‘Big Sisters’ ride to rescue of Nepali child brides

By Annie Banerji

SURKHET, Nepal (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – If it wasn’t for her self-annointed “Big Sister”, Punam Pun Magar would have quit school at 14 to marry a man nearly twice her age, bear him babies and tend house.

Now she’s hoping to become a lawyer.

Two in five Nepalese girls just like Magar marry before they turn 18: one of the highest rates in the world, despite child marriage being illegal in the impoverished Himalayan country.

The bad times for Magar began when both her parents died and her aunt’s family felt burdened, saying she must pay her way.

“They told me not to go to school and do household chores. After a point, they wanted to get rid of me … so they started planning my marriage to a 26-year-old man,” Magar said as tears welled up.

That’s when Big Sister Krishna Paudel rode to her rescue, snatching her from a potential life of illiteracy, poverty and ill health: common fallout of so many child marriages in Nepal.

Hundreds of Big Sisters – many of them former child brides themselves – have volunteered to counsel teenaged girls like Magar, as well as their families and communities, on the impact of marrying young, using their own stories as cautionary tales.

“When I met her, I told her about child marriage – the legal consequences, the social fallout, everything. Since then, I’ve seen phenomenal change in her. That knowledge empowered her and now she’s headed towards a bright future,” said Paudel.

The legal age of marriage in Nepal is 20 for men and women alike. Yet child marriage remains deeply rooted in conservative, mainly Hindu Nepal, where many parents marry off their teenaged daughters to boost the wider family finances.

This drives a vicious cycle of ill health, malnutrition and ignorance, since a child bride is more likely to leave school and experience problems in pregnancy or birth, say campaigners.

Some also face domestic and sexual abuse.

Nepal has the third highest child marriage prevalence in South Asia, according to the United Nations.

The ‘Sisters for Sisters’ programme was introduced as part of a government drive to end child marriages in Nepal by 2030.

The Sisters’ top job – to keep girls in school.

Activists say dropout rates rise when girls are co-opted into household chores, pushed into early marriage or held back by discrimination and deep-seated taboos over periods.

So when 25-year-old Paudel noticed Magar’s attendance dipping, she tracked her down and weighed in with advice – and kept dishing out the same message over many months.

The wedding was called off; Magar went back to school.

“Had it not been for my Big Sister, I would have had three or four children by now, and they would be studying here instead of me,” said Magar, 17, at her government-run school in western Nepal’s Surkhet district.

SAVING LIVES

A wife at 15 then a mother at 17, Big Sister Rachana Bantha said she had grappled with poor health and poverty since her forced marriage a decade ago.

“I felt like killing myself. I remember how horrible it all was – but that is what motivates me every day to help these girls. They should not have to go through what I did,” Bantha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I can save their lives,” she said, wearing the Big Sisters’ uniform of pink tunic and black pleated trousers.

Bantha said she had stopped at least a dozen child marriages in the past four years.

But the crime remains widespread, said Khagendra Bahadur Ruchal, an administrative official at Surkhet district.

He blamed poverty and illiteracy, as well as parents hoping to stop the taboo of unmarried sex and pregnancy.

The main enemy, however, is custom.

“It is ingrained in our society’s fabric. It is considered the norm. Even politicians and teachers are marrying their children off in some places. If they don’t practice what they preach, how can we expect any change?” he said.

Teenagers are also eloping more often, a trend campaigners attribute to better access to mobile phones and the internet. As for the cause, they said some girls are fleeing poverty or forced marriage, others chase independence and sexual freedom.

Ruchal the official said it was important to normalise live-in relationships so teenagers did not feel compelled to marry.

Nepal should also give girls some sort of incentive to stay in school so they aspire to a career of their own, said Sumnima Tuladhar of the Kathmandu-based child rights group CWIN Nepal.

“They need to be excited about education. They don’t see a future after finishing school. We have to create a society where young people have something more than marriage to look forward to,” she said.

STIGMA

Poverty is the main problem with girls routinely pushed into domestic work in a country where one in five survives on less than $1.25 a day, said Ananda Paudel of development charity VSO, which is behind the Sisters for Sister project.

