Nepal Blog

Alexandra Robinson, 23, is a D.C. native and recent graduate of Davidson College, where she received a B.A. in Political Science. Alexandra first learned about human trafficking when she was fifteen years old. Although she does not remember precisely how she was exposed to the issue, she does recall feeling deeply shaken and immediately called to action. Thus, at fifteen, Alexandra decided that someday she would prosecute human traffickers and help victims achieve justice. Eight years later, Alexandra holds steadfast to her dream and has worked across the country and the world to advocate on behalf of victims of gender-based crimes. As a college freshman, Alexandra interned at the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, where she assisted the prosecution of domestic violence and sexual assault  and worked personally with victims. Three years later, she spent several months interviewing convicted sex offenders at a North Carolina men’s penitentiary – an experience she says provided invaluable preparation her a career in prosecution.

In 2008, Alexandra spent four months in rural Northeastern Thailand monitoring development projects and co-authoring a report on human rights violations against people living with HIV/AIDS that was published and presented to the Thai Government. in Bangkok. This September, after completing an internship at Free the Slaves, Alexandra began lobbying for the International Violence Against Women Act on behalf of Amnesty International.

On February 26, Alexandra is moving to Katmandu, Nepal and working for the Women’s Foundation of Nepal, assisting casework and conducting policy advocacy on behalf of victims of human trafficking and other egregious gender-based crimes. Alexandra has spent the last six months in intensive Nepali language lessons, and hopes to utilize her language skills in working personally with victims at the Women’s Foundation’s shelter in Katmandu. She has created this blog to detail her experiences in Nepal and raise awareness about human trafficking.

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February 26, 2010

“Mero naam Alexandra ho, (My name is Alexandra)”

So here I, Alexandra Robinson, am, in Kathmandu, Nepal, approximately 7,600 miles from my home in Washington, DC.  Moving here was a quasi-impulsive decision, but one could say that about most of my major life decisions.

In some ways, this trip has been methodically plotted since I first learned about human trafficking and violence against women eight years ago. I was just 15 back then – essentially ignorant about global women’s issues despite going to an all-girls school since I was 8. I don’t remember how I learned about sex trafficking, but when I did, I immediately decided that when I grew up, I would prosecute trafficking violations. Somehow, the goal stuck, and I’ve been working on issues involving trafficking and gender-based violenceever since.

Anyways, being your stereotypical Washingtonian uber-type A (I like to call myself type A+, because I’m just that irritatingly driven), calculated, as a college freshman, a seven year plan to launch my career in human rights litigation, designating Year 3 (following graduating from college) to working with human rights organizations in Washington DC, and Year 4 with victims of trafficking and violence against women in Asia. Year 3 is almost up, so I guess you could say that I’m “right on track”– although I feel really nauseated by my Type-A-ness saying that…

So as for the impulsive part of my trip – last April, utterly frustrated with my U.S. job search–- I googled “Work abroad” and “human trafficking” and stumbled upon an opening to work for the Women’s Foundation of Nepal through an international placement agency. Two seconds later, I called the program director, and requested an application. Long story, short, after a few weeks of researching the organization, sugarcoating the prospect of me moving to Nepal to my family, turning down an opportunity to work in Cambodia, and evaluating my finances, I had made my decision. To Nepal I would go.

And here, in Nepal, I am….

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March 5, 2010

Kathmanduma Auchu (I arrive in Kathmandu)

I arrived at the Kathmandu airport on Saturday, February 27th, one day before Holi, the Hindu water festival. My Nepali tutor in America had briefly mentioned Holi, in the context of, “yes, it’s a festival where we sprinkle water on each other.” “Sprinkle” must have been lost in translation, because Holi is really celebrated with citywide water balloon fights, and  within 30 minutes of landing in Kathmandu, I had been pelted in the head with a water balloon while on the back of a motorcycle.

But explaining how I ended up on the back of a motorcycle takes a little back tracking…

So I am your stereotypical over-packer. Last year, when I moved to Thailand for four months, I tried to bring a 120-pound roll-on duffel bag (along with another 70-pounder), and had to unpack it in the middle of Dulles Airport. I tend to pack the day before my departure and then find myself unable to make rational packing decisions. This time, I decided I would pack lightly…but then Snowmagddon hit…

The snow descended upon D.C. the week before my departure to Asia. My office (at Amnesty International) closed, and unable to exercise my workaholism, I threw myself into shoveling.  After digging ourselves out of the glaciers in our driveway, and then our entire block, my mom and I trekked to Hudson Trail Outfitters, where I picked up some long underwear for trekking and several plastic compression bags, two seemingly reasonable purchases.

But with no more shoveling to do, I found myself engrossed in packing… indiscriminately picking out clothes, carefully placing items one by one into the compression bags, and sitting on them until enough air released to produce a squashed mass of mangled clothes.

Ten compression bags later, I had what turned out to be about 150 pounds of luggage. I knew that I had severely over packed, but with everything sealed so tightly, I threw my hands up in the air and decided to bring it all.

Flash forward to the Kathmandu airport, and I’m standing on the curb with two 70 lb roll-on bags, a backpack and a duffel bag, and Apsara, the woman sent to pick me up, arrives on a motorbike.

After some bartering, Apsara finds a taxi to take my stuff back to the house, and I hop on to the motorcycle with her (sorry mom and dad, I know I’m not supposed to ride on the back of people’s motorcycles…). Within the 30-minute ride back to the house, I see a pedestrian get hit by a car, a woman throwing up on the sidewalk, and finally, I get hit in the read with a plastic bag of ice.  And I couldn’t help but laugh, really laugh from the inside out, at the strangeness and adventure of it all.

