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Poverty, Lack of Awareness Fuels Womans Role Trafficking Drugs in Nepal

Global Press Institute - Mon, 28 Nov 2011 00:06 GMT
Author: Global Press Institute
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KATHMANDU, NEPAL - Inside a dark room of an old five-story house in a crowded neighborhood of Lalitpur, a district in central Nepal, Prabha Shrestha has been hiding out for nearly a week. It's been five days since Shrestha, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, locked herself in the darkness of the room, with no trace of light except from the mobile phone that she holds in her hands. "I am looking for an opportunity to escape from the trap of drug trafficking," says Shrestha, who is lying in one of the two beds in the room. She says that the police became suspicious of her involvement with local drug trafficking, so friends suggested she keep a low profile. She left her home and rented this room to hide out in. But she says she is more afraid of the consequences of the drug dealers for whom she now works, than she is of being caught by police. At 39, a lean Shrestha has wrinkles forming around her eyes and visible streaks of gray hair. She has been a drug mule for seven years. When she was 15, Shrestha married a government employee. Since it was an Interracial marriage, known here as a love marriage, her in-laws didn't approve, forcing the couple to live in a rented room in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital. Because of her husband's job, they moved to different districts. During their 10 years of marriage, they had two sons. Shrestha says life was good until her husband stopped coming home and eventually left her. For Shrestha, who hardly had any education growing up, it was tough to raise her sons on her own. But she did whatever she could to make ends meet. She worked as a maid in others' houses, doing dishes, washing clothes and cooking food. She used to work at three to four houses every day. While she was working, Shrestha says she met a man who, upon hearing her story, promised to pay her well to transport a bag from one place to another. Initially, she says she couldn't believe that someone would pay her money just to transport a bag. She earned 3,000 rupees NPR (${esc.dollar}40 USD) the first time she did this, which she says was more than she earned all month at her other jobs. "I worked hard all month and earned 2,000 rupees [NPR (${esc.dollar}25 USD)], and for carrying a small bag from one place to another, I got 3,000 rupees [NPR (${esc.dollar}40 USD)," Shrestha says. After Shrestha accepted the job, the man frequented her house and brought five to six small packets a month, which she delivered to various places. She says she didn't know what was in the packets, but the man requested that she never mention them to anyone. "I never asked what was it or tried opening it," she says of the packets. "I only worked honestly." Slowly, Shrestha started making good money through the new job. Soon, the man began asking her to bring the packets to India on occasion. He told her she should be aware of the police. Attracted by the prospects of money and traveling unavailable to her as a maid, she continued the job without asking questions As Shrestha made new contacts and expanded her network in the trade, her sons' father recommended that she let him care for the one son and admit the other into a hostel so she could devote herself full time to her job. "I got sucked into it when I saw a good amount of money coming my way," she says. Slowly, Shrestha admits she got sucked into the drug trade. She started regularly venturing out of the capital and into border towns such as Kakar Bhitta, Biratnagar, Nepalgunj, Birgunj and Bhairawah. Trafficking drugs soon became a daily affair for her. She was transporting the drugs using various methods - from hiding the small packets in her bra to using a belt to secure them to her thighs. Usually, Shrestha's work required her to work only three to four times a week. After work, she spent her free time with her colleagues to discuss how to make the business boom. Eventually, she says her colleagues made her aware of the nature of the business - the illegal drug trade. They also told her that since it was illegal, she could go to jail if caught. Despite the risk, she says she felt as if she didn't have any other alternatives through which she could earn such good money. "But thank God, I haven't been caught by the police," she says. Shrestha says the job has afforded her the opportunity, time and money to travel to many Indian cities, eat whatever she liked and shop in local stores. But the job also has its drawbacks, she admits. Being involved in an illegal business, Shrestha says it's difficult to maintain a close-knit relationship with friends and family - none of whom she has told about her involvement in the drug trade. She says she has refrained from spending much time with her relatives and usually tells them she is out of town for work. She says that if they were to become skeptical of what she does or if they found out, it wouldn't take long for them to report her to the police. "Even your close friends tend to be skeptical," she says. "This is an underground business." Drawn by lucrative profits to support their families and unaware of the legality, women say they get tricked into trafficking illegal drugs in Nepal. While some try to escape the business once they realize the negative effects of drugs on families, others are caught by the police and are currently in jail. Authorities say the number of women involved in the trade is on the rise because of dire financial needs and lack of awareness of what