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Radio Free Nepal 

An S.F. organization is providing radios and radio programming that just may save lives a world away

Wednesday, Feb 1 2006
Reeta vividly remembered the day her father sold her.

She was 13. It was during the rainy season of 1999. Two men came to her village in the eastern hills of Nepal. They said they would give her work in Kathmandu.

But she was never taken to the capital. Reeta said she was trafficked across the border to India, where she was forced to work as a prostitute in the red-light district of Mumbai for four years.

When she arrived in Mumbai, India's most populous city, Reeta was a beautiful girl with smooth, rich brown skin, large round chocolate eyes, and long black hair. She was popular with the brothel's clients.

But by the time she turned 17, she was thin and frail. The daily routine of having sex with three or more men had withered her. Some of the sex acts were violent, and few customers used condoms. Soon her skin became discolored, pale. And her face appeared lopsided. (In 2001, a client shattered Reeta's left cheekbone. It never healed properly.)

Still, despite her diminished appearance, she continued to receive at least one client each day, though she had become too old for many of the clients' liking and she was sick much of the time.

Reeta finally left the brothel in late 2003 when she became too sick and unattractive to make the owners a profit. It took her nearly three weeks to complete the long journey back to her village.

When she returned home, she said, it was easy to tell which families had sold their daughters -- they were the ones with tin roofs and FM radios. Reeta was quickly shunned and forced out by her family when she told them of her years of sex work.

With nowhere else to go, she set off for Kathmandu, where she found work in the Thamel District of the capital at a restaurant where waitresses often performed sexual favors for their customers -- many of whom were police officers and army men.

The other waitresses, many having also previously been trafficked to India, recognized right away what was wrong with Reeta. She had Mumbaiya.

"Mumbaiya is common for us girls who have worked in India," Reeta said.

Like more than half of the rural women in Nepal, Reeta was illiterate. If she had been able to read, she may have known about the reports of the spreading AIDS epidemic in Nepal. If she had known about clinics and services, she could have been told sooner that the disease she knew as Mumbaiya was really AIDS.

There are clinics in Kathmandu that do HIV testing and provide some treatment services, but Reeta didn't find them until it was too late.

"One day I could not make it to go to work. Some friends came to find me, and I was too weak to stand and I had a high fever," she recalled during an interview in her small, one-room home in Kathmandu.

When friends took her to a clinic that day in the summer of 2004, Reeta learned that she was not only HIV-positive; she had AIDS. She had never heard those terms before -- HIV or AIDS.

When a social worker asked Reeta if she had used condoms while in India, she admitted that she was not allowed to ask a customer to use one.

"But if he used it on his own, I was happy," she said.

Reeta's story is not atypical for a young girl from the villages of Nepal. The United Nations estimates that brothels in India hold as many as 160,000 Nepali women and girls.

It is impossible to know when Reeta contracted HIV or how many others she infected. What is known is that at least 50 percent of the Nepali girls who are trafficked to Mumbai return to Nepal HIV-positive.

In an interview just three months after she was diagnosed with AIDS, Reeta seemed to have already lost her will to live. Throughout her life all Reeta knew was what she was told. She was both denied her human rights and unaware of them. The most basic right she lacked was access to information.

"I cannot read or speak English. I am just a prostitute," Reeta said in September 2004. "I have no friends in this world during the light of the day. I lived a dark life."

Reeta died in August 2005. She was 19.

Today, in Nepal, human trafficking remains rampant. And the AIDS epidemic has reached critical mass. Need for prevention and treatment efforts is still high, as more than half of the population is unaware the disease even exists.

But that number is now beginning to decrease, because information about AIDS is not as scarce as it used to be in Nepal. Thanks to the wonders of solar and satellite technologies and one San Francisco organization, information about health care and empowerment is streaming into Nepal more than ever before.

In 1999, the same year Reeta was trafficked to India, San Franciscan Ronni Goldfarb was in her basement office on Simonds Loop, creating a revolutionary way for women like Reeta to gain power through information.

Today, Goldfarb's basement operation has expanded into an international nonprofit organization that serves millions in the developing world.

From its offices in the Presidio, Equal Access creates original radio programming about HIV/AIDS, trafficking, and myriad other topics that are rarely discussed in Nepal. Then, using satellite technology from the WorldSpace Satellite company, the programs are broadcast to some of the globe's most rural people -- to whom Equal Access has distributed thousands of satellite radios. In areas with no electricity, radio receivers are solar powered.

Equal Access provides programs and radios to communities in Nepal, India, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Tajikistan. In Nepal, more than 650 satellite radios have already been distributed to places so rural that populations are often in the dozens and the concept of satellite radio is described as a miracle from God.

About The Author

Cristi Hegranes


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