Everything in my body hurt, even walking hurt.
Renuka Sherpa (20)
Student at School For Justice
Join forces with women around the world to fight sexual
exploitation of children and impunity.
"I had a pretty happy childhood, together with my father, mother and baby brother. At least, until I was about eight years old. Then my little brother became very ill, so ill that he eventually died. He was just one year old. My mother was inconsolable; I remember that she kept crying and crying. My father couldn't handle his grief, either; he often fled the house, and one day he left us altogether. From one moment to the next, everything changed. As my father had left, we no longer had any money for food, clothes or to pay the rent. My mother had to go out to work. She said she could get a job in the entertainment industry, but I had no idea what that meant."
A brutal rape "Now I was her only child, and she didn't want to leave me at home alone; she was scared that something would happen to me. After school, I had to go to her workplace – she called it a restaurant – and wait until she'd finished. I didn't like it there, the atmosphere of the place, the people who went there, but I had nowhere else to go. Usually, we'd only get home late in the evening. At that time my mother was getting drunk more and more frequently, and she didn't care for me properly. I felt lonely; I didn't have any brothers or sisters, or any friends. One day, when I was eleven years old, I was raped by a client. When I came round, everything in my body hurt so much that I could hardly walk. I went home on my own and cried for days, of pain and sorrow. There was no one to comfort me; my mother was at work. What's more, she was always drunk and hit me regularly. No one knows that this happened to me, I didn't even tell my mother. After I was raped, I didn't go to school for a while; I didn't want anything. And I was afraid. Afraid of the man who'd raped me, afraid of all the boys and men in the street. I couldn't look at them without thinking of what had happened to me. I saw every man as a potential rapist. I was in an increasingly bad way, I got depressed and felt guilty, but no one cared for me. Most of all, I wanted to run away from home, but where could I go? I had no family, no friends, no one."
Sexually exploited "My mother kept working at the restaurant, but I didn't want to go there anymore. By now, I'd discovered what kind of place it was; a place where men went to have sex. But sometimes I had to go, to get something to eat – there was nothing at home. One day, my mother fell ill and had to go to hospital. I was fourteen years old, and all of the cares fell on my shoulders. Mainly money worries – money to buy food and pay the doctors. But where could I get money? I'd had no contact with my father since he'd left, and my mother's income had stopped because she was no longer working. On the grapevine, I heard about a dance bar that was looking for girls. I loved dancing, when I danced I forgot all my cares. If I could earn money that way... But the reality turned out to be different. As well as dancing, I also had to have sex with the clients. Whether I wanted to or not – my boss simply forced me to. Or he got me and the other girls drunk, so that we didn't resist too much and did what the clients wanted. Sometimes I was so dazed that I hardly knew what was happening. I was physically and emotionally numb; I was living in a haze."
A new start "For almost two years, I worked at the dance bar where I was sexually exploited. In the meantime, my mother recovered and took up her old job again. She was often getting drunk again, and depressed. At that time, I realized that I'd fallen into the same trap as my mother, and that there's no safety net to catch people in economically precarious situations. That made me feel so sad that I no longer wanted to do this, I no longer wanted my mother to have to do this. A girl told me about Free a Girl, that they helped girls in situations like mine. One day, I gathered my courage, left the bar and went to the shelter. That was the start of a new life. I was given advice, therapy and medical help. People paid attention to me and looked after me. Now there is a rhythm to my days, I'm going to school again. And I'm doing a work placement at the police station, as a paralegal. I'm learning a lot there. Every day, I feel more self-confident and I believe in myself again. I've left my old life behind and I'm looking to the future again."
Fighting for justice "After high school, I want to keep studying. Free a Girl's School for Justice is giving me that opportunity. A good education is so important, so you can be independent and support yourself, and have a better life. I want that for my mother, too. I know she's ashamed of herself. She must leave the dreadful sex industry, and the trade in minor girls has to stop. That's why I'm studying law and want to become a lawyer. I want to fight for others, for justice and the rule of law. I haven't taken legal action against my boss. Not yet; the past is still very painful for me, it will take time. But the criminals who traffic minor girls and force them into prostitution must be punished. That's what I'm going to fight for; that's my goal."
