Direct Relief Foundation

03/25/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 03/25/2024 15:05

Kranti Tamang on the Anti-Trafficking, Anti-Stigma Revolution

At the age of 12, Kranti Tamang learned that her mother, Shanti, was dying.

Shanti had been taken from her job in Nepal and forced into sex trafficking in India as a teenager. After escaping and returning home, Shanti's family and community rejected her upon learning she was living with HIV, and she was forced to find work and housing on her own. For a time, she was so unwell that she had to leave her daughter, Kranti, at an orphanage.

Then, in 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, and a border blockade between Nepal and India, cut off the supply of critical medications into Nepal, including the HIV treatment on which Shanti's life depended.

"She contacted all her friends, she had to help her find the medicine or to get me adopted because I had no one besides her," Kranti said.

Despite her personal desperation, Shanti threw herself into the post-earthquake relief efforts. "With no hope of survival, I resolved that even if this was my destined death, I would want to die working for my community," she said.

The Start of a Movement

With the help of a friend, Shanti connected with Direct Relief, which provided a supply of antiretroviral drugs for a number of Nepali people living with HIV, including Shanti.

"We love to say that Direct Relief saved my mother's life," Kranti shared. "And when she felt that she had been given a second chance to her life, she had to do more for her community."

In 2016, Shanti and six other women founded the Shanti Foundation, a year after the devastating earthquake. The organization quickly got to work educating the Nepali public and government officials about trafficking, HIV, and sexual and gender-based violence. Their team also helps rescue, rehabilitate, and reintegrate trafficking survivors and people living with HIV. Even though she was still a teenager, Shanti's daughter, Kranti, played a critical role for the new organization as she knew English and could help translate from Nepalese for people who were willing to support their movement.

And given the story behind her name, Kranti is a true embodiment of this movement. The doctor who delivered her called her "Kranti," which means "revolution" in Nepalese because she was the first baby in Nepal to receive antiretroviral therapy treatment, which prevents a mother with HIV from transmitting the disease to her newborn.

In Nepal, HIV is still highly stigmatized. It is not uncommon for children whose parents live with HIV to be kicked out of school, and for children to abandon their parents when they learn that they learn about their parents' condition. Kranti shared that not having HIV prevented her from experiencing much of the fear and isolation faced by her friends who are living with HIV.

"It was very hard for my friends with HIV every time they would have to take the medication during the school day. Everyone would come and ask them, 'What are you taking medication for?' And, of course, they will not tell it's about HIV, but they'll always have this fear that they'd be found out. And one time, my friend's mother began talking about her story and joining the [anti-trafficking, anti-HIV stigma] movement. And her friends found out, and she was just isolated."

A Dream Come True

The persistent stigma and lack of resources for those living with HIV led Shanti and Kranti to the dream of having a community house in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu.

All advanced healthcare services for people living with HIV are based in Kathmandu, and even if one is lucky enough to know someone in the city, housing is often refused during treatment because of the stigma around HIV. Many are coming from poorer, rural areas of the country and can't afford a hotel or other accommodations while they seek treatment.

With funding from Direct Relief in 2021, the Shanti Foundation was able to buy a two-story building to provide housing and community for these people left with nowhere else to go. It features two rooftops - one features a communal kitchen, where residents take turns cooking meals, and the other provides space for a garden that produces fresh vegetables for the community. Handicraft classes also teach women skills to make and sell bracelets, necklaces and other items. "They have made [the center] very beautiful," Kranti said.

Since the home's opening, over 70 people living with HIV have lived at the house. Some stay for a few days, and others - often elderly or those living with advanced stages of the disease - anticipate living the rest of their lives at the center. The center also accommodates sex trafficking survivors.

Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

Eight years after the Shanti Foundation's beginning, Kranti is now 21 years old, in her final year of university, and is a volunteer at the Kathmandu center as well as a volunteer development officer for the Shanti Foundation.

The challenges and opportunities ahead of the foundation are especially clear to her now as she recently returned home from her first trip outside Nepal. After being nominated by staff at the American embassy in Kathmandu, she flew to the U.S. for a three-week leadership program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, where groups from 22 different countries came together to learn and share about anti-trafficking efforts in their own countries and in the U.S.

"We went to the Department of Labor, Department of Transportation, Department of Justice; everyone had their own task force for anti-human trafficking," Kranti shared. "Each law enforcement has victim advocates, investigators, and prosecutors dedicated and trained to these programs."

In contrast, "trafficking is regarded as just a 'woman thing' in our country," she said.

"And it is only operated by the Ministry of Women, which is always falling short on resources and things that they want to really do. And we are pressing on the Ministry of Women, because that is also that is only the institution that is really internalizing this issue. But I think we might have to embrace the challenge and go with other ministries like transportation, labor, etc., that have a big role to play in order to prevent this crime."

Also, Kranti learned from other members of the leadership program that over 50 Nepalese women were being rescued from trafficking in Greece, and other Nepalese people had just been rescued in Cyprus.

"When they have to be repatriated back to the country, they do need support, and we're in the country to provide that," said Kranti. "Before now, we knew our people were there, but we didn't know whom to contact. Now we know whom we can contact, and we can help each other."

For Kranti, this trip was "most importantly about spreading the words of my mother around the [U.S.] and beyond."

"Through [Direct Relief's] support, one Shanti was saved, but the impact goes far beyond, now supporting the lives of countless others."