Shailaja is the Director of our local partner organisation, Esther Benjamins Memorial Foundation (EBMF), based here in Kathmandu. I know her very well by now and have to admire her stamina in the midst of an ongoing huge workload and at times open hostility. Anyone who is good at their job and at heart will inevitably have their detractors in Nepal and Shailaja has been no exception. Indeed, when I first came to live in Nepal I was horrified to discover that she was being actively discriminated against by her (male) employers; not only was she more committed than they, but she had the wrong ingredients of being both an Indian and a woman. There is a widespread mutual antipathy between Indian and Nepali and no shortage of misogynists in Nepal. Now her pathetic narrow-minded persecutors from that time have all gone and Shailaja has taken the leading position that was her destiny.
A few weeks ago I recommended Shailaja for an international humanitarian award. Here is an extract from my pen picture:
"....Once again she has thrown herself into this task, building EBMF from nothing into a leading player in the fight against child trafficking within the course of a year. She has traveled widely within the trafficking prone areas of Nepal, motivating field staff and interacting with the communities and their children. She is a “people person” and never more comfortable than when operating in this kind of role. Shailaja has shown typical courage, herself going on rescue missions where “no” is never taken for an answer. She has been directly involved in the counseling of teenage girls who have been intercepted on the trafficking routes and has managed to convince them to give evidence against the traffickers (no small undertaking). As a consequence agents are now behind bars. And just a couple of weeks ago she was the one who personally confronted a lady at her Kathmandu home in a bid to rescue a ten year old girl from domestic slavery. The lady tried to intimidate Shailaja by telling her how important she was; Shailaja responded by filing a case with the police which is ongoing.
Shailaja now lives in the midst of 120 children, mainly trafficking victims and their “at risk” siblings at the EBMF refuge in Godawari to the southeast of Kathmandu. It is hard to overstate how fatiguing this must be, day in, day out, with little time taken by Shailaja for holiday. However she manages with her ready grin. Go to most Kathmandu orphanages and you’ll find grim Dickensian facilities, and idle staff. Visit the EBMF one and you will see the model of how things should be. I called in there last week, totally unannounced, and found a volleyball competition underway with Shailaja in the middle of the cheering children, dressed in her Manchester United strip.
I venture to suggest that you will find within this part of Asia few examples of commitment to social service and child welfare as strong as Shailaja. On the back of her motorbike she has a sticker reading “Catch me if you can”. I expect that few ever will."
Happy birthday Shailaja.