Orphanage Trafficking – It’s time to stop it!

In late 2019 I had the pleasure of traveling to Nepal with Intrepid Travel. What an incredible experience! Beyond the obvious education and excitement that comes with traveling to a new country; meeting the people, seeing the sights, tasting the food, there was a very specific “purpose” and educational component behind this particular trip with carefully selected agents from Canada and the USA.  Geoff Manchester, co-founder of Intrepid Travel would also be adventuring along with us in one of his favourite countries! Little did I know that one of the areas of education for us would be about orphanage trafficking.

Initially, I almost turned the invite down as I thought Everest and high altitude trekking weren’t for me. Then I discovered that Intrepid has this beautiful Experience Nepal itinerary that visits the cities, nature and cultural sites of the Kathmandu Valley. It had some great small hikes and everything was at low altitude. Even I, as a pretty savvy travel agent didn’t know this! Now I do. And now you do too!

Click these links if you’d like to read about my experience White Water Rafting on the Trisuli River or the story of Kumari, a living child Goddess in Nepal.

I accepted the invitation to go on this special agent-only trip and came out the other side, changed.

As a special inclusion, we got to visit Forget Me Not in Kathmandu, a project supported by the Intrepid Foundation.

Forget Me Not is not a tourist destination. It’s not a store. There’s nothing to buy. It doesn’t provide services to tourists. It’s an organization … a very powerful one … one that I truly will never forget.

Photo of travel agents from Canada & USA with Forget Me Not
Photo: Louise Booth

Years ago, The Intrepid Foundation partnered with an orphanage in Nepal called Twenty Girls.  These girls had been in the orphanage system for four to 18 years. Having done their research, the foundation was confident that this orphanage was well run and well equipped to support these young women with suitable living quarters, healthy meals and education. All checks were in place to make sure that this was a positive care facility, not one of the poorly run orphanages that were rampant in Nepal, Asia and Africa perpetuating the cycle of abuse to orphaned children. This orphanage needed funds and the Intrepid Foundation stepped in to help.

Not long after this, an orphanage in Uganda reached out to Twenty Girls for support in reorganizing and learning how to better operate. Throughout a long process of auditing, it came to light that many of the children at the Ugandan orphanage still had living parents or relatives. It was discovered that the children had been taken from their homes in various ways.

Around the same time, the girls in the Nepal orphanage had become their own close-knit family. They had begun to open up to one another and they were sharing their stories and feelings from what they remembered, if anything, of their families and their past communities. Some of the girls were having dreams, others had encountered people in Kathmandu, strangers, who seemed to know them.

Eventually one of the young women spoke out to staff at the orphanage in Kathmandu. Despite staff being threatened by organizations and government to stay quiet, they spoke up and began an investigation to learn where these twenty girls had come from.

With few paper records from their past orphanage stays, fading or non-existent memories of their families and often no information about their birth-homes because they were too young to remember anything when they were taken to their first orphanage, it was a struggle to retrace each girl’s history. Not only was it difficult from a paperwork perspective, as you can imagine it was also a delicate situation as the girls were remembering bits and pieces of a life that they believed no longer existed.  Most of them had been in the orphanage system for many years, suffering mental, physical and sexual abuse, living in deplorable conditions and being forced into child labor either at the orphanages or on the streets. For years they had been told they were orphans, that their parents and families no longer existed, that they were alone or unwanted.

Learning that the orphans they were supporting weren’t necessarily orphans, put the Intrepid Foundation in an awkward spot. They couldn’t simply pull their support and see these girls without funding or send them back into the corrupt orphanage system, but yet they couldn’t continue to support an orphanage where the children were victims of orphanage trafficking.

A large audit and investigation began into the operation of the orphanage, where the girls came from and what was really happening. Little by little, with funding from the Intrepid Foundation, cooperation from the Nepali Government and the incredible efforts of child welfare and social workers, the stories began to be revealed and families of these ‘orphaned’ girls were slowly, but surely being found. In the end, 18 of the 20 girls from this orphanage were reunited with their families after many years apart.

Through all of this, a new organization was born, called Forget Me Not. This new organization would never again operate as an orphanage, but instead would focus on child welfare and reunification of families.

At Forget me Not, they proudly have a Change Makers Squad made up of five teens and young adults who were part of the orphanage system, four girls from the original Twenty Girls and one young man who spent several years in orphanages. These young Change Makers are bravely sharing their stories, spreading the word, educating their communities, raising money and standing up to governments, pressuring them to make changes to child welfare acts and to shut down improperly run orphanages.

Each of the change makers stood in front of us to tell us their role in the squad and their dreams for their future. Anisha, only about 17 years old, shared part of her story and brought me to tears.