they're getting themselves into. The government and nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, are working to curb trafficking here and rehabilitate drug mules and users. Nearly 50,000 Nepalis use hard drugs, according to government statistics. But Jeevan Ghale, project coordinator of Recovering Nepal, an NGO, says the actual number of users far exceeds government estimates, putting the figures three times higher - around 150,000. More than 90 percent of drug users here are men, according to the government report. But women are becoming increasingly involved in the trafficking side. Seven percent of drug-related arrests nationally in June and July were women, says an officer who declined to be named in the Crime Investigation Department of Nepal Police Headquarters in Kathmandu. Like Shrestha, Devi Sharma, 55, who requested her name be changed, was also involved in this business for seven years. Each morning, she would finish her household chores, then go to work in the border towns of Jhapa and Morang in eastern Nepal. She says she didn't know until recently what she had gotten herself into - the illegal drug trade. Like Shrestha, she also became involved to take care of her children. After giving birth to her third child, Sharma says her husband left her, forcing her to fend for herself and her family. Initially, she sold logs from the woods, and later she bought clothes from across the Nepali border in India and sold them to businessmen in Nepal. One day, as she was coming back from the Indian town of Siliguri to Kakar Bhitta in Nepal, she met a man who offered to pay her 4,000 rupees [NPR (${esc.dollar}50 USD)] to bring his belongings across the border. As she was well acquainted with the police, she thought it wouldn't be difficult. So for such a lucrative amount of money, she agreed to do it. Before long, Sharma was meeting the man on a daily basis. Along with her clothing business, she started transporting the packets he gave her across the border. She says that when she inquired about what she was transporting, he told her that it was something addictive and she could be prosecuted if found with it. But she says she never bothered to open the packets to find out what it was. She assumed it was sedatives, not illegal drugs. She was most concerned with earning more money from it than she did in her clothing business. "It's because of the handsome amount of money I got addicted to transporting drugs," Sharma says. But after watching a television program about the drug trade and how it can ruin families and children's lives, she says she abandoned the profession. "Initially, it was for the greed to survive," she says. "But now I won't do it." Sharma now says she feels guilty for what she spent seven years doing. She now urges other local women not to make the same mistake. "I did this for the sake of money," she says. "But I wish no one else would do this." While Shrestha and Sharma have not been caught, Maya Tamang, 26, from Kathmandu's Samakhushi area, wasn't as lucky. Tamang is in jail in central Kathmandu. Dressed in a ragged vest and trousers, Tamang's thin hands are handcuffed. From behind the metal bars, she constantly peeps out with the hope that someone has come to see her. "It's because of my husband I also got involved," she says. Tamang says her husband, Sanu Lama, is addicted to drugs. She says her financial situation was dire trying to take care of him. She earned some money from working at their neighbors' house, but she says it didn't suffice. Her husband, in order to satisfy his drug habit, got involved in peddling drugs, and she says he made her do the same. She declined to say how long they had been involved in the drug trade before they were recently arrested and put in jail. "It was when we had the drugs we got from the dealer stored at our house that the police caught us," she says. Tamang says she isn't aware of the drug laws here and punishment that would follow if she were convicted. "The police arrested us," she says. "Now what happens will happen." Rukmani Bista, 54, a mother of five, is also in jail. But says she has been in prison for the past 12 years for a crime she didn't commit. Bista says her husband was abusive, so she left him and started a small teashop in Kathmandu. One day, she says a man in his 40s came into her shop and asked her to keep his bag for a while. Thirty minutes later, police entered and confiscated the bag. She says they beat her up, made her admit that she was involved in drug trafficking and put her in jail. "I'm being punished for something that isn't my fault," she says as tears roll down her face. After more than a decade in prison, Bista says she still has three more years to serve and a fine of 500,000 rupees NPR (${esc.dollar}6,200 USD) to pay before she's free. But she can't afford to pay the fine, so she will have to compensate by serving an additional four years in prison. She has resigned herself to her situation. "I'm getting old now," she says, wiping her tears from her face. "There's no place to go even when I'm free. I can't even work. I think prison is better for me." She says her children had to face a lot hardship after her imprisonment. But she says that now, her eldest daughter is a teacher at a local school, and her pay helps to support the family. Two of her other daughters attend college and do petty jobs. She says she is happy for them because it was because of her lack of education that she couldn't read the document that the police made her sign admitting she agreed to watch the bag - despite not knowing what was in it - and didn't have the money to consult a lawyer. But after 12 years in prison, Bista says she is now a leader in the prison, where