According to legend, St. Nicholas saved three daughters of a poor man from prostitution. Something that still exists today. Gereon Wagener has been fighting for years against the forced prostitution of young girls in Nepal and India.
Interviewer: Mr. Wagener, a trip to the Himalayas in 1997 changed your life. What you saw and experienced there was unimaginable for you until that time. In 2002 you founded the BONO-Direkthilfe with a team from your former scout youth in Bensberg. What is this initiative?
Gereon Wagener (Chairman of the BONO-Direkthilfe e. V.): BONO-Direkthilfe is an organization that fights against human trafficking and forced prostitution of girls and women and stands up for their rights. More than 21 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery. The extent of oppression and exploitation is devastating. Especially children and women are highly affected by it. They are usually lured by false promises of attractive job offers and then forced into prostitution. The human trafficking business is booming and is the third largest source of income for organized crime worldwide, after drugs and arms trafficking. The name "BONO" is derived from the Latin word "bonum", the good. But much more important is the second part of the name, the "direct aid", because we guarantee that our help reaches the people directly. Particularly important is the 100 percent guarantee of our association, with which we guarantee that every donation is used one-to-one for the projects of our partner organizations and our public relations work against human trafficking.
Interviewer: What was the trigger for you to found the BONO direct aid organization??
Wagener: During my first trip to Nepal in November 1997, I came into contact with 14-year-old Jeena, who was already infected with tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV at her young age, at Maiti Nepal, an organization that we still support today. When I asked how such a thing could be possible, I learned from Anuradha Koirala, the founder of the organization, that Jeena had already been forced into prostitution for five years. For me, this went beyond what was imaginable at the time. And I immediately felt that I couldn't just carry on as before – I was working in a management consultancy at the time – but wanted to actively help do something against the inhumane trade in children. Jeena's fate has touched me deeply. Shortly after my return to Germany I founded the initiative "Help for Maiti Nepal" and in 2002 together with Michael Muller-Offermann, a friend and former scout colleague, the BONO-Direkthilfe e.V., which we still run today together with other close friends from youth work and a committed BONO team.
Interviewer: I suspect there are tens of thousands of girls like Jeena in the Asian subcontinent…
Wagener: Every year, up to 15.000 girls trafficked from Nepal to India. The situation is similar in Bangladesh. It is estimated that more than three million girls and women in India live in prostitution. The reality in the red light districts of India, where the girls are trafficked, is cruel and inhuman. Many live in cramped, stuffy and dirty rooms, often without daylight and crammed like animals behind bars. 20 to 30 johns a day are the norm, which for the girls means nothing other than being raped 20 to 30 times a day.
Many girls are injected with hormones to make them more resistant and physically more mature. In addition, the brothel owners take advantage of the girls' fears and put them under prere. For example, if they become pregnant – safe sex with condoms is often not an ie – they either force them to have an abortion, which often happens without medical support. Or they let the girls, who are often still children themselves, carry their baby to term and then use it as a bargaining chip. At the latest when a mother is blackmailed into accessing her child, all resistance is broken.
Interviewer: What do you mean when you talk about "girls"??
Wagener: Mostly children or young women between 14 and 18 years of age. But often also among them. The youngest girl to be freed was just eight years old. The demand for younger and younger girls is increasing because of the fear of possible infection with HIV/AIDS or other STDs. This means that the pimps can negotiate correspondingly higher prices for these children, who are often sent to the five-star hotels of Indian metropolises. Whoever pays gets delivered – as perfidious as this sounds, it is also inhumane.
The main focus of BONO's direct aid is therefore the prevention of trafficking in girls in the countries of origin. So we support awareness campaigns in remote regions, in schools and factories, where people are informed about the criminal machinations of human traffickers. We support control stations at the border between Nepal and India, where personnel of our partner organization, often women who were once trafficked themselves, search every vehicle for possible victims of human trafficking. In addition, education is a very important topic in order to give affected children and women the chance of an independent and self-determined life.
Interviewer: You have also helped on site yourself. What exactly did you do?
Wagener: I myself lived in Kathmandu from 1999 to 2006 and during this time I was responsible for a number of building projects, such as the construction of a rehabilitation and protection center, an integrative social school with a therapy center for children with disabilities, a clinic and a hospice. We were able to realize all these facilities together with other supporter organizations within our network. The best known of these are the children's missionary organization "Die Sternsinger", BILD hilft e.V. "A Heart for Children" or also the Sonja Kill Foundation from Bergisch Gladbach.
Interviewer: In the project countries, you work together with partner organizations, without which your commitment would probably not work either. Is this approach successful?
Wagener: Yes. We only support partner organizations that we know personally and trust. In this way we guarantee direct and unbureaucratic help. The will and the initiative to stand up for people in their own country is what distinguishes these organizations. This is how local engagement is effective and sustainable.
The successes of our partner organizations are remarkable and prove that our aid is not a drop in the bucket. Since the existence of the BONO direct assistance almost 40.Intercepted 000 girls and women at the border, preventing them from being trafficked, and delivered over 5.600 girls and women to be freed from forced prostitution and the hands of pimps.
Interviewer: How to support your work?
Wagener: Of course donations are very helpful and welcome. But even more important is that our commitment against human trafficking and forced prostitution becomes better known. Therefore, we are especially grateful for people who report about our work in their circle of friends and acquaintances. Anyone who would like to actively campaign against human trafficking can become a member of our organization. In order to secure our work in the long term and sustainably, we established the BONO-Direkthilfe Foundation in 2015. It is clear that the problem of human trafficking will continue to exist in the future and is likely to become even more serious.
It is very important for us to involve the next generation in our work as early as possible. For this purpose, the initiative "BONO-Kids" was founded this year, which develops concrete projects and support possibilities for the young generation. Many think they can't change anything in this world. But the opposite is the case. Each of us can make a contribution to fight injustice and violence. When a girl is abducted, when a young woman is raped, when a person is abused, we cannot remain silent. Our motto is therefore: don't look away, but look; don't hesitate, but act.
Interviewer: Coincidence or not: Your birthday is on St. Nicholas' Day and you grew up in a St. Nicholas parish. Do you have a special relationship with this saint?
Wagener: Besides my parents, my social value structure is certainly significantly influenced by the Boy Scouts and people important to me in my home parish in Bensberg, St. St. Nicholas was coined. I am also very grateful to have met people like Anuradha Koirala, founder of Maiti Nepal, and Triveni Acharya, founder of the Rescue Foundation, another important partner organization of BONO Direct Relief, who have enriched my life in a special way. It is these encounters that make a life worth living – like the one with Jeena over 20 years ago in Kathmandu.
The interview was conducted by Beatrice Tomasetti.
Picture gallery BONO e.V.
Here you can support the work of BONO Direkthilfe!