Anisha and her sisters were taken to an orphanage when she was very young. Her dad had decided to give her and her sisters up and paid for them to have a ‘better life’, because in reality, he had wanted boys, not girls. Boys were perceived as more valuable in society.

Her parents had paid a handler to give them a better education and better life. The parents were tricked, as millions are, into trafficking their children to the orphanage system. While the parents believed they were doing something good for their daughters, as soon as they were out of sight, the children were taken hundreds of miles away and placed in illegal orphanages where physical, mental and sexual abuse (still, today) run rampant. They lived in unclean conditions with little access to food or water and many children are forced into child labor or the sex trade.

It’s easy for us to judge and say ‘don’t give your kids to strangers’, but it can be compared to paying for your kids to go to boarding school. Traffickers are well-dressed, educated, well-spoken and professional. They are friendly and seem trustworthy. They are offering a better education and better life for these children. It is a professional operation. It’s easy to fall for their charm, but never an easy decision for parents to give their children up.

It’s easy to place blame on the parents, but let’s get real for a minute and talk about you and I, as tourists, and how this is our fault too. Unknowingly, tourists are helping grow the orphanage trafficking trade. The more donations that orphanages receive, the more orphanages open and traffickers need children to fill the beds. Children are being stolen from the streets and lured from their parents with promises of a better future. The money tourists donate to orphanages rarely trickles down to the children that it was meant to help. Instead, it just creates more demand from the traffickers who keep getting richer. It’s heartbreaking. We are part of the problem and we can be part of the solution!

Children from these illegal orphanages are also being sent into the streets to beg for money from tourists, never keeping a penny for themselves, for fear of further abuse. While it is so very hard not to give a begging child money, I can’t stress enough the importance of this in breaking the cycle. The only way for these children to get off the streets is if there is no money for them to earn there. We must stop giving money to children on the streets immediately. The traffickers have money to take care of the children, they are choosing not to. When you give money to a child on the streets, you are not helping to feed that child, you are helping continue the cycle of orphanage trafficking. Let this sink in.

After moving between orphanages, each of Anisha’s sisters were eventually adopted by two foreign families. Anisha continued to be moved from orphanage to orphanage until she was taken to the Twenty Girls orphanage, supported by the Intrepid Foundation, where she found a sisterhood of 19 other girls. The girls became family and began to talk about their dreams and memories.

Eventually one brave girl spoke up about her memories and despite the controversy, an investigation was started in to the history of each of the girls at the orphanage. Where did they come from and were they indeed orphans with no parents?

Most of the girls remembered very little of being taken from their homes as they were so young. They didn’t remember their parent’s names or their communities. It took considerable support from the Intrepid Foundation, social services and the Nepali Government to reunite 18 of the 20 girls with their immediate family members.

Anisha was reunited with her mom, dad and younger brothers whom she had never met. She also reunited with each of her sisters who were adopted and currently live abroad.

If hearing her tell the story of her difficult life, and the emotional rollercoaster of reuniting with her long lost family wasn’t enough … just one year after they were reunited, her dad fell ill and passed away. She choked up a little as she explained that she never got to tell him how she felt.

Not a year after her dad’s passing, her mom also passed away, now leaving her and her two brothers orphaned, with no able relatives to care for them. This time she was truly an orphan. Being underage and not able to legally care for her brothers, they were placed in a legal orphanage in Kathmandu, where she can visit them regularly while she continues to finish high school.

Anisha bravely told us not only her story, but her dreams of becoming a lawyer and reuniting with her brothers to all live in one house as a family, when she is able to support them.

My heart absolutely explodes with heartbreak and admiration for this strong girl who has endured so much emotional turmoil in her short life, yet presses forward to pursue her dreams and take care of her younger brothers.

The Intrepid Foundation supports the vision of Forget me Not to fund the long and arduous process of tracking children’s families and reuniting them when possible. This means supporting the Change Makers’ efforts to raise awareness, educate the public and influence change. It also supports the counselling services needed for the children while they are dealing with the emotional turmoil that trafficking has created. While research and hard work isn’t very sexy or instagram-worthy, it is the right thing to do and drives Intrepid’s mission, through their entire business, of Purpose Beyond Profit.

The visit to Forget me Not is a day that is etched into my heart. It has inspired me to look for ways to give back and to never underestimate the power that travel has to change lives; mine, my client’s and that of the communities we visit.

Each year I choose a travel charity to donate to instead of sending Christmas cards to my clients. I feel the money is better spent making a difference in the lives of women and children around the world rather than paper and stamps in Canada. In 2019, I donated to Forget Me Not.

If this story has touched your heart, you can contribute through the Intrepid Foundation where every dollar you donate is matched (up to $600 000 AUD / year) and 100% of the funds go directly to the organization as admin fees are covered by Intrepid.

