Children in Nepal orphanages 'at risk of abuse'

Kathmandu (AFP) - British teacher Sarah Robinson knew something was wrong even before leaving the orphanage in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu in 2012 with her precious new daughter.

The blind, brown-haired girl, who had spent her whole short life at the institution, was terrified of water, wet her bed even at age five, and most alarmingly there were spots of blood in her underwear.

Subsequent medical checks showed Robinson's adopted daughter had been raped, possibly by someone at the orphanage, sparking a legal battle to bring her attacker to justice.

"He tied me up and threw me in dirty water, in the drain, in cold places," the girl, who cannot be named, told AFP, before clamming up about the man she used to call "uncle".

Private orphanages have mushroomed across Nepal in the absence of a state-run welfare system, their growth fuelled by corruption and the prospect of attracting donations from foreigners, activists say.

Robinson, whose name has been changed, and others fear some of these unregulated orphanages are neglecting and possibly abusing children in their care.

"Kids who live in orphanages, are just not important in this society ... the way they are treated," she said in Kathmandu.

After Robinson discovered her daughter's abuse, she tried, unsuccessfully, to get police to investigate, before filing a legal petition to have a statute of limitations overturned to start an inquiry.

Robinson, who lives in Nepal, is awaiting a court ruling on her 2013 petition. But a separate police investigation has been conducted into rape allegations of three other girls, all autistic, from the same orphanage called Bal Mandir.

A former employee, whom Robinson suspects of abusing her daughter, has been charged with attacking those girls who had approached a child rights organisation for help.

The ex-employee and another man are currently in jail awaiting trial.

A senior official of the orphanage told AFP the institution was "a clean organisation with tight security".

"If the children were abused, it is impossible that it occurred in our premises," said Subash Pokharel, general secretary of Nepal Children's Organisation, which runs the orphanage.

- Foreign volunteers -

Nepal is home to 797 orphanages with 15,215 children, according to official records. Activists claim actual figures are much higher, with illegal institutions also operating, including some with children who are not in fact orphans.

Agents recruit children from rural Nepal for a fee, promising their parents a good education in a private school in the city. Once in the shelter, the children are passed off as orphans in the hope of attracting donations for their care, mainly from well-meaning foreigners, according to activists.

Kathmandu's Happy Home orphanage housed around 75 children, many of whom actually had parents. Last February, police arrested the owner, Bishwa Acharya, on charges of fraud, kidnapping and torture.

Happy Home's financial records are not public. However, a Slovak charity told AFP it had sent the orphanage around 8,000 euros ($10,500) a month from 2011 until 2013, when rumours of abuse started emerging and its donations stopped.

Anti-trafficking activist Philip Homes, who heads UK-based Freedom Matters, told AFP authorities are reluctant to regulate children's homes because they "need the private sector to provide the childcare safety net that the state doesn't offer".

A quick online search for orphanages in Nepal turns up long lists of children's homes, with owners requesting funding or foreign volunteers to care for their wards.

Most registered children's homes are located in top tourist destinations like Kathmandu Valley, Chitwan and Pokhara, where they can easily fit into a foreigner's vacation itinerary.

Although it is illegal to volunteer in Nepal on a tourist visa, well-intentioned visitors pay around $100-$200 a week to orphanages to work there, activists say.

"Volunteers pay first, and then they also become a source of further funding because they witness the plight of the children and raise money when they return home," said Selina Tamang of advocacy group Action for Child Rights.

Background checks are rarely conducted on those offering to help, Tamang told AFP.

In December 2010, French charity worker Jean-Jacques Haye was convicted of raping ten children in a Kathmandu orphanage. In August 2012 Briton Simon Jasper McCarty pleaded guilty to sexually abusing three boys whom he met in Nepal.

Nepalese officials say they are quick to investigate complaints at children's homes, but argue their monitoring efforts are hamstrung by a lack of funding and manpower.

"We have limited resources and cannot tightly supervise such shelters. But we are working on more regulation in order to keep a closer eye on them," Namuna Bhusal, of the state-run Central Child Welfare Board, told AFP.

For Robinson, the police investigation into alleged abuse of the three girls has raised her hopes that justice will prevail in her daughter's case.

"I really do believe that she is very special and I have been chosen to come to rescue her ...that is what keeps me going," Robinson said.

As she slurped her noodle soup, the girl said of her attacker: "He is not my uncle anymore, because he is in prison... I hope he stays there."