Madhesh struggles with rising cases of missing children

A majority of missing person complaints are about children aged between 10 and 17 years, said police.

Shiva Puri

Shiva Puri

The Kathmandu Post


Tetari Mahato wipes her tears while talking about her missing daughter, at their home in Garuda Municipality in Rautahat last month. PHOTO: THE KATHMANDU POST

August 16, 2023

KATHMANDU – Ever since her nine-year-old daughter went missing four months ago, Tetari Kumari Mahato has been having sleepless nights.

The 35-year-old mother, a resident of ward 6 of Garuda Municipality, has been eagerly waiting for any news about her daughter, who went missing on May 3.

It was noon and Tetari had been catching a nap while her daughter was out playing with her friends.

“My husband had gone to the market,” she said. “When I woke up, I didn’t see my daughter in the house, but I didn’t go looking for her because it was still early and I thought she would be back by dinnertime.”

But the girl did not return. The next day, the family filed a missing person’s complaint with the police’s Women and Children’s Service Centre. Terari’s husband, Ram Prabesh Mahato, visited their relatives’ homes looking for his daughter.

The father of six also advertised at the local radio station, but has yet to hear any news about her.

Basanti Sah, social manager at the Rural Development Centre, a local non-governmental organisation, says that this is the first time anyone from the village has gone missing.

The incident has left the entire village in a state of shock.

The family members have left no stone unturned—they even sought help from local shamans and priests—to find out about the whereabouts of their daughter.

“The priest said that she has moved southwards, so we looked for her in the settlements south of our village for a week,” said Tetari. “Following the shaman’s advice, we even sacrificed a billy goat for her safe return, but it’s been four months and holding onto hope has been challenging.”

Since the daughter went missing, their lives haven’t been the same, says Ram Prabesh. “I am a daily wage worker. I haven’t been able to go to work regularly and this has affected my income. All my efforts are currently invested in finding our daughter,” he said.

Bilas Das, a local of Chandiya in Rajdevi Municipality-3, was displaced after floods swept away his house in 1993. Since then he has been living in a temporary shelter. Living a life of poverty and resilience, Bilas thought he had the courage to deal with any mishap. But last year his resolve was tested when three members of his family went missing.

On April 2, Das’ three grandchildren—aged one, three, and five—and his daughter-in-law Mina Das suddenly went missing.

That day, Das’s son Randish Das had travelled to Gaur, the district headquarters for work.

His 65-year-old wife Rajani Devi had gone to the neighbour’s field with their 10-year-old granddaughter to watch the wheat harvest. Rajani returned home to an empty house.

“I didn’t think anything was amiss. I assumed that the children had gone out to play,” Rajani said. “We started worrying when they didn’t return even by late evening.”

Randish immediately went looking for his wife and children and continued looking for them for several days to follow. “It’s been four months now and we haven’t had any news of them. I don’t know where else to look for them,” he said.

Randish claims to never have treated his wife badly saying she had no reason to leave him.

“There was no reason for her to leave the house,” he said. “We are poor, but we managed to survive. I was providing for her and our family. I don’t believe she left on her own accord. If she had to leave, she would have left alone. She wouldn’t have taken the children with her.”

Randish visits the police station in Gaur regularly seeking updates on his missing wife and children.

These two instances highlight the cases of disappearance, especially children in Rautahat.

A majority of missing person complaints are about children aged between 10 and 17 years, said police.

A 12-year-old boy has been missing since June 20. Residents of Paroha Municipality-2, the boy’s family has been waiting for their son to come home. According to them, the adolescent had left home to play with his friends in the neighbourhood and hasn’t returned home since.

Mohammad Nasir Kalam, the boy’s uncle, says they even contacted their relatives in India to ask if the boy has visited them since his disappearance. “But they also haven’t heard from him. We have been looking for him everywhere,” he said.

Sandiya Khatun, the boy’s mother, is worried sick about her son. She believes her son was taken from her and that he didn’t just leave. “I wonder who took him and whether he’s been well taken care of. I worry about him every day,” she said.

On June 13, thirteen children were safely rescued from the Indian city of Mumbai and handed over to their family members under the coordination of Community Development and Awareness Nepal. The children were all teenagers working in goods manufacturing plants in Mumbai.

Eighteen-year-old from Bhusaha in Brindaban Municipality-9 who had gone missing on July 29, 2022, was rescued from a bag factory after a year of his disappearance. Among those rescued were also a 16-year-old boy from the same municipality and a 14-year-old boy from Yamunamai Rural Municipality-3.

The 16-year-old had run away from home on January 20, 2022, and reached the Indian city. “He was returned to us 18 months after his disappearance,” his mother Sahina Begum told the Post. “He still hasn’t told us why he left.”

Even the 16-year-old is tight-lipped about the ordeal, although he says that he went to Mumbai with his friends to work. However, he has not yet disclosed who the friends were, police said.

The child helpline Bara in-charge Mukesh Kushwaha shared that 17 children were rescued from different places in India and reunited with their families last fiscal year.

According to Superintendent of Police Bir Bahadur Budhamagar, most children run away from home due to domestic disputes, poverty, and even peer pressure.

“The situation at home is also a major reason for children running away,” Budhamagar said.

According to Budhamagar, they have requested the Indian border security to interrogate unaccompanied children crossing the border and intervene if anything sounds suspicious.

“Since 2019, there have been 458 cases of missing children in Rautahat alone,” Budhamagar said. “Of them, 251 have been found while the rest are still missing.”

“Madhesh province districts are listed under the ‘risk zone’ for missing children,” said Santosh Chandra Adhikari, rescue officer at the National Centre for Children at Risk, a non-profit.

Adhikari says that factors like the open border, lack of awareness, extreme poverty, dispute in the family, and parents who remarry treating their children unkindly are some reasons behind children running away from home.

“As per our reports, the number of missing female children is higher than male children. Girls, after running away, get involved in various jobs in restaurants, bars, massage parlours and carpet factories,” Adhikari said. “Girls between the ages of 13 to 18 are at a higher risk of leaving their homes. They work as labourers elsewhere, without their parent’s knowledge.”

According to Adhikari, in Nepal, 5,826 children went missing in the last fiscal year alone. Among them, records show that 5,150 have returned home while the remaining, 676, are still missing. Of the missing, 296 are from the Madhesh Province. As per the centre’s report, 1,005 of 1,301 missing from the province have been found.

Even with an alarming rise in the number of missing children annually, the Social Welfare Council has not made any significant efforts towards eradicating the problem.

Madhesh Province Chief of Education and Social Welfare Ministry Laxmi Prasad Bhattarai says the responsibility for missing children falls under the jurisdiction of the local unit and the district administration concerned.

“The Ministry has no record of missing children,” Bhattarai said. “We can’t initiate investigations. It is the responsibility of the local units, district authorities and police to tackle the issue.”

Women rights activist Devaki Nepal says there hasn’t been any study to find the reason behind the increasing incidence of children missing in Nepal.

“The organisation has not done any investigation to find the reason behind the problem as of yet,” Nepal said. “We only have discussions about children who have gone missing and whether or not they have been found. No one has made an effort to reach the root of this problem.”

In Rautahat, in the fiscal year 2021-22, twenty-two boys and 77 girls were reported missing. Twelve of the missing boys and 26 girls were found later. From the fiscal year 2015-16 to the fiscal year 2020-21, 359 children went missing out of which 207 were found, according to the data provided by Rautahat District Police Office.

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