NOTE: This post is not sponsored. Views and opinions are my own. While I talk about Intrepid Travel and the Intrepid Foundation, it is not because they have asked or paid me to do so. It is because they are a company that I whole heartedly support for the way they are making positive change in the Tourism Industry and the communities we, as travellers, want to visit.

If you are interested in making a positive impact when you travel, doing the right thing, all while having a great trip, I would love to help you book your next adventure! I can be reached at 902 402 7646 or by email.

Nepal – Not just for trekkers – Part 1 – Kathmandu

As a travel agent for the past few years I’ve chosen a career that not only allows me to make other people’s travel dreams come true, it also affords me the opportunity to see the world, and more important than everything an education far beyond what you can learn from hearing or reading it in a book. I get to choose when and where I go, how I see the world and I regularly remind myself to do so with open arms and an open mind. On occasion, I’m also rewarded with invitations to join exclusive travel-agent trips to experience a style of travel or a specific destination.

Sometimes though, I make assumptions and mistakes too. Despite all of the knowledge I have about geography, cultures and travel in general, sometimes I fall prey to stereotypes and misconceptions as well.

While I know in my mind that Nepal is a diverse country, I’ve only known people to travel to Nepal who want to trek to Everest base camp or who have lived in Kathmandu for work or volunteer purposes. While I know there are mountains and valleys, big cities and remote villages, Everest (and trekking) was still the only thing I could think of to ‘do’ in Nepal. Now, having spent 10 days in this unique, beautiful and welcoming country, I have experienced that Nepal is so much more than Everest. It’s not just for trekkers! Believe me, a trekker I am not.

I assumed that Kathmandu would be a large, hectic city. I had expectations that traffic would be bad, but having just arrived from Delhi, it couldn’t be THAT bad, right?

There are 29 million people in Nepal and one million live in the capital of Kathmandu. When you have that many people in a city, it is simply a given that the streets will be packed. There were cars and buses, motorbikes, people, dogs and the occasional cow wandering through the streets. Traffic moved at a snail’s pace and came to a stand still regularly. While motorcycles zipped in between traffic and people meandered in all directions, cars and buses simply couldn’t maneuver effectively around each other, many times because motorbikes had crammed themselves in the tiny spaces between autos. I had just seen this in Delhi, India; the traffic was the worst I had ever encountered.

Nepal was somehow different though. Almost instantly you realize that Nepalis are patient and kind. They beep to communicate rather than out of anger. They are careful not to run over dogs and pedestrians. They don’t road rage, yell or get frustrated, they just move forward little by little. This is vastly different from what I experienced in Delhi and was quite a welcome change from feeling like people in traffic hated everything, to people in traffic that was just part of their daily commute.

It took about an hour from the airport to my hotel, a total of 6.2 kms. Yes, you read that right. And so began this beautiful adventure into the patient chaos of Kathmandu.

Inside the city centre in the district of Thamel, the streets are narrow and winding and the buildings tall, blocking most of the sunlight from getting down to street level. Cars bump and crawl along in both directions, often on a street made for one vehicle, likely a horse and cart, after all the city was built over 1000 years ago.

Thamel is a hot spot for tourists, offering various types of accommodation, all of the services you need from ATMs to restaurants, souvenirs to top-quality trekking gear. It’s easy enough to get around here on your own if you have a good sense of direction and don’t mind getting lost in the winding streets without posted names. You can spend hours meandering through the narrow streets filled with prayer flags, decorative lights and (mostly) helpful storefront staff.

I was pleasantly surprised that once inside my hotel, on the other side of the lobby was a delightful courtyard garden. Other than the occasional car horn, you could completely forget about the chaos just 100 meters away. It was tranquil and just what I needed after the disorganization of the airport and the chaos of the traffic. It was a little reprieve from the real world outside. It was a moment of silence in an otherwise boisterous world.

That evening, I met with my travel group of six travel agents from Canada and the USA, two Intrepid Staff from the Toronto office, our local Guide and Geoff Manchester, co-founder of the Intrepid Travel Group from Australia who would be traveling with us for the next 10 days, which I must admit was an incredible opportunity.  Together, we would be enjoying the Experience Nepal itinerary, although ours ran backwards to the normal tour as it was a special departure date, rather than a regularly scheduled one.

First up for us was a day exploring Kathmandu and getting familiar with Buddhist culture. We headed off through the narrow, chaotic streets to the beautiful Boudhanath Stupa, best known and most important pilgrimage for Buddhists around the world and is a safe place for Tibetans to practice their religion freely. Many have immigrated to this area as they were ostracized from their own country.


The Stupa and surroundings are a large, circular complex surrounded by historic buildings, temples, monasteries and now, a variety of souvenir shops. Marked by the famous Buddha eyes on all four sides of the temple, we were reminded that Buddha is always watching and encouraging us to make the right choices. Locals and tourists alike wander clockwise around the complex spinning hundreds of prayer wheels that line the outside of the building. It is said that those who fully circle the complex with a pure heart create good karma, resulting in the fulfillment of all their wishes. Whether you believe in it or not, isn’t it nice to think that pure hearts and good karma exist in this world?