"I grew up in a village in the countryside. My father and mother, my grandmother and grandfather, my two brothers, my little sister and I – we all lived together in a house. You might think we were a happy family, but we were anything but. My parents were always drunk and argued almost every minute of the day, often about nothing. My mother even kept drinking when she was pregnant with my little sister. My father also abused my mother so badly that she couldn’t cope, physically or mentally, and she neglected us, her own children. The only place where I was able to escape all the misery was school – that was where I felt safe. When my parents’ irresponsible behavior got worse, I had to look after my brothers and little sister. I had no choice. No, I don’t have any great memories of my childhood."
Under false pretenses "At that time, I often felt sad and lonely. I’d just turned fourteen and was already caring for the entire family. There was hardly any money to buy food or clothes. My father didn’t earn very much, and what he did earn was spent on liquor. There was only one solution: I had to search for a job so I could earn money. One day, a kindly older man spoke to me; he said he could arrange a job for me at a hotel in the city. I don’t know why – perhaps it was because I was still so young, or because I was so keen to earn money for my brothers and little sister – but I trusted him. A few days later, I took a bus to the hotel in Kathmandu."
Forced into prostitution "At the hotel, it turned out that I wasn’t the only minor girl there; there were many more. I soon realized that my boss was forcing them to have sex with clients. I was so ashamed, because what the “kind” man had described as a hotel was actually an illegal brothel. After a while, I too had to have sex with clients, but I refused. Time after time. Until my boss began to threaten me, to call me names and hit me. Anything to force me to get to “work”. I remember that I was locked up all by myself in a little room for days. The only people I saw were the men who raped me. Sometimes I saw the other girls for a while, other times I didn’t. I cried a lot, I hardly slept, and I felt unsafe and depressed. I was also disgusted at myself, at everything and everyone. At a certain point, I became completely introverted to block out what was happening to me. Of course I considered escaping, but it was impossible. There was always someone to keep an eye on you, and the hotel was always closed. There was nowhere I could go. And my salary? I was never paid, of course."
Help at last "I lived in that hell for almost 2.5 years, until Free a Girl and a partner organization rescued me and the other girls, and took us to a shelter. I still remember how happy I felt, for the first time in years. I was so happy to be away from that dreadful place and horrible people. So happy that I could see the sun again and hear the birds singing. Everyone at the shelter was so kind to me. Everyone did everything they could to get me back on my feet again. I was given trauma therapy to process the suffering from my childhood and in the brothel, and I learned to handle my emotions and assert myself. And I was able to complete high school; since I’d started caring for my brothers and little sister, I hadn’t been able to go to school anymore. Thanks to their help, I slowly recovered my confidence. In myself and in my future."
My goal "One day, someone from the shelter told me about Free a Girl’s School for Justice. As a survivor of sexual exploitation, I could study at university there, and then join the fight against forced prostitution and impunity. That really appealed to me, because this dreadful human trafficking has to stop. Now I’m studying Social Work at the School for Justice. Why that course? Because something has to change in our society, and in order to achieve that, I need to understand society better; how people act and why, the problems there are, and how we should deal with them. Or in the case of child prostitution: why are we failing to recognize this problem? Why are we doing so little or even nothing about it? My goal is to change society – how people think and act. They abuse their liberty at the expense of their responsibilities. My own family is a good example of that. I want people to understand that life isn’t about letting the days slip by, but about being aware of our responsibilities – to each other, children and society."
Setting an example "I’d never dared hope that I’d study at university one day. Not during my dreadful childhood, nor when I was imprisoned in the brothel. But I’ve seized this opportunity with both hands. Where will I be in five years’ time? As a social worker, I will focus on making young girls aware of and informing them about human trafficking, to prevent them from being exploited. But I will also help survivors to build a future, and above all motivate them – to make them stronger, so they’re able to bring charges against the perpetrators. I want to be an example for them. That’s why it is important for the world to hear my story and learn from it."
"I had a loving childhood. We cared for each other – my father, my mother, my five older brothers and I. Our house, in a little village outside the Kathmandu Valley, was a real home. My mother made sure of that. She was always there for us, she made it cozy. She thought it was important to eat together. I still remember the wonderful smell of her cooking. My father also did his best to ensure that we lacked for nothing. And he could tell wonderful tales – about the past, from his imagination, everything. We often ate together and I listened to his stories. I had a really close bond with him. The only thing that made me less happy was school; I preferred playing outside with my friends."
