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NEPAL: Circus Children Exploited for Sex and Entertainment

Surendra Phuyal

KATHMANDU, Jul 22 2004 (IPS) - The recent rescue of 12 Nepali girls trapped in a circus in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh highlights the work of child rights activists in efforts to stop the abuse of children for public entertainment. But for many Nepali girls, the circus is still one of the few options out of extreme poverty.

”I love my family very much and they depend on my income,” said Mana (not her real name) who sent her earnings back home to Nepal to support her family on a regular basis.

”Actually, I was able to marry off my younger sister with the money I earned in the circus,” she told IPS.

Ironically, Mana is one of 12 Nepali girls rescued last month and subsequently repatriated from the Great Roman Circus, based in Karnailganj, in India’s Uttar Pradesh state.

She worked for the circus for ten years, earning between 1,000 to 2,000 rupees (21 to 42 U.S. dollars) every month.

But thirteen-year-old Meena (not her real name) has a different story.

”I was taken to India by an acquaintance of my aunt,” Meena told IPS.

There, as part of a deal reached between her parents and a local circus agent, she would earn 200 rupees (4.30 U.S. dollars) every month.

That money may have helped her family back home, but the lives of Meena and many other children like her in India’s mobile circuses were just miserable, say rights activists.

For three years, Meena said, she led a prisoner’s life, traveling to big and small towns across India and beyond with the circus owners and performing as acrobats or clowns to entertain crowds.

Prior to her repatriation to Nepal last month, activists say, the owners of the Great Roman Circus reportedly raped her and several other children. This sparked a heated campaign by NGOs in India and Nepal that ultimately forced the authorities to secure their release.

It all started on Jun. 15, when the circus owners attacked a group of Indian activists and journalists led by Kailash Satyarthi, president of the Global March Against Child Labour and Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), who went to rescue 23 Nepali children who were being ”held against their will” at the Grand Roman Circus.

Later, the Gonda District Police – in Uttar Pradesh – raided the circus and nabbed the circus owners. They also took 12 of the 23 children in their “protective judicial custody”.

Satyarthi then went on to stage an indefinite hunger strike for five days outside the Uttar Pradesh State Assembly in Lucknow to highlight the plight of these children working in circuses throughout India.

But the police later intervened and broke his fast-onto-death when Satyarthi’s health deteriorated.

For their part, the circus owners in India, protested against the NGOs and the local authorities, demanding that the children be handed over to them. Their argument was that since they had “bought, trained and brought up most of the girls”, they belonged to them.

The owners also said that without the circus to look after them, the girls would be jobless and left to fend for themselves.

However, activists say the matter was indeed very serious in the Great Roman Circus. One of the girls had written a letter to her parents in Makawanpur, Nepal, and told them that she and her friends were ”repeatedly being abused and raped” by the circus operators.

After receiving the letter, four parents from Makawanpur went to India to rescue their children. But it was not easy. So they sought the help of local rights activists.

Later, bowing to intense pressure from the activists, the Gonda District Magistrate ordered the safe release and repatriation of all minors held by the circus. The Gonda District Police was also ordered by the court to repatriate the 12 girls to Nepal.

Initially, the police were clueless as to how many Nepali girls were working in the circus. But now more details have emerged.

It appears that 10 more Nepali girls working in the circus were moved to the eastern state of Orissa by the circus operators apparently to hide them, Amitabh Thakur, deputy superintendent of police at Gonda, told IPS.

Meantime, there are concerted efforts to repatriate more Nepali children who, like the 12 already repatriated, are being held against their will by circus operators throughout India.

No official data exists on the actual number of Nepali children working in Indian circuses. But NGO estimates put the number at anywhere between 500 and 1,000; and over 80 percent of them female.

Activists say in the majority of the cases, minors like Meena and Mana are trafficked.

“The problem is our deep-rooted poverty,” says Anuradha Koirala, former assistant minister for women, children and social welfare and director of Maiti Nepal – a shelter for children in Kathmandu.

“And in most of the cases, the children are trafficked by the circus agents,” she told IPS. ”They know how to hoodwink the vigilant cops at various border points (between Nepal and India).”

 
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