The programme began in 2017 and has boosted girls’ confidence along with their school attendance, said Paudel.

“They are so empowered. Had it not been for this, we cannot imagine where they would have been right now. How many would have disappeared from the system, the society,” he said.

And the results already show.

Magar – alert in her blue school uniform – seems worlds away from the 14-year-old orphan who came so close to dropping out.

“I’m going to study to become a lawyer so that I can help women. They face so much discrimination and do not find legal assistance,” she said. “I want to help them give a voice.”

(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

Severe thunderstorm in Nepal leaves 25 dead, hundreds injured

Villagers stand near the debris of their houses after it was hit by the storm in Bara district, Nepal April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) – Over two dozen people were killed in a severe thunderstorm that swept through parts of southern Nepal late on Sunday and hundreds more were injured, police and officials said.

Nepal’s Prime Minster K.P. Sharma Oli in a tweet said 25 people had been killed, and around 400 were injured.

“Helicopters have been kept ready for immediate rescue and relief,” Oli said in his post. He offered condolences to the families of the victims.

Rajesh Paudel, the top bureaucrat of Bara district, where the storm hit, said the death toll may increase as rescuers were still trying to reach many of those affected. 

Bara is located about 62 km (39 miles) south of Kathmandu and borders India’s eastern state of Bihar.

Pre-monsoon thunderstorms are common in Nepal during the spring season but are rarely of an intensity that causes high casualties.

Police officer Sanu Ram Bhattarai said rescue teams had been dispatched to the affected villages, but reaching the victims was difficult at night.

Television channels said the storm and accompanying heavy rainfall, uprooted trees and electric and telephone poles, crushing some people to death.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Susan Fenton)

Nepal bank latest victim in heists targeting SWIFT system

Nepal bank latest victim in heists targeting SWIFT system

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) – A bank in Nepal is the latest victim in a string of cyber heists targeting the global SWIFT bank messaging system, though most of the stolen funds have been recovered, two officials involved in the investigation confirmed on Tuesday.

Hackers last month made about $4.4 million in fraudulent transfers from Kathmandu-based NIC Asia Bank to countries including Britain, China, Japan, Singapore and the United States when the bank was closed for annual festival holidays, according to Nepal media reports.

All but $580,000 of the funds were recovered after Nepal asked other nations to block release of the stolen money, Chinta Mani Shivakoti, deputy governor of the Central Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB), told Reuters.

Brussels-based SWIFT said last month that security controls instituted after last year’s $81 million theft from Bangladesh’s central bank helped thwart some recent hacking attempts, but it warned that cyber criminals continue to target SWIFT customers.

SWIFT or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication is a co-operative owned by its user banks. It declined to comment on the NIC Asia Bank hack, saying it does not discuss specific users.

Representatives with NIC Asia Bank, one of dozens of private banks in Nepal, were not available for comment.

The chief of Nepal’s Central Investigation Bureau, Pushkar Karki, confirmed to Reuters that his agency was investigating the theft.

KPMG is also involved in the investigation, according to Nepali media reports. KPMG representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.

The central bank intends to release guidelines on how to thwart such incidents after investigations are completed, according to Shivakoti.

“The incident showed there are some weaknesses with the IT department of the bank,” Shivakoti said.

SWIFT said in a statement on Tuesday that it offers assistance to banks when it learns of potential fraud cases, then shares relevant information with other clients on an anonymous basis.

“This preserves confidentiality, whilst assisting other SWIFT users to take appropriate measures to protect themselves,” it said.

“We have no indication that our network and core messaging services have been compromised,” SWIFT added.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma, additional reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff in Singapore and Jim Finkle in Toronto; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Matthew Lewis)

Monsoon floods kill more than 200 people across South Asia

Monsoon floods kill more than 200 people across South Asia

By Gopal Sharma and Ruma Paul

KATHMANDU/DHAKA (Reuters) – Heavy monsoon rains in Nepal, Bangladesh and India have killed more than 200 people in the last week, officials said on Tuesday, as rescue workers rushed to help those stranded by floodwaters.