Forced to have sex "My parents wanted me to go to high school, but the closest one was in Kathmandu. One of my aunts lived there, and my father arranged for me to live with her. I didn’t want to leave, but I didn’t want to disappoint my parents, either. Once in Kathmandu, my aunt told me that I would go to school, of course, but I would also have to work. After all, I was staying with her, so she had extra expenses. She had even found a job for me at a massage salon. I was only sixteen and I was from the countryside; I had no idea what that work would involve. I found out on the first day. There were mostly minor girls at the massage salon, dressed in little tops and short skirts or shorts. They massaged the clients, almost all of whom were men, and also had to have sex with them. I was in shock; I told my aunt that I never wanted to go there again. She reassured me that I wouldn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, but after a few days, my boss forced me to have sex with clients. He threatened to beat me up, and told me that he wouldn’t pay me if I didn’t do what he said. I again told my aunt what happened in the salon, and I discovered that she knew exactly what went on there. But instead of supporting me, she became angry. She called me names, humiliated me, and said that if I didn’t work I wouldn’t be able to finish school. But the worst thing was that she threatened to tell my parents how bad I was for doing that kind of work. I was so ashamed; I realized that if she did that, my parents would be the disgrace of the village. That’s what Nepalese culture is like. As I saw it, I had no choice; I had to keep working at the massage salon. Not all of the massages ended in sex, but most of them did. I continued to resist, saying that I didn’t want to, but time after time my boss threatened me. I felt dirty, angry and sad, but above all I felt alone."
Eternally grateful "It was three years before I was able to escape that misery. A schoolfriend suspected something and took me to the Free a Girl shelter. I am eternally grateful to her for that. Thanks to her, I came to this shelter; a lovely place where I can feel free and safe again, at last. But I was also full of intense emotions; anger, negativity and shame, especially with regard to my parents. They had done so much for me, they would not understand. Therefore, I cannot and do not ever want to tell them. That secret sometimes eats away at me. Thanks to the guidance I’ve had here, I have learned to handle my emotions, to keep them in check, to look at myself positively again and to build a future. I love the way in which they work for survivors here and fight sexual exploitation; it’s a huge inspiration."
Opportunities and respect "Here at the shelter, I was able to complete high school. After that, I started my psychology studies, thanks to Free a Girl’s School for Justice. I’ve just gained my Bachelor’s, and now I’m going for my Master’s. That means a few more years of study, but I like school now. My dream is to work as a psychologist for an organization that helps minor girls who, like me, have been sexually exploited, raped, or have experienced domestic violence. I want to give these survivors a future, just like I was. As well as studying psychology, I’m also training as a teacher. In order to tackle the problem of human trafficking, I want to raise awareness among young girls; I want to teach them how to be safe and careful, and that they must be treated with respect."
The future "I never stopped hoping for a better future; that’s what kept me going. At the back of my mind, I knew that there would be justice one day. That I’d be able to study and be independent, so that I wouldn’t have to do that work anymore. Where will I be in five years’ time? I’ll be a good daughter, psychologist and teacher. I want my parents to be proud of me for what I’ve achieved. I visit them once a month; home is still a lovely place to be. I haven’t seen my aunt since I went to the shelter; I have no need to see her. In five years’ time, I hope that I’ll have started a law degree. My dream is to become a criminal lawyer and fight for justice. Then I’ll be able to make a difference in two ways: to help the survivors as a psychologist, and work as a lawyer to stop human trafficking and get the criminals behind bars. That hardly happens at present; I want to bring an end to that impunity."
Then "My mother worked in prostitution, my sisters worked in a hotel. My brother and I went to school; we were still too young to work. That all changed when my sisters left home, and we suddenly had less money. As the oldest daughter at home, I had to take responsibility and get a job. Someone told me about a job at a dance bar. I loved dancing and I was thirteen – what did I know? The work turned out to be awful. The clients kept touching me and wanting to have sex with me. But I always refused. One evening, a client forced me to take a pill. I fell unconscious and I can’t remember what happened next. When I came round, I was covered in bruises and my whole body hurt dreadfully. I guessed what had happened and felt extremely ashamed; I was disgusted with myself. For a year, I was forcefully exploited and sexually abused by the clients of the dance bar. Only when I was rescued by Free a Girl was I finally able to get away."
