Aruna Uprety

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While attending a seminar in India on HIV/AIDS, Nepalese doctor Aruna Uprety visited brothels where many women and girls from her home country of Nepal worked as sex slaves; some of the girls were as young as 14.

One woman tearfully asked Uprety to “make girls aware of this crime, so they will not be lured by good-looking people with their false promises. If we were educated and knew of such things, we would have never come to this hell. Every day we live with pain and suffering.”

That incident in 1992 was the beginning: Upon her return to Nepal, Uprety established the Rural Health and Education Service Trust (RHEST) to prevent the trafficking of girls, end violence against women, and improve women’s reproductive health.

The organization started by helping 25 girls at risk of being trafficked; in a very few years, that number jumped to over 8,500. In 1997, Uprety coordinated with the American Himalayan Foundation to help fund a RHEST campaign called Stop Girl Trafficking (SGT).

Each year, about 20,000 girls are taken from Nepal—or unwittingly sold by their parents—and sent to India and other countries to work as slaves or prostitutes. They are forcibly kept in bondage—threatened, beaten, and otherwise abused. To add to the problem, governments and police in both Nepal and India often ignore the trafficking, especially if they’re bribed to do so.

Uprety’s campaign focuses on prevention; as she says, “Prevention is rescue without the suffering.” That’s why she focuses on education, vocational training, economic opportunities, and cultural change.

Not one girl in Uprety's program has disappeared or been trafficked.

Uprety doesn’t confine her efforts to sex trafficking in Nepal. She’s taken on a variety of issues involving girls, women, and health in not only Nepal but also Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Tibet. RHEST and SGT have funded girls’ education, provided training for health workers, and established mobile reproductive health clinics.

Uprety has advocated for increased access to health care, legalization of abortion, and the abolition of the centuries-old ritual called “chaupadi,” in which women are isolated to a shed or cave during menstruation and childbirth; many die as a result. In her book, Chaupadi: A Harmful Practice for Women, Uprety writes, “We cannot identify the perpetrator as man or woman. The religious and cultural leaders are to blame.”

As you might suspect, Uprety has made enemies while challenging governments and cultural mores. When she was campaigning to make abortion legal, she says, “My own colleagues were against me. . . . I was called ‘devilish’.” But Nepal did in fact decriminalize abortion. And the country now provides girls and women with increased access to health care, an expanded number of pharmacies, plus nursing care, and support groups.

“The field of medicine,” she says, “is not just about prescribing medicine, but about talking and counseling. Compassion is a huge part of the profession.”

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