Headwaters Relief Organization has long focused on the wellbeing of children following natural disasters, whether they’re within U.S. borders or in far-off countries like the Philippines, Nepal and Liberia. Its latest effort will include the delivery of culturally-specific dolls to children in Nepal, along with an education plan to help stop young girls from falling prey to sex traffickers.

Instances of human trafficking in all of its forms tend to increase in the years following a natural disaster. According to the Centers for Disease Control, residents are often more vulnerable to human traffickers due to the sudden loss of income, their homes, and separation from friends and family after the natural disaster. People may initially consent to work for a perpetrator, though the CDC reports that consent is “rendered meaningless when perpetrators exploit them for labor, services, or commercial sex.”

The United Nations reports that the main forms of trafficking are sexual exploitation, forced labor and the removal of organs. It was estimated that 35,000 people were trafficked in Nepal in 2018, 15,000 of which were women and 5,000 girls.

Empowering a new generation of Nepali
Headwaters was first introduced to Nepal when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country in 2015. In the wake of the disaster, which killed thousands and left hundreds of thousands more homeless, the Golden Valley organization helped train responders and worked with adults and children in Jiri, known as the gateway to Mt. Everest.

After immediate needs were taken care of, the organization pivoted to education and mental wellbeing for children. The organization made picture books designed to help children process and cope with their situations.

Headwaters founder Rebecca Thomley said adults may scoff at the idea of mental health when they are focused needs like food and water, but when it came to their kids, they often felt differently.

“Children play a pivotal role in helping communities rebuild,” she said. “People unite around the care of children, and it doesn’t matter if you have a child or not. People are made to care for their most vulnerable.”

In a country with high rates of underage marriage and low rates of high school graduation, the organization wanted its next project to focus on empowering girls.

In her visits to the country, Thomley said if girls had dolls, they were thoroughly Western: blonde-haired and blue-eyed, usually Barbie dolls.

“I thought it’s such a shame, on many levels, that they didn’t have dolls that looked like themselves,” Thomley said.

From there, Asha was born.

The doll, whose name means “hope,” was designed in cooperation with multicultural dollmaker Positively Perfect. The company, which sells its products to major domestic retailers, had made a name for itself creating “black, brown, mixed and blended” baby and fashion dolls.

Asha is the company’s first South Asian doll, and the first time Positively Perfect’s dolls will be shipped outside of U.S. borders. She has flowing brown hair, a medium skin tone, and a uniform that Thomley said closely matches what children in the region wear to school.

Dr. Roshan Khatri, Headwaters’ medical director and operator at the Jiri Hospital following the earthquake, said there was a lot of beneficial psychology going on beyond Asha’s smiling face.

“A child’s self-esteem has a big impact on how children navigate their world,” said Khatri. “These dolls help the child develop a healthy self-image and support that she can be successful in whatever she wants to do. They encourage the understanding that their individual differences, from the color of their skin to the color of their hair, should be embraced and celebrated.”

Companion to education program
The dolls will be part of a curriculum that encourages young girls to be confident with themselves and their futures. Headwaters hopes the program will give girls the tools to better understand the exploitative nature of human trafficking and to stick with school through graduation. The program will be implemented with support from the communities themselves.

Thomley also hoped that the program and its ideas would reflect not just on young students, but their families and communities, especially since trafficked women are often ostracized by Nepali.

“I hope the community embraces some of this thinking and continues to push forward some of this thinking,” Thomley said.

Headwaters plans to deliver the dolls and begin the program in October.

The project is not yet fully funded and Headwater is asking for support. Dolls may be sponsored for $25 at headwatersrelief.org. Donors may also purchase an Asha doll to keep or gift to a youngster they know.

Thomley said the first orders of dolls arrived recently, and fittingly, the volunteers for the day were young adults. Headwaters was grateful for the youth who stepped up and helped unload the dolls from the delivery truck. The delivery driver was supposed to charge an unloading fee because the organization didn’t have a dock, but was inspired by the showing and mission that they opted to waive it. Thomley said the project is easy to support because its mission is simple.

“Who doesn’t want to live in a world where all beauty is embraced?” she said.