Kathmandu: In April 1994, Charimaya Tamang, then 16, was abducted from a forest in Sindhupalchowk where she had been to fetch fodder for the cattle, by a group of four men. The men were from her own and neighboring villages. At first, the men asked her to move with them, without making any fuss. When she rejected their orders, she was physically assaulted. After none of those assaults made her leave her stance, they finally drugged her and took her while she was unconscious.
When she regained her consciousness, she found herself in Gorakhpur. Then she woke up in a brothel in Mumbai. Tamang struggled to escape or find any sort of help for 6 months, all in vain. She felt hopeless, Tamang recalls. She reached a point where she wanted to take her own life. “I had no option but to comply with their demands, which was to please the customers,” she says, “so that I wouldn’t be physically abused or beaten.”
Tamang tried to make peace with the only way of survival she knew.
Today, 27 years since she was trafficked, Tamang is one of the most prominent persons working towards preventing human trafficking in Nepal. She is the founder of Shakti Samuha, which was established in 1996 and has been working towards rescuing trafficked individuals and preventing it in the first place. In the course, Tamang with her organization has freed hundreds of hapless victims of human trafficking from India and across the world.
The detour Charimaya Tamang’s life took, however, didn’t come easy.
Tamang goes down the memory lane to tell her story of survival and rescue. It broke her heart, she says, when she saw the same traffickers bring other young girls one after the other into the brothel she was housed in. Tamang knew what was happening was wrong but her hands were tied. She neither could free herself nor the others.
Tamang had to endure emotional and physical torture of unimaginable magnitude for those 22 months before she was rescued.
The story of her rescue is one of hope and perseverance.
On February 4, 1996, the Indian government carried out a raid on the brothels of Mumbai, from where more than 500 women were rescued, the majority of them from Nepal. But even when she was rescued, Tamang was not assured that she would get to return home.
“I was very skeptical,” Tamang recalls. “I thought we would just be transferred to another brothel.” But to her disbelief, she and the other rescued women were finally taken to the transit and shelter homes, where they were safe from the nightmares they faced in the brothel.
Charimaya Tamang was finally free.
After the rescue
Rehabilitating in society as a trafficking survivor is not easy, as one knows in a conservation society like Nepal’s, Tamang said. While they were free from the nightmarish life they endured, they had other sets of struggle waiting for them even before reaching the transit home.
“We used to hear rumors like the Nepal Government wants us to be executed, or people did not want us back to our homeland,” said Tamang. “I still felt like a prisoner, constantly surrounded by police with no access to the outside world.”
To persuade the Nepal government to let them back in the country, civil societies of Nepal had to lobby for six months. Tamang and the other survivors, which included a total of 128 women, were finally taken back to the transit homes in Kathmandu. Tamang was given shelter at Navajyoti Kendra, a shelter home in Baluwatar.
“We were finally free and back to our home country, but we all still felt helpless,” Tamang said. “My language was bad, I had no skills or education to start with. Everything felt strange.”
Tamang goes down memory lane to tell her story of survival and rescue. It broke her heart, she says, when she saw the same traffickers bring other young girls one after the other into the brothel she was housed in.
Nepali society was not welcoming about their return; people feared their presence, believing the survivors were a “bad influence” to society, Tamang says.
These set of obstacles made it even tougher to get out of the trauma she faced before the rescue.
Talking about the trauma, at that time, there was not much psychological help available to begin with, said Tamang. “I am quite proud of myself for being strong enough to deal with the trauma I went through,” she said.
Her coping mechanism was to always keep herself busy and engaged. She talked to people in her transit home, and more importantly, focused on her future, not her past.
“Sharing my story with others helped too,” Tamang says. It did not change her past but it kept her at ease knowing that her story might help or prevent some other girl from being trafficked.
Tamang kept moving forward, and went on to establish the organization she is known for today—Shakti Samuha.
The journey of the power group
One week Tamang arrived in Nepal, she started letting people outside of the transit home know about her struggle without revealing her identity. Tamang wanted to urge the society and the government to play their roles in helping survivors get their rightful place in the society.
“With this goal set in mind I, along with 15 other survivors among the 128, established Shakti Samuha while also helping the survivors,” Tamang says. Before the establishment, they partook in a 10 days training program organized by Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC), a non-governmental organization working for women’s rights. The organization was conceived on the last day of this training program.
“We did not want to hide in the shadows anymore,” said Tamang. Tamang firmly believes that the survivors of trafficking are terribly wronged and that they deserve to come back to their homeland and live a normal life. Normalising this had been the main goal for her and her team of Shakti Samuha, and they have been doing so for the past 24 years.
“Preventing trafficking is one major goal and giving the survivors their rightful place in society is another equally important goal,” Tamang says.
Tamang’s unrelenting work has taken her to places. In 2011, Tamang was awarded with Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery Award, conferred upon her by the Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Tamang’s struggle has given a lot of courage and hope to survivors of trafficking in Nepal. Even with all the horrors she went through in her life—or perhaps because of it—Tamang today remains to be a positive, strong, amicable presence.
Her life story may bring tears to many eyes, but not to hers, not anymore, she says. “Sometimes I do get emotional,” Tamang says. “But then it makes me think, ‘Who will wipe their tears if I start crying myself?’”