Nepal’s children at risk: Sexual abuse in the aid sector
Is the international aid community doing enough to protect children in vulnerable communities?
Fears are rising that Nepal has become a target for paedophiles acting under the cover of aid work or philanthropy.
Police in the poverty-stricken nation have arrested five foreigners in the last year for the alleged sexual abuse of children.
This 101 East investigation found many of those arrested had been working for aid organisations or financially supporting poor children and their families.
“Many foreigners come here to Nepal. They love Nepal and we really respect them for their dedication and support,” Kabit Katawal, deputy superintendent of the Nepal police, told Al Jazeera.
“But some of them are masking their social work under the cover of their positions in power. They’re misusing their power and they’re exploiting our children.”
A celebrated Canadian aid worker on trial
In the most high-profile case, Canadian aid worker Peter Dalglish is on trial on charge of sexually abusing two Nepalese boys, which he denies.
Dalglish has spent nearly 20 years working with some of the world’s poorest children in Africa, Afghanistan and Asia. He has been employed by leading aid organisations like the United Nations, set up his own charity, Street Kids International, and won prestigious awards for his work.
But Dalglish’s career was brought to an abrupt halt one morning this April, when police burst into the home he built in the foothills of the Himalayas, about two hours from Kathmandu. Police found two boys aged 12 and 14 inside, and took Dalglish into custody.
I will win my freedom. I love this country. I will continue to fight to protect kids. Girls as well as boys. I'm not a paedophile. And I've never abused or touched any child inappropriately.
With his trial ongoing, Dalglish is now being held in a prison in a small, dusty town outside of Kathmandu.
In an interview with Al Jazeera from behind bars, he insists he is an innocent man caught up in a police crackdown.
“I will win my freedom. I love this country. I will continue to fight to protect kids. Girls as well as boys. I’m not a paedophile. And I’ve never abused or touched any child inappropriately.”
When Al Jazeera travelled to the village near Dalglish’s home, local elder, Bikram Tamang, said his arrest had shocked the local community. The United Nations confirmed that Dalglish had previously been employed by the organisation, but said he was not a current staff member or consultant.
Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the UN secretary-general, said the organisation “expects all employees, present and former, to abide by the law”.
“The United Nations has a zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse, and takes seriously any allegations against staff, volunteers, associates and implementing partners,” said Haq in a statement to Al Jazeera. “As for his case, we have no comments on the specific case, but we expect that justice will follow due process in accordance with the law. And as a matter of principle, the UN cooperates with judicial processes.”
A wake-up call for the humanitarian community
Lori Handrahan, a veteran humanitarian worker who focuses on the rights of children and women, has written about the international aid sector’s handling of sex abuse allegations within its ranks.
“I had said when [Dalglish] was arrested that his arrest should be a wake-up call for the humanitarian community and part of the #Aidtoo movement … but by and large, the story just died,” she says.
Allegations about aid workers abusing children and women have also emerged from countries such as Haiti, where Oxfam staff were accused of paying earthquake survivors for sex.
The ease with which individuals known to be predatory and potentially dangerous have been able to move around the aid sector undetected is cause for deep concern and alarm.
A report released in July by British members of parliament found that the aid sector has been aware of sexual exploitation and abuse by its own personnel for years, but that it has failed to adequately address the problem.
“The ease with which individuals known to be predatory and potentially dangerous have been able to move around the aid sector undetected is cause for deep concern and alarm,” the report said.
The rise of the #AidToo movement, in the wake of the #MeToo campaign, has helped shine a spotlight on sexual abuse in the humanitarian sector, but Handrahan believes the cases that have been publicly reported are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The evidence I have seen over three decades suggests the international humanitarian relief sector offers paedophiles the perfect professional position,” she says.
With humanitarian jobs giving potential perpetrators great power over vulnerable people in poor, developing countries, Handrahan believes NGOs must do more to ensure children are not at risk of abuse.
She says because most paedophiles share images of children online, NGOs need to monitor their employees’ internet activity and countries like Nepal need more funding to track child abusers online.
The Nepalese police only recently set up a cybercrimes unit.
“If you really want to protect children you need to help the cops, the police, the prosecutors,” Handrahan says. “I do think that Nepal, like any country where there are a lot of very poor children, is a target because paedophiles look for disposable children.”
I do think that Nepal, like any country where there are a lot of very poor children, is a target because paedophiles look for disposable children.
‘Guests are like God’
Saathi, a Nepalese organisation that provides counselling for abuse victims, is now looking after about 100 girls and 80 boys in its shelters. Many of them are street children and orphans, according to Pinky Singh Rana, a human rights activist and Saathi board member.
“A lot of foreigners have been found abusing young boys in hotspots such as tourist areas,” she says. “And more recently, we’re also finding that they are not only in Kathmandu or in some of the more well-known tourist spots, but moving slowly to some of the remote areas as well.”
Rana says it can be extremely difficult for Nepalese children and their families to make a complaint about abuse, because foreigners are held in such high esteem.
“There is a Sanskrit saying: ‘Guests are like God.’ So when foreigners befriend and build up very close relationships with the parents of some of these abused boys, then for them, it’s even harder to believe,” she says.
Saathi is trying to raise awareness of child sexual abuse by talking to communities in areas where they think children are most at risk.
But Rana says she’d also like to see foreigners who have been convicted of child sex abuse in other countries have the crime recorded on their passports.
“It would be best if they were not allowed here,” she says, adding that child abuse is a crime that affects the entire family.
“I think it has a horrific impact on not just the child himself, but his siblings, his parents, and even other family members … They themselves are befriended by the perpetrators – that makes it worse. The amount of trust that they put in the abuser, in the paedophile, I guess that guilt will never go away.”