Kamala Poudel works alongside Matrika Devkota, the founder of KOSHISH in Nepal.
At the age of 5, Kamala Poudel lost her childhood. Sold to a trafficking ring by her stepfather, Poudel was forced from her home in Nepal to a brothel in India, joining the 50 other girls and women that are trafficked from Nepal to India every day.
Eventually, Poudel escaped from the brothel and slowly made her way back to Nepal. The journey home wasn’t easy: before she even hit her teenage years, Poudel had to work on the streets – nearly always in exploitative conditions – to get enough food to survive. Her difficult childhood, coupled with years of homelessness, sexual abuse and a 10-year prison sentence, left Poudel with severe mental health issues.
It wasn’t until meeting staff from KOSHISH, a Nepalese non-profit, that Poudel got the support she needed to recover and rebuild. About a year after accessing psychological and medical treatment through KOSHISH, Poudel began working for the organisation herself – and today, she is helping both children and adults through her role as a Program Officer.
End Violence spoke to Poudel about her experiences of abuse and recovery, along with the issues children face in Nepal today.
You were trafficked from Nepal to India at a young age – an experience that shaped your life in incalculable ways. What do you remember from that time?
I was only 5 when I left home. In Nepal, stories like mine are quite common – children are often sold to traffickers for labour, exploitation and abuse, and like me, many are sent to India. Since I was so young, I didn’t even realise I had left the country I grew up in, and only knew I was Nepali because people would use it as a slur against me.
For five years, I was forced to clean the brothel and deliver food to the women who were locked up on the first and second floors. They were also victims of trafficking but were a little older than I was – and though I suffered some molestation, I wasn’t forced into prostitution like them.
Still, I grew up not realising there was anything more to life than work and sleep. I was starved, I was beaten. I was a child, but all I knew was work, work, work. From an early age, I began believing that no one was there to help me and that I was the only one in the world who could help myself.
How did you escape from the brothel? What did you do next?
There was one big difference between the other girls and me: since I was so young, they weren’t as worried about locking me up. There was a small dog that would go in and out of the brothel, and one day – I must have been 9 or 10 at this time – no one had shut the door after letting the dog out. Immediately, I bolted.
I ran and ran until I couldn’t anymore, and eventually, I got to a railroad station. I tried asking for food, but the man at the station said he wouldn’t give it to me unless I worked. That started a new chapter of my life, where I spent years working at little roadside eateries doing various cooking and cleaning jobs or offering up small chores for people who passed by.
I never made enough money to have three meals a day, and I slept on the streets at night. I worked as a maid, a dishwasher, in restaurants, and as a housemaid. Eventually, I went back to Kathmandu.
Around the age of 16, I started trying to help tourists by waiting at airports and bus stations, offering to help them carry bags, show them around, or help them find a cab or get to their hotel. For about five years, that was my life – the job was okay when there were tourists, but if I couldn’t find anyone to help, that meant no job and no food.
One day, I was carrying a bag – and a baby – of a family touring Nepal from India. I was helping them to their hotel with their luggage when a policeman stopped us and searched our bags. The bag in my arm had narcotics in it, and the family told the police it belonged to me. I had no one to stand up for me or to prove that it wasn’t mine, so I was sent to a women’s prison for ten years.
Ten years for narcotics possession. That’s a long time, especially for something you didn’t do. How did that experience affect you?
There were so many women in the prison who were there for crimes they didn’t commit – and who were put there because their male relatives let them take the blame for crimes they had committed. I tried to make the best of it. I learned English and learned how to knit, paint and stitch.
But it was a long time, and it was hard. We had issues with water, food, violence. Every problem you could think of was in that prison. I began to develop the first signs of mental illness in jail – multiple times, I was handcuffed for acting out against other inmates. By the time I got out when I was 30 years old, I was not in a good place mentally. I was angry, and I was violent. It was hard for people to control me because of my episodes, and once I was out of prison, I had nowhere to go but back to the streets.
It was terrible, especially at night. That was when I was the most scared. One night, I was gangraped by a group of men. I ran to the police right after it happened, and they told me I should have brought the rapists with me if I wanted them to be prosecuted. I really lost hope after that. My mental health was so bad until KOSHISH approached me on the streets.
Tell me more about KOSHISH and how you eventually became a part of the organisation.
At the time when KOSHISH approached me, no one wanted to help me or talk to me. I was shunned by one and all claiming that my condition was my fault and I should feel guilty about it. On the streets, people pelted stones on me, calling me a sinner. Even though I was on public streets, people used to yell at me to move away from their houses, shops and offices.
