Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Human Trafficking: Learning to Listen

Human Trafficking: Learning to Listen

Reporting on the awareness raising activities of POURAKHI, an NGO formed by returnee domestic workers, with the support of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

July 2012 

Every week, in forty-four districts across Nepal, groups of women gather around a radio in an empty school hall, the steps of a temple or a neighbour’s house. They have gathered there to listen to the weekly broadcast of POURAKHI, an NGO formed by returnee domestic workers in 2003 to raise awareness of the risks potential migrant workers are exposed to without adequate pre-departure orientation and skills training.

In their homes, these women might not have first choice of the radio station. That privilege, like so many privileges on their sub-continent, belongs to fathers, brothers and husbands. So women took listening into their own hands. Groups and communities ranging from seven to fifteen members began to contact POURAKHI, informing the NGO that they had heard the broadcasts and had formed committees. They called themselves ‘Listener’s Clubs’, and since the programme’s launch in 2009, over two hundred ‘Listener’s Clubs’ have been formed, not by the NGO, but by the listeners themselves.

As more and more women contacted POURAKHI to inform them that they had formed groups, the NGO began to register each group. Once registered, POURAKHI sent the register to each club, informing them of fellow listeners nearby, encouraging them to get in touch, to share stories and help each other. The response has been astounding. ‘Listener’s Clubs’ nationwide, following POURAKHI’s example, have mobilised to pressurize brokers and agents known to be encouraging women to migrate illegally or taking advantage of vulnerable women in their communities.

This radio programme was the first awareness raising activity employed by POURAKHI with the support of the International Labour Organization. This coming together of women to support each other and combat the challenges faced by vulnerable members of their communities is a solid reflection of the ethos on which POURAKHI is based: by creating a new climate of openness about the migrating process, POURAKHI works against ignorance. The NGO advocates wider access to potentially life-saving information.

After seven long years, the NGO has been able to work in only fifteen districts, but the radio programme has reached forty-four. With 1000-1500 people migrating each day from Nepal, and an average of two dead bodies arriving at Kathmandu’s international airport each day as a result of unsafe migration, POURAKHI’s goal is to outreach to all seventy-five districts in Nepal. By broadcasting from central Kathmandu and resonating with groups across the country, this NGO has uncovered an urgent and widespread need for greater communication on the issues facing potential and returnee migrant workers in Nepal.


The NGO was established to share stories and transform bad migration experiences abroad into positive prevention, with a staff largely made up of returnee domestic workers determined to see others better prepared and more financially literate than they were before migrating. Translated from Nepali, POURAKHI means ‘strength’, and as Ms. Bijaya Mai Shresthra from the NGO’s Kathmandu office asserts, a great source of strength for women comes from financial independence. Bijaya maintains that ‘until and unless a woman is economically strong, she will be vulnerable to trafficking and trafficking will continue.’


Promoting the importance of financial literacy was one of the main objectives of the recent ILO-supported pilot project, ‘Reducing the Vulnerability of Trafficking and Forced Labour of Women and Girls in Domestic Work’. The project consisted of five orientations at grassroots level in the Sunsari District.

Straddling the border with India, the Sunsari District is notorious for high levels of trafficking in Nepal. Far away from the central administration of Kathmandu, vulnerable girls and women in districts like this one fall beneath the radar of government objectives set up to prepare them for migration. It is here that POURAKHI and the ILO chose to pilot a project ensuring that women were at least aware of the basic financial assessments essential for safe migration.

POURAKHI seeks to send vulnerable women into the working world with the correct knowledge and information to make the most of the migration process. This might involve something as simple as making cost and benefit calculations before they leave their homes, taking travel and eventual living expenditure into consideration.

At each orientation, POURAKHI strongly stressed the importance of establishing some pre-assurance of income, and encouraged women to save their own money as well as sending money to their families. This works towards ensuring that they are still considered a valued family member if their employment abroad is terminated, they are deported, or they seek to return home.

A large proportion of each orientation was spent raising awareness of the challenges facing and opportunities available to migrant domestic workers. These included the benefits of safe migration; the ever growing threat of human trafficking and forced labour; and importantly, national and international laws in place to protect the rights of domestic workers. These were explored by the ILO’s Ms. Bina Kunwar Thwapa, who cited and explained ILO Convention 189, established in 2009 to protect the rights of domestic migrant workers.


After the essentials, there was still a considerable amount of time set aside for women to share their own experiences, with each orientation commencing with introductions from every participant.

Geeta Gautam, a returnee domestic worker woman was forced to migrate by her husband and in-laws, with the promise that they would look after her five-year old son. When raped by her employer, her husband assured her that if there was a pregnancy, he would take the baby, and encouraged her to continue working. When she returned, pregnant and disgraced, her husband’s family waited for the child to be born before throwing her out of their home.

Geeta’s story is painfully common. POURAKHI dedicate a lot of time to promoting recognition of the problems that exist at home in Nepal and contribute heavily towards women migrating recklessly outside of the safer, official channels. Domestic violence, poverty, and ongoing civil conflict pervade many lives in Nepal, and young women, the most vulnerable and powerless of all, have much to escape from. Sometimes the greatest dangers to potential migrants are family members seeking to reap the benefits of their foreign employment, as Srijana Gajmer bravely told those gathered at the Bharaul orientation.

‘My uncle sent me to Saudi Arabia when I was fourteen years old, where I worked for six difficult years. I’m lucky to be back home’

Srijana then asked if POURAKHI would provide some kind of training so she would not have to migrate again. Srijana’s question is one that many women ask the NGO. Indeed, perhaps the most overwhelming challenge facing the NGO, raised repetitively by participants of the pilot project, was that the orientations provided no skills training. POURAKHI and the ILO recognise that one day was not nearly enough to prepare these women; even three days could barely cover the basics. This is why the ILO and POURAKHI need the support of the international community to bring an end to unsafe migration in South Asia.


