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Horrifying story, far-off land -- but an O.C. professor refuses to let it go

It started off, like a lot of amazing things do, as something totally different than what it became.

In the beginning, the trip Cal State Fullerton professor Jeffrey Kottler took six years ago to a remote area of Nepal was merely a research project with a doctoral student studying maternal mortality. For Kottler, the trip afforded both a chance to supervise the student and, not incidentally, visit an exotic part of the world.

What he found jarred him.

New mothers who might well die in a pool of blood in a barn because no one in a village would go to another town to get help.

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He found that local custom put such decisions in the hands of the woman’s mother-in-law, who might well prefer that her daughter-in-law die from a difficult pregnancy because it would allow her son to marry a presumably stronger woman for future children.

Not even that was the worst of it, however.

Kottler also discovered that young girls, maybe 10 to 12 years old, simply disappeared from the village. “I started investigating what was going on,” he says, “and what I learned was that sex slavers were coming from northern India and either stealing the girls, or in many cases the families were selling the girls because they couldn’t afford to feed them.”

We’d all be appalled by that, especially because part of the ostensible rationale is that some in India believed that having sex with a virgin would prevent AIDS in men who already were HIV-positive.

Not all of us would do anything about it, however. Especially if we were returning to the comforts of Huntington Beach, as Kottler was.

The man, however, apparently is bred from good stock. “I found this so horrifying,” he says. “I had never heard anything so awful in my life. There were literally tears in my eyes when I heard this story. I said to Kieran [his grad student], ‘We have to do something about this.’ ”

They asked the village school principal to identify one girl who was both bright and from the lowest economic class and, therefore, at risk of being sold. He identified a girl named Inu. “I peeled off two 20s and a 10 and gave it to the principal,” Kottler says, “and I said, ‘This keeps her in school for a year.’ ”

That’s how it started. Kottler has returned each year since. He and Kieran Regmi set up the Medhav Ghimire Foundation, named after Kieran’s father, who also happens to be Nepal’s poet laureate.

On his second visit, Kottler added three girls to the list. As of this year, donations from a circle of friends and others have spared 42 girls from being sold, Kottler says.

In the third year, the strategy shifted slightly. Rather than just give money to the principal, Kottler and his team visited the girls’ homes and had a bit of a ceremony.

He took Polaroids of the girls, some of whom had never seen a photo of themselves, and told villagers that the girls were honorees. That way, he says, peer pressure would help ensure that the girls remained in school.

In addition, Kieran, who is one of the country’s few women physicians, lives close enough to the village that she can vouch that the money goes to the girls’ education. A philanthropist from a nearby town also helps monitor things.

I ask Kottler what it costs to keep a 12-year-old girl, for example, in school until she graduates from high school. “Maybe $300,” he says.

It’s all insanity, of course. That people are that vulnerable. That we live the way we do while people elsewhere surrender their children to sex traders or, in the more charitable view, to people who say they’ll find work for their young children in India to save them from starvation.

The village Kottler visited the first year had about 200 people. He doesn’t think they’d ever had visitors. They didn’t know where America was.

The typical house backed against a field, and it was common for an animal to be tethered to the back wall.

Children are barefoot and eat one meal a day of rice and watery lentil-type soup. It’s a place where a father can be killed by a tiger.

But it’s not what you might think. By the second year’s visit, Kottler wanted Americans to visit the village, rather than simply write him a check.

“It’s not just about changing lives in Nepal,” he says. “I want the girls to change the lives of people here. Despite their poverty, they’re happy, they always have a smile on their face, they’re grateful to be alive.”

He can’t help but contrast that with what he sees here. “I come back to Orange County, where we’re so focused on acquisitions and buying and owning things, and so many people are unhappy no matter what they covet or want,” Kottler says.

Kottler will make his next trip later this year. The last visit, a couple months ago, included a special moment. Inu, now 18, has graduated from high school and wants to go to college and become a university professor.

At a ceremony, she thanked her patrons for their help.

“She gave a speech in halting English,” Kottler says, “and I was sobbing uncontrollably. Here was this now young woman who I’d met as a girl who not only survived but flourished and was talking about gratitude and what she intends to do with her life. It was one of the most powerful moments of my life.”

Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana. parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.


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