It’s hard to visit Nepal and not be awe-struck by God’s handiwork: the soaring mountains, the fields of golden mustard, the laughter and artistry of Nepali people. Yet this same beauty has at times made Nepal particularly vulnerable to poverty and natural disaster. The mountainous topography makes infrastructure a constant challenge, and for decades scientists have been predicting a major earthquake. These vulnerabilities then breed exploitation and conflict.

My first visit to Nepal in 2003 coincided with a lull in the midst of the nation’s decade-long civil war. I was immediately captivated. And I was unaware at the time of the thousands of rural children – in areas particularly ravaged by war – being lured to larger cities by traffickers promising them an education and a good life. Parents, already stricken by poverty and desperate to offer their children the best opportunities, acquiesced; and “orphanages” became a thriving business. UNICEF estimates that 85 percent of Nepali children currently living in orphanages have at least one living parent.

It is almost incomprehensible, and yet all too common, that natural disasters can increase the exploitation of already-vulnerable children. Disasters like the earthquake that recently devastated many parts of Nepal bring a lot of attention and publicity. Aid money and volunteers pour in generously, but unfortunately, disasters also attract others eager to exploit those who are most vulnerable as well.

ACCI, an Australian-based Christian relief and development organization, is one of the organizations working to transform communities in Nepal through holistic and sustainable solutions to combat injustice and poverty. When the earthquake rocked Nepal on April 25, 2015, ACCI knew that thousands more children were at risk of being preyed upon by traffickers. News reports immediately began warning of child exploitation in Nepal. With increased aid money orphanages suddenly had many “spots” to fill. The need to prevent further exploitation was urgent.

In order to combat child trafficking, ACCI immediately partnered with Next Generation Nepal (NGN), an organization working on the ground to protect vulnerable children and reunite them with their families. ACCI and Next Generation Nepal have focused their efforts on Sindhupalchowk, one of the worst-affected districts where various reports estimate that 50-80% of houses were destroyed. ACCI and NGN are using a two-fold approach to protect children by creating “child-friendly spaces” and by monitoring vehicles at police check-posts in one of Nepal’s worst-affected districts.

Child-friendly spaces offer children a safe place to play and learn during the day, particularly during times of disaster when they are not yet able to return to school. These spaces significantly reduce incidents of trafficking, provide psychological care, and raise awareness of children’s rights. Immediately after the earthquake, 11 child-friendly spaces were established to register families and account for unaccompanied children; those in displaced people’s camps remain in use as safe zones for children.

Secondly, Next Generation Nepal trained young people to be watchdogs for suspicious activity. The youth that make up their “Communities Anti-Trafficking Project” (CAT) are eager to join the effort. Placed strategically at intersections where buses laden with travelers and goods make their way to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, the CAT team carefully searches each vehicle for children who are potentially being trafficked to orphanages or brothels. As Next Generation Nepal builds the capacity of young people to recognize and confront trafficking cases, children actively become advocates for themselves and for one another.

The post-earthquake relief work of ACCI and Next Generation Nepal is aligned with Faith to Action’s strategy of protecting vulnerable children from abuse, gender discrimination, and labor exploitation (see Journeys of Faith, page 7). This requires strategic efforts at educating families and preventing exploitation from happening in the first place. Faith to Action suggests that children can be taught to recognize abuse, and this in fact is the approach that ACCI and Next Generation Nepal are using. Children, too, are active parts of God’s redemptive plan!

Post-disaster exploitation is not unique to Nepal. This trend was recently seen in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, when children assumed to be orphans were whisked away to institutional care. Previously, the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia had similar outcomes, which the nation combated by quickly increasing surveillance and suspending international adoptions in the area where the tsunami occurred. In the face of natural disaster, the need for preventing children from trafficking is urgent.

The United Nations has declared today, July 30th, the World Day against Trafficking in Persons. In a nation like Nepal where orphanages and trafficking are often inextricably linked, and even more prominent in post-disaster contexts, we must recognize that now is the time to prevent exploitation from happening in the first place.

Daphne Fowler has worked in the field of international community development for over 7 years, and earned her Master’s degree in Cross-Cultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary.  She and her husband most recently served with Mennonite Central Committee in Cambodia as Partner Advisors for Capacity Development for 3 years.  They now live in Atlanta with their two little girls.  Daphne is currently at home with the girls while working part-time as a Grant Writer for ECHO, a Christian organization that provides agricultural resources for resource-poor farmers, and also writes for Faith to Action.  She enjoys adventures, the outdoors, and dreaming of another trip to Nepal.