Every year, hundreds of nuns clear garbage from the mountain range’s streams in the remote Himalayas. The group treks for miles, picking up tonnes of trash, lugging it down the Himalayas, and bringing it to Delhi to be recycled.
These women, known as the Drukpa Kung Fu Nuns, are at the vanguard of environmental and social transformation in the Himalayas. Himalayan villages are on the verge of extinction as a changing climate exacerbates natural calamities and swiftly melts the mountain’s glaciers. There is an even more immediate hazard for women and girls in the region: as they are pushed into poverty and uprooted from their homes, they become increasingly exposed to sex trafficking.
During the 2015 Nepal earthquake, the Kung Fu Nuns provided assistance to distant areas in need. Seeing a troubling surge in people selling off their daughters following the accident, the nuns took active action by way of bike rides across the Himalayas. “It was to demonstrate to these villages that women were strong and capable of cycling,”
Although the Kung Fu Nuns are unique, the suffering of individuals they are determined to assist is not limited to the Himalayas. With 18.8 million people evacuated from their homes due to weather-related disasters in 2017, climate change is a huge threat to many women and girls right now, not in the distant future.
People in South Asia are particularly vulnerable, with some of the world’s highest rates of climate-related relocation. Known as “climate refugees” despite the fact that the phrase is not recognised by international law, people moving are frequently doing so within their own country, which means they do not have legal rights particular to their position (unlike refugees crossing borders to flee conflict). This lack of recognition, along with the fact that they are frequently uprooted without warning, frequently means that internally displaced individuals do not receive the assistance they require, and it is within this insecure atmosphere that traffickers thrive.
A 2016 report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) highlighted women-headed households as more vulnerable to exploitation based on research undertaken after two cyclones devastated Bangladesh (in 2007 and 2009).
“The poorest and most vulnerable will suffer the most,” warns Steve Trent, co-founder of the Environmental Justice Fund. “Among those are almost always mothers and children. If there is environmental degradation and forced land clearance, there is migration to urban metropolis centres; there, vulnerable women are coerced or forced into the sex trade because they have no other means of survival.”
This gender disparity is reflected in overall trafficking figures. As estimated by The Global Slavery Index, there were 40.3 million people worldwide living in modern slavery in 2016, 71 per cent of them were female. Nearly three out of every four women and girls trafficked were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. In South Asia, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that women and girls accounted for 59% of all trafficking victims in 2016.
“There is a misconception that it is somewhere else and in the future, but it is not; it is here and now.” – Trent, Steve
Although there is a general dearth of media coverage and state action when it comes to human trafficking, local organisations are working relentlessly to rescue victims and arrest violators. India’s Rescue Foundation is one of these, a non-governmental organisation that takes direct action to rescue trafficked women and girls from prostitution. Project director Gerard Mukhia tells me over the phone from their base in Mumbai that he believes climate-related trafficking is directly tied to how fast and efficiently governments respond to crises.
“If you have a disorderly response to a disaster like an earthquake, families will become dispersed,” Mukhia explains. “But, if you have a coordinated response team that focuses their efforts not only on helping families return, but also on preventing them from being separated, I think it would actually play a huge part (in reducing human trafficking).”
Mukhia informs me that after the 2015 Nepal earthquake, trafficking into India “grew by 500%,” implying that victims were widely dispersed across the country. “A lot of the prostitution used to be in brothels,” Mukhia explains, “but today it’s in massage parlours, spas, commercial residences, and private residences.” Based on this, the Rescue Foundation began sponsoring community awareness programmes to educate locals who may subsequently provide rescue assistance. “It’s in their peripheral, but people don’t want to accept it exists,” Mukhia adds, adding that local collaboration has improved since the awareness campaign began.
Education is also essential to the Kung Fu Nuns’ working technique. “The nuns’ slogan is: ‘No one’s going to save you’,” Lee informs, “therefore they do self-defence training. Not that a female can learn to be a kickass kung fu master in a week, but in these areas, it’s the only safe place for these girls to come, and they’re learning the words’molestation’ and ‘rape’ for the first time in their life.”
Nobody is coming to rescue trafficking victims, and while organisations like the Rescue Foundation are working relentlessly to help, there isn’t nearly enough recognition of how serious the problem is, especially when it’s tied to climate displacement. “There’s a perception that it’s somewhere else and in the future,” Trent says, “but it’s not, it’s here and now. The Western world has reaped the most benefits from carbon, but people in poorer countries are bearing the brunt of the consequences, whether through forced migration or the final destination for a vulnerable woman in the sex slave trade.”
Climate change is being discussed more than ever, with Greta Thunberg spearheading weekly school strikes and activist group Extinction Rebellion taking direct action, yet it appears nothing is being done in terms of law in severely affected countries, particularly when human rights are implicated. “There is a role for education in rural areas, but a city authority does not need everyone to understand the connection between climate migration and trafficking in order to put a plan in place to prevent people from being trafficked,” explains Alex Randall, programme manager at the Climate and Migration Coalition. “You have to build cities that can flourish, where rural migrants can go and feel comfortable, and that includes their work, housing, and education rights as well as social safety netts.”
Although it may appear that the problem is simply too large to address, there is much that can be done in the face of mass climate displacement, whether it’s educating both people at risk and the wider world about the increased threat of sex trafficking, or campaigning for social and legal change. India’s planned anti-trafficking statute, for example, is a step in the right way, demonstrating that the country is paying attention to the issue.