The earthquake that hit Nepal last week has left more than 5,000 dead, around 9,200 injured and millions homeless. While it would not be right to make a distinction between victims on the basis of gender, the harsh reality is that women and children are at much greater risk than others. On Sunday, Unicef said that nearly one million affected children are in ‘urgent need’ of humanitarian assistance, even as its staff reported dwindling water supplies, power shortages and communications breakdown. While the priority of the rescuers would be to reunite children with their parents or protect them, it may not be always possible to do so considering that everything has spun out of control. This means that these young people could fall prey to the machinations of traffickers. Nepal has for long been a hub for human trafficking. The US State Department’s ‘Trafficking in Persons Report’ rates Nepal as ‘Tier 2’, meaning the ‘government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking’.
The statistics vary on the number of Nepali women who fall prey to traffickers, but estimates are that about 200,000 girls and women are in Indian brothels. Others end up being domestic help. Similar fears were expressed after the 2013 floods in Uttarkhand and to date there are no reports on what happened to those children who lost their families. In a 2005 report, the Global Fund for Women had said that women are disproportionately affected by disasters and the social breakdown that accompanies calamities makes them vulnerable to sexual abuse. Children need more than just material and physical relief after such an event. Confronted with scenes of destruction and death, many children develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Left untreated, they could be prone to lasting psychological damage and emotional distress.
Along with the fear of a spike in trafficking, there is also the fear of an outbreak of diseases, especially once the rain sets in. Diarrhoea is already a growing problem and a measles outbreak might well be the next, with vaccines in short supply. Almost all of the 1,000 natural springs in the region have been damaged and there is no medicine, not even hand sanitiser or paracetamol. WaterAid has warned that in the next weeks it is crucial for the landlocked country to procure fresh water. Without it, there will be serious health risks. The Nepal government is fighting an uphill battle. But this is a battle it must win, and other nations must not hold back when it comes to providing resources to fight the challenges.