many women are in similar situations. She says that women who are unknowingly tricked into drug trafficking end up in the cells beside her every day. She says that most of the women are here for drug-related crimes. "There are many victims like [me] inside the prison," she says. Meanwhile, she says the real criminals - the drug dealers - are free. "The main leaders are still operating their business while people like us are facing the punishment," she says. But Yuba Raj Shrestha, section officer at the Ministry of Home Affairs' Department of Narcotics Control and Disaster Management, says that these women's stories can't be trusted. He says that police move forward with cases only after proper investigation. "You cannot just believe when someone says they haven't done anything," he says. Tekraj Bhushal, a legal officer who works in the Kathmandu District Administration Office, says that if police find drugs with people, the people have to prove that they didn't have any ill intentions. Bhushal says that many women who only do household chores aren't aware of the laws and become involved in drug trafficking for the money without knowing what they're getting into. When they get caught, they have to face life imprisonment or stay for longer than their sentences because they can't afford the hefty fines. Bishnu Khatiwada, sub inspector at the Maharajgunj Police Station in Kathmandu, says that the police database only records official cases that are registered after traffickers are caught so it's difficult to have accurate statistics. "But in the recent times, the number of women in drug trafficking has seen a rise," he says. Bhushal says the number of drug users has also been on the rise because of poverty and lack of employment. Bhushal says these same financial conditions also drive single women to become the targets of drug dealers in the trafficking side of the business. Khatiwada agrees. "Women, knowingly or unknowingly, are being sucked into this," Khatiwada says. Police arrest about five people per week for drug trafficking or selling, according to the police's online database. In the Central Women's Prison, the main prison for women in Kathmandu, out of 383 women, 80 are in jail for drug-related crimes, according to the prison's statistics. But the number fluctuates, says Tirtharaj Bhattarai, joint-secretary of the prison and jailor. Statistics also vary based on the scale of the operation. The Nepali government established the Narcotics Drug Control Law Enforcement Unit under its Ministry of Home Affairs in 1992 to curb drug trafficking in the country. Devendra Subedi, senior superintendent of police of the unit, says it focuses on arresting large-scale, international drug dealers. "We, however, focus on international traffickers and dealers than the ones who operate on smaller scale," he says. In 2010, the unit arrested 118 people, 14 of whom were women. Since January, the number of women arrested has been limited to two, Subedi says. "This is not the national statistics but of those who traffic drugs large quantities," he says, referring to a few large-scale cases. Still, he says drug-related crimes are illegal in Nepal regardless of the scale of the operation or sex or nationality of the people involved. According to Nepali law, anyone with more than 100 grams of narcotics is liable for 15 years to life in prison along with a fine ranging from 500,000 rupees NPR (${esc.dollar}6,200 USD) to 2,500,000 rupees NPR (${esc.dollar}31,000 USD). Bhushal says that this stems from the country's rigid principles of punishment. "This is one of the harshest punishments in Nepal," he says. "But drug dealers are using and duping people who are unaware of the law." In order to make the society drug-free and a progressive, the Ministry of Home Affairs implemented the Drugs Control Strategy in 2010. Shrestha of the Ministry of Home Affairs says the main objectives of this policy are to control drug trafficking, stop the illegal production of drugs, minimize drug-related crimes and curtail the use of drugs by vulnerable groups. As a result, more than 100 NGOs have emerged here to help rehabilitate drug users by offering counseling services, skills-based trainings and information about contracting HIV through needles. They also help in reporting police violence against drugs users to the concerned authorities. Ghale says that the main people involved in the drug trade are users who only become involved in order to satisfy their drug habits. Ghale says that most of the women who are involved in the drug business usually belong to poor families in dire financial situations. "Innocent women don't know what these drugs are and its effects," says Ghale of Recovering Nepal, an umbrella organization advocating for rehabilitation for drug users. Although Tamang knows the ill effects of drug use from caring for her husband, Shrestha, Sharma and Bista say that they aren't aware of who uses the drug they've transported or what the outcomes are apart from what they've seen on TV. They say they've never taken the drugs but have only transported them. Ghale attributes the increasing involvement of women in the drug trade to their lack of awareness and education and to police officers' lack of suspicion of them. Holed up in a single room, Shrestha says she fears the drug dealers will kill her before police apprehend her. "This is a big network," she says. "Even if I want to quit, I cannot." "Their networks are very strong everywhere," she says of the dealers, who she says are always 10 steps ahead of police. "Until and unless there is a decline in the demand for drugs, its distribution will always prevail."

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