By Rina Chandran

KATHMANDU (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lack of awareness of the law and the social stigma around human trafficking keep many victims in Nepal from approaching the courts, even as the number of such cases being prosecuted is slowly rising, a district court judge said.

Some 8,500 Nepalis are trafficked every year, according to the National Human Rights Commission. Only a few hundred cases come to the courts, Tek Narayan Kunwar said.

"It is a small but still significant number, and an improvement from before," Kunwar, judge at the Chitwan district court in Bharatpur, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"People are still not aware of their rights, or they are too scared to file a police complaint. They are also afraid of the social stigma in the village," he said.

In his court, Kunwar has a help desk for victims, the option to do a video conference, or give in-camera testimony.

Even ensuring that the toilet for women is clean, that there is drinking water, and that the progress of the case is posted on the notice board helps build confidence, he said.

"You have to take care of the little things; they make a big difference to the victim," Kunwar said.

Nepal, both a source and a destination country for forced labor and trafficking, strengthened its anti-trafficking law in 2007. Its implementation remains uneven however, with most victims being women and children from rural areas with limited access to resources and little knowledge of the legal process.

Besides commercial sex work, women are also trafficked for forced marriages and domestic work, with China and South Korea emerging as new destinations in addition to India and the Middle East, the National Human Rights Commission said.

Men are trafficked to India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia to work on construction sites, in hotels and restaurants.

ABUSES

The workers send home vital remittances which make up nearly 30 percent of the country's annual gross domestic product.

Many however, face abuses such as lack of freedom of movement, long working hours, unsafe working conditions and withholding of their salaries, say activists.

"These cases must also be tried as trafficking cases, as we can deal with them quicker," Kunwar said.

"You can't ban people from going abroad to work, but we need to be vigilant and punish those who exploit them," he said.

Nepal "inconsistently implemented" anti-trafficking laws, as many government officials continue to employ a narrow definition of human trafficking, the U.S. Department of State said in its 2016 Trafficking in Persons report.

The Nepali government prosecuted alleged traffickers in 341 cases in the year to July 2015, the report said, taking on the prosecution of cross-border trafficking cases. At the district level, courts convicted 260 traffickers during the fiscal year, compared with 203 traffickers the previous year, it said.

Activists say cases of trafficking increased after twin earthquakes struck Nepal last year in April and May, which killed some 8,800 people and left about 2 million homeless.

Kunwar, who was named the best judge in 2013 by the Judicial Council of Nepal, is credited with introducing several measures to speed up trafficking trials. He has also taken steps to make the process less onerous for victims, ensure stiffer sentences and compensation for victims.

"They have already suffered so much, and they are taking a big step in coming forward. We have to protect and encourage them," he said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)