In Nepal, the death toll from flash floods and landslides rose to 115, with 38 people missing. Relief workers said 26 of Nepal’s 75 districts were either submerged or had been hit by landslides.

Television pictures showed people wading through chest-deep water carrying belongings and livestock.

“We will now focus more on rescue of those trapped in floods and relief distribution. People have nothing to eat, no clothes. So we have to provide them something to eat and save their lives,” said Nepali police spokesman Pushkar Karki.

Floods in north Bangladesh have killed at least 39 people in the last few days and affected more than 500,000, many of them fleeing their homes to shelter in camps, officials said.

The situation could get worse as swollen rivers carry rainwater from neighboring India downstream into the low-lying and densely populated country, they said.

In the northern Indian state of Bihar, floods have killed 56 people since Sunday and affected more than six million, said Anirudh Kumar, additional secretary in the state Disaster Management Department.

More than two million people have been evacuated from their homes, Kumar told Reuters, and national disaster relief force teams have been airlifted in to help.

Flooding has also killed at least 15 people in the northeastern state of Assam.

India’s meteorological department is forecasting more heavy rain on Wednesday.

Monsoon rains start in June and continue through September. They are vital for farmers in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh but cause loss of life and property damage every year.

(Additional reporting and writing by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Anti-India protests erupt in Nepal over shooting death on border

Nepalese students affiliated with the All Nepal National Free Students Union (ANNFSU), a student wing of the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), protest near the Indian Embassy against the incident in which one Nepali man was killed at the India-Nepal border, in Kathmandu, Nepal March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) – Indian border guards killed a Nepali citizen over a local dispute in a rare shooting at the border, Nepal’s government said, prompting anti-India protests in the area and in the national capital on Friday.

India and Nepal share a 1,751-km (1,094 miles) long and open border and thousands of people cross over each day to work and trade, but Nepali politicians have often accused India of meddling in its affairs.

Dozens of people were protesting over a damaged culvert in Nepal’s Anandabazaar near the border with India on Thursday when Indian border guards opened fire, killing a 25-year-old man, a government statement said.

An Indian foreign ministry spokesman said India’s border guards had opened an inquiry and had asked Nepal to provide a forensic and post mortem report on the victim.

It said officials from the two countries had met and agreed to take steps to maintain calm.

But on Friday, fresh protests erupted in Anandabazaar, which is 477 km (298 miles) southwest of Kathmandu, with an even bigger group of Nepalis attacking a local government office, Home Ministry spokesman Bal Krishna Panthi said.

“The area is tense,” a police official in the region said.

Another group of demonstrators tried to march on the Indian embassy in Kathmandu in protest over the shooting, but were stopped by police, leading to scuffles, police official Chhabi Lal said.

Nepal’s ties with India were strained towards the end of 2015 and into last year after it blamed India for tacitly supporting a months-long blockade on fuel and goods by Indian-origin plainspeople who are opposed to Nepal’s constitution.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

Flash floods kill scores in Nepal, India

rmy personnel assist flood victims in Kapilvastu, Nepal July 26, 2016.

By Gopal Sharma and Biswajyoti Das

KATHMANDU/GUWAHATI, India (Reuters) – Flash floods and landslides have killed at least 68 people in Nepal in the past three days and another 15 are missing, local authorities said on Thursday.

Rescue teams of soldiers and police personnel used rubber boats and helicopters to rescue people from rooftops and trees, Yadav Koirala, spokesman for Nepal’s home ministry, said. Some waded through waist-deep water with women and children, police said.

In the western town of Butwal, 170 km (110 miles) from Kathmandu, local TV stations showed the Tinau river washing away a huge suspension bridge.

Dramatic footage shot from a smartphone by Yub Raj Rana, a local, also showed the Tinau breaching a concrete embankment, forcing him to flee a tide of water until he reached the safety of higher ground.

In neighboring India, nearly 1.7 million people have been affected by floods and 15 lives lost as the situation remained critical the northeast state of Assam with rivers continuing to overflow, local authorities said.

There was some respite, however, from incessant rains on Thursday.