As we made our way around looking at the different prayer wheels and sculptures, we stopped to visit the Tibetan monastery (Guru Lhakhang Gompa), an important place of worship for pilgrims and visited inside to view the intricate design. No photos allowed inside.


On our way back to our hotel in Thamel we walked through Kathmandu’s Durbar square. Sadly, it was heavily damaged in the earthquake of 2015, reducing many of the centuries old buildings to ruble. Today, under Unesco supervision, many of the buildings are being reconstructed to their former glory, but the process is slow both from a construction aspect and I’m sure, due to the strict regulations of Unesco to ensure it is rebuilt the same as it was. Most of the buildings are covered with scaffolding, so I didn’t take photos, but peeking through the construction you could see the former beauty of the intricately carved wooden buildings. 3 – 5 years from now, there’s no doubt they’ll be returned to their former glory.


We also visited the Kumari’s palace. The story goes that Goddess Taleju  appeared to the king each night in human form to discuss important matters. If any other person saw her in human form, she would no longer appear. One night, the King’s wife followed him curiously as he stepped out every night after she went to bed. As she peered around the corner she saw Goddess Taleju in her human form. The Goddess was furious and instantly knew she had been seen. She disappeared forever from the King’s Palace. Later, she sent word to the King that in order to continue to worship her and partake in her guidance, the community would need to select a child to carry her spirit. This child would be the Kumari. This young child, pre-menstration, is chosen based on specific physical attributes (long dark hair, dark eyes, long fingers, unblemished or unscarred skin), as well as personality characteristics of fearlessness. She must never have lost a drop of blood from her body or she will be considered impure. It is believed that Goddess Taleju lives inside her and worshiping her provides power and protection. Still today, the Kumari lives in the palace and appears to the people to be worshipped, randomly, providing good fortune to those who lay eyes on her. On special occasions (13 times per year) she leaves the palace in a chariot pulled by many men and she is worshipped in the streets.

The current Kumari was chosen in 2017 at just three years old. We visited her palace in Kathmandu’s Durbar square and with good fortune, she appeared while we were inside. Before she was seen, the guards demanded silence and no photos. All cameras had to be set aside and they watched like hawks to ensure no one took photos. A young girl, just five years old, appeared for about one minute to be worshipped. The crowd stood in silence and then she was gone.

It’s hard to believe this ancient tradition is still upheld and we heard from our guide that child right activists are fighting to change the ancient tradition. They have made progress as the current Kumari has teachers who come to give her schooling. She has access to internet, books and magazines. Her parents are allowed to visit and she has playmates, the children of her caregivers. Otherwise she is not allowed to leave the palace except for the 13 special occasions throughout the year when she is worshipped publicly. There is pressure to end the tradition, but as it has been happening for so many years, it will take many years for the tradition to be abolished. It is hoped that this Kumari will be the final one of the tradition, once she is dethroned when menstruation starts and returns to peasant life with her family. Of course, she’ll never be a true ‘peasant’, as her family is compensated substantially during her reign as goddess and continuing through her life.

As you can see, Kathmandu has a lot to offer for tourists interested in culture, religion and history. Along with the locations mentioned above, you can also visit the Monkey temple, the Garden of Dreams, Pashupatinath Temple (Hindu), shop for incredibly cheap souvenirs in the markets or you can give back and make a positive impact by visiting and supporting social enterprises such as Seven Women Kathmandu by taking a crafting or cooking class.

You’ll need to be comfortable walking in busy streets, have an open mind for new religious beliefs and patience for the chaos. With that in mind you’ll likely feel as if you’ve stepped back hundreds of years in time and you’ll be won over quickly by the warm, friendly people, their incredible history and beliefs, different from your own.

If you’d like to visit Nepal I highly recommend considering a small group tour. I enjoy traveling this way because it gives me a chance to meet new people from around the world, share travel stories and bond over random adventures in new places. It also gives me a sense of safety and takes a load off my mind as activities are organized and I just have to follow along rather than plan and lead things! It’s much more relaxing to enjoy the best a country has to offer with the guidance of a local guide, rather than having to figure out each of your next moves on your own!

Take a look at the details of the Experience Nepal itinerary that I did with Intrepid Travel. I’d love to help you visit this amazing part our of world for a different view, with a company that not only gives you a great vacation experience, but also proudly supports women’s rights, animal rights, sustainable tourism, fair wages and giving back to the local communities.

You can contact me by phone at 902 402 7646 or email.

Want more? Check out Part 2 – River Rafting and Part 3 – Kathmandu Valley.