Now "Although I was initially happy to get away from that dreadful place, I felt depressed and frustrated. At the shelter, everyone was so kind to me. Thanks to all the therapy I was given there, I was able to overcome my trauma. I’m becoming more self-confident by the day, and I’m learning to trust others again. I also draw a lot of energy and strength from music, dancing, yoga and meditation. Whenever I feel sad or depressed, these things cheer me up again. Thanks to Free a Girl’s School for Justice, I’m completing high school, and then I’ll be able to study at university. I want to study law; my dream is to work for the police. Many people who work for the police are corrupt, take bribes, or even visit brothels. As a police officer, I want to ensure that every survivor can bring charges against her human trafficker, exploiter, brothel-owner, you name it. I want them to feel strong and safe with me, so we can arrest the criminals. At present they’re rarely punished, despite deserving to be behind bars. But my biggest dream is to help my mother escape the dreadful sex industry, so that she can have a happy future again, too."
Then "My father left our family when I was still young. So that she could care for my sister and me, my mother went out to work. As an uneducated laborer, though, she didn’t earn very much. In the end, she got to know a new man, married and moved to his village. My sister and I were left behind. We hadn’t heard from my father since he’d left, and my mother regularly sent us a little money. But that small amount wasn’t enough to pay the rent for our room, so I decided to get a job. I found work at a dance bar; I was sixteen years old. At first, everything went well, but after a while the owner forced me to drink alcohol with the clients. Not long after that, the owner raped me, and he also forced me to have sex with the clients. If I refused, he threatened me, hit me, and threatened to tell everyone what kind of work I did. I hated myself, I felt dirty, numb from the alcohol. This went on for more than 1.5 years, until one day I managed to escape. A friend took me to one of Free a Girl’s shelters."
Now "In the shelter, I’ve felt safe again for a long time; I’m protected from the clients and the owner of the dance bar. Thanks to Free a Girl’s School for Justice, I’m studying sociology at university. Why sociology? I’m interested in people and social relationships. And also, of course, because of everything I’ve been through, the therapy, working on yourself, how that affects you. I want to help other survivors; I want to show them that with the right help, you can become strong and self-confident again, just like me. You can work on your future, you can lead an independent life, even after everything you’ve been through. Aside from helping people, I want to prevent minor girls from being trafficked and sexually exploited. My aim is to talk to schools about what sexual exploitation is, how traffickers play sneaky tricks to lure girls, how you can be alert to the risks, how to protect yourself. I want to teach them how to be independent, and that starts with education. Education is so important for building a future. Human trafficking and sexual exploitation must stop, preferably today, not tomorrow. Or better still: yesterday."
Then "Things were pretty good at home. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. Everything changed when my father fell seriously ill. He wasn’t able to work anymore, so he couldn’t earn a salary. In Nepal, there’s no system to support you if that happens, in any way at all. To make ends meet, my mother went out to work, but her pay was low and there was no money for schooling. I was fortunate; as I was a good student, I was given a scholarship so that I could finish high school. A few months later, my father’s condition worsened and my mother also fell ill. At that point, in our culture the responsibility for the family falls on the shoulders of the eldest daughter; and that was me. I was seventeen at the time, and I had to go out to work to earn money. I found a job as a receptionist at an office, but my salary was so low that we weren’t able to get by. I managed to find another job; I found work at a guesthouse with a dance bar. Everything was fine the first month, but after that my boss forced me to have sex with clients. He abused and threatened me, and hit me if I refused. The things I had to do with those men... I felt more like a piece of trash than a human being. I hated myself. It felt as though I’d lost an important part of my life. It was one year before I could escape, with Free a Girl’s help."
Now "Since 2019, I’ve been living at this shelter run by Free a Girl. I’m doing well here. Thanks to the therapy, I’ve been able to process the trauma and intense emotions, and I’ve been able to take some distance from the forced prostitution. Back then, I didn’t love myself anymore; now I’ve learned to love myself again. I’m also taking a course; Free a Girl’s School for Justice has allowed me to study law at university. Why law? As a child, I wanted to help people and I dreamed of becoming a doctor. Medical studies are very expensive, though, and we didn’t have that kind of money at home. In addition, my uncle is a lawyer, something he achieved by working very hard. He’s been my inspiration. As a lawyer, I’ll be able to help girls who have been trafficked and sexually exploited, and I’ll be able to tackle and change the system, to bring an end to human trafficking, forced prostitution and other injustices against women. No one deserves to go through what I’ve been through. Soon, when I’ve graduated and am an independent woman, I want to show other women that you have to seize opportunities and that you can be autonomous. This is a message that needs to be heard, because men and women are still unequal in Nepal. Women have less say, they have fewer rights. I want to change that; we’re all equal."