be a brighter future. The reality could not have been further from the vision they were promised. The children were taken by traffickers and landed in a system of abuse and profiteering. Trafficking of children has been documented in every region of the world, the International Labour Organisation, estimates that 1.2 million children around the world are trafficked each year.
The children that were sent to Kathmandu with dreams and hopes were subjected to horrific abuse and treatment by the very people who were entrusted to care for them. Many of the children had been beaten, some had been sexually abused, many were very unwell and all were malnourished when ISIS found them in 2004. The children, having been away from home for over a year, had become accustomed to living unsupervised in cramped, filthy living quarters. The ISIS team fought hard to gain custody of the 136 children they found and to close the four horrible ‘holding pens’ under the control of two traffickers.
I began working at ISIS in 2008 and it has been such a pleasure to watch these children grow up and flourish over the last 5 years. I first met the children in 2009, three years after they had been settled into 10 homes, and a year after the Nepali people had voted in a government, in their first foray into democracy. Health and education opportunities in Humla were still few and far between and reintegration of the children to their families’ of origin in Humla was being considered and thoroughly discussed widely by the ISIS team.
In Kathmandu, the children were going to school, were in the care of excellent ‘Home Parents’ and a whole team of staff were working out the best options for their future. All the children’s families had been located by this time and anti-trafficking activities were being conducted in Humla to raise awareness on the perils of sending children away, inadvertently in the hands of child traffickers. As I spent time with them, we bonded over the latest Bollywood movies and sang and danced together to their favourite tunes. The children were happy. Over the last 5 years, they have gone from strength to strength, and every year I observed their growing confidence.
I was in Kathmandu in March this year, and I was once again struck by the transformation in the children. They were no longer little children, shyly smiling at me from behind their ‘Home Parents’. Some no longer children at all, now young adults, firmly shook hands with me, asking me how I was doing and welcoming me back to Kathmandu. Most of them are now in boarding schools and are in involved in several activities – school sports, debates, and arts and crafts. Many are now leaders in their school, taking on student leadership positions. They are all performing well academically and each year, several children sit the dreaded School Leaving Certificate (SLC). I feel immense pride to have witnessed these children’s transformation, and I have no doubt that each of them will make significant contributions to Nepal.
Some of these children are now adults, and have graduated from ISIS care. In May this year, the fifth batch of ISIS youth graduated from the programme. This group of nine young adults, two girls and seven boys, have been with ISIS for the past seven years, so it was a momentous occasion to be there and watch them begin the next stage of their journey. They have all made very brave decisions about their future. Some are returning to their families in Humla, others are pursuing further study. The two girls intend to return to Humla for a period, and then continue their studies in Kathmandu to take up a diploma course in teaching. One of the boys has already started his preparations for medical entrance examinations. To me, it seems like only yesterday they were children – playful, mischievous and happy but to see them grow into young adults, who are beginning to define their own life journeys has been an unimaginable experience. I feel very fortunate to have witnessed and be a part of their transition.
Not only have the children undergone a transformation, but so has the direction of the ISIS Children’s Foundation. Over the last five years, the ISIS Children’s Foundation has transitioned from providing rescue and emergency care to these children, to an organisation that works towards improving health, education and emotional outcomes for the children. The ISIS Children’s Foundation is importantly also working hard towards the reintegration of these children to their families of origin, where it is safe to do so. Additionally, the ISIS team has set up programmes to improve health and education facilities in Humla, from where most of the children originated, so families will not feel compelled to send their children away to get education and health services.
Trafficking from north Humla, has reduced dramatically, as educational and health facilities have improved, and the ISIS team is working closely with the District Health and Education offices, other non-government organisations and partners in Humla, to further improve these facilities.
The children are going from strength to strength and the ISIS Nepali team have done an incredible job in getting them to where they are today, and in working in Humla to improve health and education facilities. If you want to see the mischief they get up to, check out this video: