Trafficked to India when she was only 10 with promise of a good job and better education, Sukanya Karki worked in an Indian circus under horrible conditions till her rescue in January 2005.
The 20-year-old has managed to rebuild her life, pass the school leaving certificate exam and hopes to return to her village one day as a nurse or a teacher.
Sukanya is one of the over 300 Nepali children rescued from Indian circuses since 2004. They are now slowly rebuilding their lives with help from Esther Benjamins Trust, a London-based INGO.
Every year nearly 10,000 children from Nepal (mostly girls) are trafficked into India through the open border. Most of them end in brothels or become domestic servants. Some land in circuses as performers.
A 2002 survey revealed there were 232 children from Nepal or of ethnic Nepali origin under 14 (81% girls) working in 30 different circuses in India. Some were as young as 4 years when trafficked.
The children were sold to agents by their parents for as less as $40 by putting thumb-impressions on illegal contracts. Every child was promised good education and better living conditions.
“Most of them were Tamangs and Dalits from districts in south and south east Nepal,” said Philip Holmes, a British Army veteran who started Esther Benjamins Trust in 1999.
The escape from poverty promised to the children proved to be another hell once they landed in Indian circuses. They were not allowed to venture out, subjected to physical abuse and forced to live in abject conditions.
“If we couldn’t perform, trainers would hit us. The food was very bad, but if we refused to eat, we would be hit on our mouths till we bled,” said Sheela, 16, rescued four years ago.
They were made to perform wearing skimpy clothes and many sexually abused by circus owners. There were reports that some were sent out to ‘entertain’ clients.
Efforts undertaken by EBT and Indian NGOs led to the Great Bombay Circus releasing four children voluntarily in January 2004. The first raid took place in Kerala in April the same year when 29 children were rescued.
Over the next seven years EBT rescued 300 such children and a similar number released voluntarily by circus owners. Once back in Nepal, it wasn’t smooth sailing for these children most of who were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. But the tricks they learnt at the circuses in India became the best therapy for some.
There were initial doubts on using social circus — an experiment where circus tricks are used as therapy for disadvantaged and abused children — due to the children’s past experiences. But the fears soon evaporated.
“The project picked up momentum very quickly. Some were a bit rusty initially like rough diamonds waiting to be polished,” said Sky Neal, a contemporary circus artist from UK, who trained the children.
After the initial success, more professional circus artists from UK came to Nepal to train the children. This led to the project’s crystallisation into Sapana: The Company of Dreams, a circus group comprising these children. The children, all over 16 years, had their first performance in January this year. They have had several shows since and are set to perform in Dubai in October. Some dreams do come true.
(Names of the children have been changed to protect their identity)