Kathmandu, is in many ways, chaotic.  It’s easy it is to come to here and only hear the constant honking, to only see the sewage and dust, to only smell the pollution and smoke. But if you can laugh, and breathe, and attempt to carve out a little peace inside, it’s truly an easy place to call home.

So Kathmandu, with all its chaos and traffic, its unpredictability and humor – is my new home.

Some Illustrative Facts About Kathmandu & Nepal

Nepal is truly another world. I could write and write and write about how different it is, how far away I feel from the U.S. But I’ll let these facts illustrate what could take hours to describe.

1. When 1 rupee coins aren’t available, stores will give you candies in lieu of actual currency.

2. The penalty for killing a cow (about 20 years in prison) is the same for killing a human being (cows are sacred in Hinduism). The penalty is worse if you kill a cow on a holiday than on a regular day.

3.  I have only seen ONE cross walk in the entire city of Kathmandu. I fear for my life when crossing the street on a daily basis.

4. The female literacy rate is about 43%. National average is about 54%.

5. There are national holidays (= my office closes!) at least every other week. On numerous occasions, I have showed up to work, and no one is there.

6. Nepal, is roughly the size of Arkansas, but has the greatest range of elevation of any country in the world – from less than 330ft to 29,029 feet (Mount Everest). The climate is also incredibly diverse, ranging from scorching heat in the terrain (flat lands on the Indian border), to polar-regions around Everest.

7. The deadline for the new constitution is in May. Every day, newspapers count down the number of days until the deadline, but many fear that the Constituent Assembly isn’t going to deliver.

8. On July 21, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra massacred killed the Kind, Queen, and seven members of the royal family, and then committed suicide. There is still much speculation about the motivation and circumstances at the massacre.

9. Agriculture employs 76% of Nepal’s workforce.

10. Lumbini, near the Indian border, I held to be the birthplace of Siddhartha Guatama, who as the Buddha, gave birth the Buddhist tradition. Ten percent of Nepal’s population is Buddhist, and 80% is Hindu.

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March 12, 2010

“Ke garne? What to do?”

Late March

Last week the Free the Slaves Fellows, Betsy and Alexis, flew from DC to Nepal to visit the FTS’s Nepali partner organizations.  On March 19, we headed east, towards the Chinese border, to meet with GMSP, an amazing organization that provides shelter and services to women trafficking survivors, organizes community groups to prevent trafficking, and combats gender-based violence.

After de-briefing with GMSP staff in Sindhupalchowk, three GMSP members, Betsy, Alexis, Binod (The Nepal FTS Country Director) and I set off to visit two of the 40 local women’s community groups that GMSP has mobilized.

The seven of us packed into an SVU, rocking and rolling over small boulders and crater-like potholes, squeezing past buses while teetering dangerously closes the road’s edge. By the grace of God, no one, not even I, who gets sick on gondolas, elevators, and ski lifts, threw up. I imagined myself on a wild mountain safari filled with goats and cows, and somehow managed to enjoy myself (I even held a baby goat in my arms when we stopped for water.)

Eventually, the roads became too treacherous, so we got out and started trekking up into the mountains.  Along the way, we saw villagers were carrying 100 lb stacks of stone tablets tied to their backs. An hour into the hike, we stopped and talked to a young girl, about 13 years old, who was resting on the path. She had gone to school up until 5th grade, but was forced to drop out in order to support her family (this is all too common in rural areas. Only about 43% of Nepali women are literate). Betsy, Binod, and I tried lifting her stack of tablets, but I couldn’t even get them off the ground.

We shared our aloo prata (fried potato pancakes) with the young girl, and kept trekking, jumping across boulders and crossing rivers on the kinds of rickety wood bridges that collapse in Indiana Jones movies.  Then we started the steep hike into the mountains, treading up and down narrow paths, and weaving through the terraced steps villagers have methodically carved into the mountainside for centuries.

After an hour and a half we made it to the first community group, where nearly 30 women and girls welcomed us, blessing us with red, pink, yellow, and purple flowers. All of us crunched into the bare classroom the women use for education and to organize. A single light bulb hung from a rusted wire… no furniture, no books, no evidence whatsoever of technology.

We sat down cross-legged on the floor, and the women started sharing their stories.  Everyone, it seemed, had been touched by trafficking; some had daughters and sons working in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and hadn’t heard from them in months. Some had received distressing phone calls from their children who were stuck in debt peonage in the Middle East, and had no way of coming home. And some, them selves, had been trafficked, sold and re-sold abroad, abused, violated, exploited. Those who managed to return were scoffed at by the local authorities if they even reported their stories at all (only a tiny fraction even filed reports).

But before GMSP had started the community groups, only a handful of women could read or write, or understood how to get help if they became victims of exploitation. Through helping the women organize, however, GMSP has empowered women to realize their rights, recognize the tricks of local brokers, send their girls to school, and stand up against violence and exploitation.

At the second village community group we visited, the women shared that before GMSP had helped them organize, only two or three could read and write. But after receiving basic human rights education, they were inspired to become literate. With the help of fellow community group member, the women have learned read and write, and every single woman is sending her children to school.

Still, however, the communities remain acutely vulnerable to trafficking. There simply isn’t enough food to go around, and there aren’t any jobs; so someone, whether man, woman, or child, has to work abroad for families to survive. GMSP’s small microcredit projects are helping women generate income, but sustainable economic independence doesn’t happen overnight. And meanwhile, innumerable brokers continue to lure villages into slavery, debt peonage, and exploitation abroad.

Thus leaves the ubiquitous question echoed across Nepal: “ke garne?” What to do?

I’ve spent the last three weeks asking key actors from American, international, and Nepali organizations “ke garne?” My questions have been answered at best with mild optimism, but more often with pessimism, even exasperation. All, however, agree that problem to vastly complex, too pervasive, for one answer or one organization to solve.