This article was originally published in November 2014.
In Nepal, children do not run away and join the circus. They are kidnapped, sold or forced against their will across the border and into India’s big tops. In some cases, parents are tricked by “agents” to send their children to India for a better life. A recent story by the BBC described one young boy who was sold by human traffickers to an Indian circus company where he was forced to train as an acrobat. This is not the dream life of a child’s adventure story. It is a nightmare of long hours, beatings and abuse. Luckily for this boy, a charity group rescued him and brought him home. Now he is back in the performance limelight, but with a difference.
Circus Katmandu comprises a troupe of 13 young performers, almost all who are survivors of human trafficking. Providing “ethical entertainment”, Nepal’s only contemporary circus combines Nepali culture, theatre, dance, acrobatics and cutting edge art and delivers shows that have been seen in England, Dubai and Australia. The performers take pride in their accomplishments and are rewarded with a salary and safe training. Today, they can live independent lives.
The circus was launched in 2010 with the help of two British charities, Freedom Matters and The Esther Benjamins Trust. Sano Paila also supported the effort, but as of January 2014 the circus has been self-sustaining, gaining new sponsors and initiating its own fundraising campaigns.
One of the troupe’s shows, called Swagatham, meaning welcome in Nepali, lasts 45 minutes and reflects their lives and the sorrows of human trafficking. A fusion of Nepali, Hindi and English songs provides the backdrop to their personal stories. Acrobatics, hula-hoop, juggling, Nepali dance, rope climbing, back flips and tumbling are just a few of the highlights in their performances, none of which include animals.
In addition, the circus has a training and outreach program called Sapana in Katmandu and Nepal’s trafficking-prone rural regions. Marginalized and at-risk children and young people are offered a safe and supportive environment to explore their creativity and develop circus and theatre skills. The circus hopes these workshops can expand to include health and anti-trafficking issues.
Spreading the Truth
In 2011, the Indian Supreme Court ordered circuses to stop employing children. Activists say Nepal also brought in new measures to curb the problem. These steps have significantly reduced the numbers of Nepali children working in Indian circuses.
Unfortunately, traffickers continue to sell Nepalese children as domestic servants, farm labourers or sex workers. Activists estimate that around 10,000 children are trafficked to India every year. Even after they have been rescued, children often face stigma at home and have a difficult time reintegrating into society. That’s why an operation such as Circus Katmandu has so much appeal. Not only does it provide a family atmosphere, it’s also a powerful platform to spread the truth about human trafficking.