Floods and landslides are common in India and Nepal during the June-September monsoon season and the death toll runs into the hundreds every year.

The oil-rich and tea-growing state of Assam is under water except for a few districts, the state forest minister said.

The Brahmaputra, Assam’s main river which is fed by Himalayan snow melt and monsoon rains, has burst its banks in many areas along its course. The majority of Assam’s land area is in the Brahmaputra valley.

“The situation is still very bad. We are taking measures to help people in every possible way,” Indian Forest Minister Pramila Rani Brahma said.

The army has been deployed to repair dams washed away by gushing waters and helicopters have been pressed into action to distribute food and medicines to homeless people who have taken shelter on highways and in hilly areas.

Local officials have opened around 500 temporary shelters and more than 150 distribution camps for the displaced people, officials at the state disaster management authority said.

(Writing by Malini Menon; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Nepal quake survivors struggle with debt, raising trafficking fears

By Rina Chandran

KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hundreds of Nepalis who had borrowed money to rebuild their lives after two earthquakes left them homeless are at risk of being trafficked or duped into selling their kidneys to pay off their debts, an international development organization said.

Nepal received $4.1 billion in pledges from donors for reconstruction after quakes last April and May killed 9,000 people, injured at least 22,000 and damaged or destroyed more than 900,000 houses in the Himalayan nation.

More than a year on, reconstruction has been slow with unrest over a new constitution adding to the delays. Unable to find work, hundreds of Nepalis are deep in debt, the Asia Foundation said on Tuesday.

“Their ability to pay is very limited and indebtedness makes them more vulnerable to exploitation,” said Nandita Baruah, Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Kathmandu.

“Their desperation makes them take greater risks, such as sending their children away for what they think are better lives, or even selling their kidneys,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

“We’re going to see an uptick in people moving out to earn money as their debts become due. Some of them will be trafficked,” Baruah added.

Nepal’s economy is highly dependent on remittances sent back by its migrant workers, which make up about 30 percent of its gross domestic product.

Following the earthquakes, hundreds of migrant workers returned to Nepal to help their families.

Many are likely to have paid their employers to be allowed to return home, going without wages for several months while spending money on rebuilding, Baruah said.

“These are workers who pay 200,000-500,000 rupees ($1,850-$4,640) to go abroad in the first place, and are very likely still paying off that debt,” she said.

“The quakes exacerbated their indebtedness,” she said.

BORDER CHECKS

Activists say there are signs of an increase in the number of Nepali women and children being trafficked after last year’s disaster.

Anti-trafficking charity Maiti Nepal said it stopped 745 women and children – suspected victims of human trafficking – at the Nepal-India border in the three months following the earthquakes.

That compares with 615 such interceptions in the three months before the quakes, their data showed.

Nepal is both a source and a destination country for victims of human trafficking with some 8,500 Nepalis trafficked every year, according to the country’s human rights commission.

Women are typically trafficked for sex work, domestic work and forced marriages to India, the Middle East, China and South Korea – while men are made to work in construction, as drivers and in hotels in India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Some victims are duped into selling their kidneys and brought to India, where a chronic organ shortage has fueled a black-market trade in illegal transplants, activists say.

Nepal’s economy is forecast by the Asian Development Bank to have grown only about 1.5 percent in the fiscal year to mid-July after reconstruction delays and trade disruptions. A recovery is dependent on the pace of reconstruction, it said.

“Now, the aid will also stop flowing. We’re going to see more migration, more trafficking,” said Baruah.

“Those who have taken on debt don’t have options,” she said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

Tearful Nepal relatives of Kabul attack victims receive bodies

Family cries over Nepali soldiers killed in an attack

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) – Sobbing and weeping relatives of 12 Nepali nationals who were killed when a suicide bomber struck a minibus in Kabul received the bodies of their loved ones on Wednesday after they were flown from Afghanistan.

The victims were security guards working at the Canadian embassy in Kabul and came under attack on the way to work early on Monday. Two Indian nationals were also killed in the attack which left seven Nepalis wounded.