POURAKHI is criticized by some in Nepal for what is perceived to be promoting migration. Bijaya Rai Shretha rejects this, arguing to the contrary, that one of the NGO’s main objectives is to pressurize the government for more job opportunities at home.

‘POURAKHI does not promote migration,’ Bijaya stresses. “We promote safe migration.’

What Bijaya and the ILO promote is a call for mandatory skills training for migrant workers, ensuring women are not sent blindly into unknown counties, particularly the Gulf states where the Kafala sponsorship system continues to deny them their autonomy and any rights that come with it. By aiming to ensure that vulnerable women seeking work abroad secure employment through safe and correct channels, POURAKHI do not write off the process as negative.

Sharing her story, Bijaya’s dream was to earn enough money to educate her children in a good school. She worked as a teacher in Nepal but after migrating to Japan and working as a migrant worker for two years, she could return to her country financially independent and could open a bank account. Many members of the NGO have similar stories, and every time, their stories before migrating are different to their stories on return. On return to Nepal, all could open a bank account and achieve financial independence from their families.


To prevent the harrowing stories that women like Geeta and Srijana return with, Bijaya stresses that the Nepali government must take responsibility for failing to prepare ignorant, illiterate and untrained women for work abroad. Moreover, they must act in earnest.

The need for the pilot project and further support arises largely from the government’s unsatisfactory attempts to do this. The administration provides a twenty-one day orientation for potential migrant workers held in Kathmandu but they do not provide accommodation for those women who do not live in the capital and have no family to stay with. In a country with a population of around twenty six million, only five million live in Kathmandu or convenient proximity. POURAKHI continue to pressurize the government for decentralization, stressing that surely if they really want to prepare vulnerable women for migration they must be prepared to move away from Kathmandu, outreaching to every corner of the country, especially those vulnerable areas most susceptible to traffickers.

Sunsari District was selected by POURAKHI and the ILO for this very reason. The main issues raised from the project were that illiteracy levels were so poor in the area that pre-orientation assessment forms could be completed by only a small minority, and a general expectation for skills training from the one-day orientation left participants dissatisfied. These condemning facts surely demand that the government decentralise their support system for these women and outreach to prove their commitment to progress.

By providing counselling services, shelters, radio broadcasts, and interactive orientations in which women who have experienced the migration process are encouraged to share their stories, POURAKHI sets a standard of listening. Furthermore, the ILO’s support provides an incentive for governments and small corners across South Asia to do the same, encouraging a climate of openness that can only work towards a more progressive response to migration and human trafficking on the continent.

It was with great assurance that POURAKHI representatives could answer the frequently asked question on ILO Convention 189: ‘will this convention protect me if I go now as a domestic worker?’ with a clear and firm yes. One participant applauded the programme, telling Pourakhi that this was the first time any such programme had been conducted in their area.

‘Now at least there are laws to protect me,’ she said. ‘I am planning to migrate to Oman through a relative of mine. I plan to take the legal way.’

Such a victory can only be marred by the fact that not all women who wanted to could attend the meeting due to domestic pressures. Such are the constrains of daily life in rural Nepal. However, with ‘Listener’s Clubs’ and the extension of knowledge at orientations there is now a real and ever growing possibility that the message is being passed on.

The challenges facing the pilot project were apparent from the very beginning of the day, when the heat drove participants quickly into the cool of the school halls or community centres in which the orientations were set to take place. Chosen for their relative obscurity, beyond government outreach, reaching the target areas was itself a challenge with outlying communities often situated at the end of bumpy dirt tracks or dry river beds sixteen or seventeen kilometres from the nearest town. The popularity of the programme also drew crowds exceeding the expected turn out, with an expected 180 participants at one orientation reaching 230, leaving the rooms overcrowded in the heat. Despite these challenges, however, participants were eager to learn, interact and the orientations were considered a success.

Not only did the pilot project outreach at a grassroots level in Sunsari District, but at district level also, inviting local level government officials and members of the media to a one-day interaction programme. This programme aimed to sensitize influential individuals with the hope that they would then extend that knowledge. Local government representatives agreed that POURAKHI’s efforts in their field set an exciting example to governments and other organisations working to combat human trafficking by creating a clear climate of communication. By taking their own stories, often distressing, the NGO members have transformed negative experiences into positive action, encouraging others to do the same.

A local journalist attending the event told POURAKHI that women face a lot of exploitation, but ‘we also have success stories: if POURAKHI can provide us with such stories, we can have a regular corner for it in our local papers.’ Mr. Rohit Rai of Nagarik Media agreed on this point, emphasizing the importance of media in sensitizing and stirring awareness in the public on issues of migration.

The work of POURAKHI not only encourages the sharing of essential information on such issues, but figureheads a commitment to individual stories, stories that can transform personal shame and silence into a collecting of voices and crystal clear communication on systems already in place to help. This pilot project has proven that despite challenges faced, POURAKHI’s tireless efforts, with the ongoing support of the ILO, can and continue to give vulnerable girls, women and all who fall prey to misguided and misguiding advice on migration a voice and a community from which they can help themselves and each other.


In July 2013, the ILO's work with NGOs in South Asia was approved as a five-year technical corporation by UK DfID, called the Work in Freedom Programme. The ILO asked me to interview one of the keynote speakers, Manju Gurung, founder of POURAKHI, and to write her biography for the project launch in London. I then worked with DfID on her profile and we managed to get her well represented. You can read about the launch and a little bit about Manju here.

An article on the ILO's pilot project can be read here.

Manju Gurung and staff at POURAKHI HQ in Kathmandu, Nepal
POURAKHI's website can be visited here

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