Little Sisters Fund: Fighting the Sex Trade with Education Little Sisters Fund: Fighting the Sex Trade with Education Shares Nepal is the largest per capita offender of international sex trafficking, with 15,000 to 20,000 girls traded annually. It exists as the cultural side effect to a male-dominated society, which decreases the access and resources for a girl’s education. It’s been almost 20 years since Trevor Patzer took his first trip to Nepal, only to return to the United States with a sponsee, or “little sister,” and an idea to break the cycle of oppressive ignorance surrounding the Nepalese education system. “It’s about supporting economically disadvantaged Nepalese girls to become empowered leaders through education, mentoring, and community support,” says Patzer of the idea that became the driving mission behind co-founding the Little Sisters Fund in 1998. “When a girl comes into our program, we are committed to her education until she’s independent and standing on her own two feet.” Patzer’s original trip was part of fulfilling a self-promise to visit a new country each year to broaden his world view. During his travels throughout Nepal, Patzer was introduced to Usha Acharya and her husband, Jayaraj, who were both leading influencers in the Nepalese community. Acharya was working with Save the Children at the time, and as part of Patzer’s desire to return an education that he was privileged to receive via a sponsor of his own, he asked Acharya if there was a child he could sponsor in Nepal. “She smiled and told me, ‘there’s not a child, there’s a girl,’” recalls Patzer. “So Usha introduced me to a young girl named Bindhaya. She looked up at me with her big brown eyes, and my heart melted. I committed on the spot to supporting her education.” In Nepal, the disadvantages against girls come is not an explicit type of oppression that is found in many Middle Eastern countries. It instead exists in more subtle forms – built into a male-dominated society, which Patzer explains not as a lack of infrastructure, but rather as a lack of financial resources and an attempt for families to distribute funds they think will propel the community forward. “Girls are seen as financial black holes,” says Patzer. “In which all the money you put into a girl essentially disappears when she gets married.” As a result of this societal stigma, a lack of education often lands girls in unsafe environments. It’s this direct correlation that puts Nepal on the map as the largest contributor to the world sex trade, with uneducated girls more easily sold off to sex traffickers and child marriages. “In rural areas of Nepal, it is is common for up to half of the girls to be married by the age of 14. Additionally, in rural areas, over half [of girls] are pregnant or are already mothers by age 16.” -Trevor Patzer This is something that Patzer’s co-founder, Usha Acharya, witnessed growing up in Nepal, yet was fortunate enough to escape when she earned a scholarship for her pursuit for higher education. “Growing up, both my parents were illiterate. I had no transportation. I worked six days in a row,” says Acharya. “I was allowed to start going to school on the day education became free.” Acharya took this opportunity to excel in her studies, which ultimately took her to India where she obtained her masters in Economics, before returning to Nepal to work in the Central Bank. Her opportunity to study without the financial burden depicts the bright minds that are otherwise smothered as a result of these social preconditions, but also showcase Acharya as a role model for the girls she now works with daily. Acharya adds that presently 66 percent of men can read and write, versus the 43 percent of females that can. In rural areas, seven out of ten girls drop out of school by the age of 16. “Little Sisters Fund’s work is not limited to sponsoring a child. It is a much more holistic and long-term commitment to raise these girls into future leaders.” -Sreya Belbase When Patzer met Acharya, she was already making strides to expel human trafficking from her community. “I was going into brothels and rescuing Nepalese girls,” says Acharya. This firsthand experience, combined with Patzer’s inherent responsibility to the first girl he sponsored, paved the way to the Little Sisters Fund. “Little Sisters Fund’s work is not limited to sponsoring a child. It is a much more holistic and long-term commitment to raise these girls into future leaders,” says Sreya Belbase, who most recently pledged to sponsor seven-year-old Apana. Belbase is one of the many western sponsors who joined the Little Sisters Fund over the past two decades in the fight to eradicate financial disadvantage. “I have seen girls who have been in the program for years, who are now graduating; these girls are role models for what the impact of education should have on every girl globally,” says Belbase. This type of international involvement is exactly why Patzer and Usha developed the organization, highlighting the steady growth from Patzer’s initial dedication to sponsor Bindhaya, which inspired his friends, family and neighbors to start sponsoring girls throughout Nepalese villages. Now, not only is Bindhaya as the original “little sister” working as a nurse in one of Nepal’s top-tier hospitals, but additionally, more than 2,000 girls are currently enrolled throughout 20 of Nepal’s districts. One of these girls is Apana, whom Belbase met three years ago on her annual visit to Nepal. Belbase explained that this trip was different as she witnessed the destruction brought on by the 2015 earthquake, which left villages flattened and magnified poverty throughout Nepal. “I came across the village of Bhotechaur; it was completely demolished, not one home left standing. There, I met Apana – a soul full of resilience, positivity, hope and inspiration,” remembers Belbase. Belbase and Apana “I knew as soon as I met her that it was necessary to raise awareness and also do something substantial, as not to stunt the progress the communities experienced prior to the earthquake. Since then, I have annually visited her village and provided psychosocial support and donations, but to me this was not enough,” explains Belbase. For 20-year-old Belbase to recognize that she could do more effectively enforces what Patzer and Acharya are striving toward, with not only sponsorship and education as part of the mission, but also mentorship as a key factor in breaking the cycle of unequal education. The Little Sisters Fund hopes to break this inequality in half a generation. “You can build a school in two months but to educate a girl, it takes 15 years to see your investment come to bloom,” says Patzer, explaining that as important as the $200 annual sponsorship fees are, the longevity of mentorship is also relevant to continue to shape the Nepalese girls’ futures. Belbase details her experience of watching the young women develop throughout the program, saying, “They are confident, driven, and care immensely about women’s rights and are able to speak openly about issues which would otherwise be controversial in Nepal.” “The capacity for change and the opportunities for a better world are out there, but if we dim the light based on perceived differences then we are closing door for opportunity,” Belbase concludes. “And I think limiting one’s potential is one of the greatest harms that can be done.” To get involved with the Little Sisters Fund, visit littlesistersfund.org/take-action/ or donate directly to Belbase’s GoFundMe page to help educate Apana for the next ten years. Jillian Dara Jillian grew up an island girl but converted to city style after living in Boston, London, Santiago, and now, NYC. She is a writer, editor and content creator with a desire to share stories in the lifestyle genre. With a particular focus on travel and profiles, she prides herself on sharing the most authentic story for those who aren’t able to share their own.