“This is the most difficult job for me to receive him dead,” said Sanjita Kumari, wife of Jitendra Singh Thapa, who came to the airport in Kathmandu with her 4-month-old son, to receive her husband’s body. “But there is no alternative and I must face it,” Kumari told Reuters, her baby pressed to the chest as tears streamed down her face.

Thapa, a former Indian army soldier, had served as a security guard in Iraq before going to war-torn Afghanistan in February this year with a promise to come back in November.

Relatives of the victims like Kumari heard of Monday’s attack in the media. She prayed for her husband until being told by the recruitment agency that he was dead.

“This came as a shock to me,” the 30-year-old said.

She said Thapa wanted their baby to serve in the British Army that has been recruiting Gurkha soldiers from the foothills of Nepal for 200 years.

Prime Minister K.P. Oli paid tributes to victims by placing marigold garlands on the wooden coffins which were then handed over to the relatives for funerals.

Monday’s attack in Kabul was the latest in a surge of violence that highlights the challenges faced by the government and its Western backers, as Washington considers whether to delay plans to reduce the number of its troops in Afghanistan.

At least 8,000 Nepali nationals are working in Afghanistan, according to the labor department, but actual numbers could be higher as many cross over to India, which shares an open border with Nepal, and then travel on to Afghanistan.

Nepal allows its citizens to work in Afghanistan as security guards at the UN, foreign embassies and their missions.

“The government will study the situation in which Nepalis were targeted after which we will decide whether to continue this,” Labor Minister Deepak Bohara told Reuters.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Douglas Busvine)

Nepal says need more aid for quake rebuilding

A man works to rebuild a house a year after the 2015 earthquakes in Bhaktapur

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) – Aid-dependent Nepal needs $7.86 billion over five years, $1.17 billion more than earlier estimates, to rebuild homes and infrastructure destroyed by the deadly earthquake in 2015, the government said on Thursday.

In total, 9,000 people were killed across Nepal in the 7.8 magnitude quake, which the government said had affected 2.8 million of the Himalayan nation’s 28 million population.

International donors, who pledged $4.1 billion for reconstruction last year, have been left frustrated as little of that fund has been spent because of haggling between political parties, leading to a delay in helping millions of survivors.

Authorities said the increase in the amount of aid required was due to a larger scale of destruction than initially projected.

The Red Cross says four million people are still living in poor-quality temporary shelters, posing a threat to their health.

“The increased requirement of funds is due to a rise in the number of people affected,” Prime Minister K.P. Oli told lawmakers in Kathmandu.

“The government will construct community houses and move survivors who are living in the open to roofed shelters,” Oli said.

Reconstruction of private homes will be completed in two years, he added, urging donors to provide additional support for rebuilding.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Toby Davis)

UNICEF: Millions of children in Nepal at risk of disease, death

Severe shortages of essential supplies have put millions of young children in Nepal in danger of starving, falling ill or dying this winter, the United Nations Children’s Fund warned Monday.

The organization commonly known as UNICEF issued a news release saying the shortages, caused by political unrest, have imperiled more than 3 million Nepalese kids below the age of 5.

The Associated Press reported protesters upset over the mountainous country’s new constitution have blocked its border with India for months, stalling thousands of supply trucks at the pass.

UNICEF said some government stores are already out of the tuberculosis vaccine and other medicine supplies are at “critically low” levels. The organization also said that some 200,000 families are still living in temporary shelters after being displaced by two major earthquakes in the spring, and those at higher elevations could be particularly at risk during the months ahead.

“The risks of hypothermia and malnutrition, and the shortfall in life-saving medicines and vaccines, could be a potentially deadly combination for children this winter,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in the news release.

Fuel shortages have also put children at risk.

The Associated Press reported that the country’s gas stations are only getting 15 percent of their usual supply of fuel. That’s taken a toll on the country’s ambulances, UNICEF added, which has led to fewer babies being born in hospitals. At least 125,000 births are expected this winter.

With less fuel, UNICEF said more families are relying on firewood to heat their homes. The organization worries that could lead to more indoor pollution and increase cases of pneumonia, which killed 5,000 children under five and sickened some 800,000 more in Nepal last year.