Interacting with the KOSHISH team was very different. In my very first meeting with them, they built an emotional rapport with me. To my surprise, I could actually communicate with them despite my condition. They offered me profound understanding and enormous affection. I felt like I had met my long-lost family.
During our first meeting, I was extremely hungry – I hadn’t eaten for about two days. I immediately asked them for food, and they said they would provide that, but also take care of other needs, like shelter, medicines and rehabilitation. They said they would give this free of cost at their transit centre for women and girls, the House of Peace. I was not thinking straight then and didn’t see the value in it – but the food offer tempted me so much that I agreed to go with them.
I stayed there for ten months and received food, therapy and medicine. In the beginning, I was a loner. I used to sit alone, not interacting with anyone. Slowly, I opened up and started sharing my feelings with the staff and others at the transit centre. With those interactions, my health improved.
Eventually, I began involving myself in group activities at the transit centre. The counsellors also helped me relive my past while staying positive. Before counselling, I would always go into a vicious cycle of self-pity, asking myself what I had done to deserve this kind of life. But the counselling helped me think about my experiences with a different lens and look for silver linings in every grey cloud. By the time I was finished with the centre, I felt almost normal. I still have to take medicine, but I don’t mind – they make me feel refreshed and healthy.
After I finished treatment in the transit centre, KOSHISH offered me a job as a cook in their office. I was honestly not sure whether I could handle the responsibility, but the counsellors at the transit centre assured me that there was no harm in trying. I had no confidence the first day I reached the KOSHISH office. I was trembling, jittery and felt like I had butterflies in my stomach.
Despite being nervous, though, I was excited at the thought of getting a stable job. I felt that I had finally left the streets, and after my experience at the transit centre, was emotionally and socially secure enough to take the job. The first activity was the preparation of tea, and if you can believe it, I ended up putting salt instead of sugar in the tea! Slowly and steadily, though, I learned cooking and other tactics of the kitchen, and since I was still doing counselling and staying on my medication, I was able to build up confidence over time. In time, I was promoted. I am now a programme officer at KOSHISH.
Every day, I work to help people like me, especially women and girls facing domestic violence, trafficking and other forms of abuse. I conduct awareness and sensitisation campaigns to support the rights and dignity of people with mental health issues, especially women and girls. And I tell my story to help people understand they can recover and rebuild, too.
Every time I tell my story, I heal a little bit more.
What exactly does KOSHISH do? What makes the organisation’s approach unique?
KOSHISH provides psychosocial therapies and medical treatment to people dealing with mental health issues. Today, our staff of 79 reach people in five of Nepal’s seven provinces. We have a community-based mental health programme that provides direct services to those with mental health issues and a transit care centre for women and children – the same one I went through – that provides short-term residential support.
After giving direct service to the persons suffering from such issues, we reintegrate them back into their families and communities through specific programmes, like family counselling and participation in self-help groups.
In extreme cases, we provide economic aid to these people. Recently, we also launched a free virtual psychosocial first aid and counselling service, which was a response to increased rates of violence due to COVID-19 isolation measures. We also have an active advocacy programme, which urges policymakers to review, adapt and implement laws to protect people with mental health issues.
At KOSHISH, we identify with the phrase “nothing about us, without us.” To my knowledge, KOSHISH is the first organisation in Nepal that is led by people with lived experiences of mental illness. This includes our founder, Matrika Devkota, who struggled with depression and attempted suicide in his late teens; our board members; and our other key stakeholders. We are all working on this issue because we know this type of suffering, and we better understand what people are going through.
In my five years at KOSHISH, I’ve seen how important this is. I know what people are really facing when they live in the streets with mental illness – much more than our policymakers or government do, yet they are the ones who are making laws about our situation. We are trying to raise our voices and contribute to this type of decision-making.
What is the most rewarding part of your job? The most challenging?
The most rewarding part of my job is seeing someone go through a journey like mine and playing a role in that transformation. Recently, a woman from Bangladesh went through similar experiences of trafficking and mental illness, but we helped her, gave her therapy, and eventually arranged for her to go back to Bangladesh.
The most challenging part of my job is supporting with rehabilitation. That is extremely difficult. Here in Nepal, society doesn’t want much to do with someone that has the stamp of mental illness on their back. Children with mental illness, for example, might not be able to attend a regular school because teachers and other parents and children will discriminate against them. Pushing against social stigma can be very challenging and disheartening.
It is also difficult to see women and girls who are abandoned because of mental health issues, gender-based violence or abuse, because it is very difficult to, for example, reintegrate a young girl who is thrown out of her home.
What is your hope for children and women in Nepal?
I hope that no child will suffer the way I did. But for those that are suffering, I hope they can find an organisation to help them re-enter society without any stigma.
Learn more about KOSHISH.
About End Violence Champions
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