The Chuna Devi School is located in the once picturesque village of Maha Manjushree, in the hills above Bhaktapur. While not totally decimated as other areas were, most houses sustained considerable damage and all of the girls there in STOP Girl Trafficking and their families are still sleeping outside under tarps.
The girls shared their stories of where they were during the two quakes and what has happened to them since. Miraculously, none of their family died or was seriously injured. Most of the girls were able to recover some of their belongings—clothes, books, school bags—from their homes. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case for Ranita. She was the only girl in the group who was not in her school uniform. It is buried under the rubble of her home which collapsed completely. She cried while telling us, and it brought tears to her mother and a few other girls as well. She was quickly comforted by our local volunteer, Sano Baba, who explained that we would look after her and find her a new uniform.
Raju Dhungana, a teacher at the school, told me he and another teacher had just completed a week-long intensive course in psycho-social counselling. They were tasked with observing the children and offering support when needed.
“For the first week at least, there will be no formal lessons. The students will attend school for only a few hours a day where they can play, sing and dance, talk about their experiences and, by doing so, try to remove some of their fear. The first stage is to offer them some distraction from what has happened over the past month.” Raju told me.
In a stroke of good fortune government engineers, after a thorough inspection, stuck a large green notice on the school walls: the building was deemed strong enough to be occupied again.
“Because of STOP Girl Trafficking, I have made it to grade 10, and they have helped me regain my confidence and will help me become independent. It is difficult for me to express the emotions I feel for them.” - Manju
Manju is 17 years old. Eleven years ago her father died while working in India. Her family never learned the circumstances of his death—murder wasn’t ruled out as a possibility. His brother, Manju’s uncle, brought her to India. Having no daughters himself, he claimed he would treat Manju as his own child.
Manju wanted to go to school, but she was unable to speak the language and forced to quit after a couple days. Instead of school, she labored all day doing house work, washing dishes, and carrying water for her uncle and his tenants. Both her uncle and the tenants were abusive—they beat her and kept her in a small, dark room. When her mother’s family called, they were told she wasn’t available.
After seven months, her mother’s brother suspected mistreatment and went to India to find her. Seeing the cigarette burns on her hands, he knew he needed to bring Manju home immediately.
STOP Girl Trafficking (SGT) staff found her in grade 6, encouraged her to return to school, and started supporting her from grade 7. But within a couple years after returning from India, Manju’s throat began to swell, she had trouble eating solid food and she lost her voice, likely connected to the trauma she had experienced. Staying in school had become too difficult, until SGT staff checked in on her.
They brought her to their office in Kathmandu, where she spent three months in intensive voice therapy—something that would have been impossible without SGT’s support. Her voice is raspy, but she can speak and eat again without discomfort. Manju, now in grade 10, is happy and proud to be back in school.
Oh, and did I mention that she’s also a poet?
I recently sat in on an inspiring mothers’ group meeting in far west Nepal, organized by Stop Girl Trafficking graduates.
The village this group was in is caste-divided and, until recently, Dalit (untouchable) children were not able to go school at all. Last time AHF was out there, gender and caste discrimination were rampant and the Dalit women in the mothers’ group were too intimidated to speak much or make eye contact.
Not the case this time.
From the very first question, the women burst into lively discussion, openly talking about the tough realities of their lives – from the problems that come with early marriage and childbirth, to superstition and abusive husbands. None of the mothers had attended school, and they were all adamant that their daughters’ lives would be different, and better than theirs.
They very much value the mothers group and the changes it has brought. Basic literacy classes have taught many to write their names, and they have gained the confidence to stand up to their husbands and have a more equal voice in household decisions. And the men have taken note and started to give them more respect.
When asked if their daughters have friends from different castes, the response was a unanimous, “Of course!” According to their mothers, girls from different castes socialize, go to each other’s houses, eat together, and even drink water together – forbidden when they were young. They made it clear that the next generation of girls in their community is at the wheel, driving all this positive change.
There is still a lot of work to do in Nepal’s far west, still many girls with unsure futures because of caste and gender discrimination. But there is progress, and here is proof of just how quickly educating girls can become a catalyst to change.
This young girl is part of our Stop Girl Trafficking partnership. She’s one of 10,500 girls in 519 schools across Nepal who’s no longer at terrible risk of being sold, forced into slavery or child marriage. What will her life be like after graduation?
We have been sending at-risk girls to school long enough now that we are seeing many of them finish and graduate – and that’s very exciting. So I was curious to spend time with some of the new grads and girls in their last year. They came into Kathmandu by bus from all around and we gathered for a few hours to drink tea, eat sweets (very important!) and talk about their lives.
I was knocked out by their knowledge and their confidence. They were not afraid to speak up, they knew the fate they had avoided and they were volubly thankful. About half wanted to teach, to turn their education into something that could help other girls; some wanted to be nurses; and a surprising number would opt for being entrepreneurs if they could manage it. It was interesting to hear their hopes and dreams, and what the shadows were in their lives.
Their lives are still not easy. But they have skills and they are not afraid of the future. They understand that, as almost always the first generation of girls in their villages to be educated, they are at the leading edge of change for women in Nepal. And they take that responsibility, and that chance, seriously.
Life started out hard for Rekha and her sister Shanti. Their father died soon after Shanti was born and their mother abandoned both girls shortly after that. Fortunately, their grandmother took them in and, despite her own scant means, enrolled them in the local government school. However, when Rekha reached grade six and Shanti grade four, the money ran out. It was at this point their lives diverged. Rekha started working as a farmhand and paid her own way through middle school. Shanti dropped out and an aunt took her to Kathmandu to work as a domestic servant, where she stayed for seven years. Rekha came to our attention when she entered eighth grade, which in Nepal has the highest incidence of dropout, and we invited her to join Stop Girl Trafficking.
“The support came as a huge relief – I was able to continue school despite my financial circumstances,” Rekha wrote me after we met during my recent visit to Makwanpur. “I attended school every morning and worked the day shift afterwards. And I still managed to come first in my class in grade eleven, and second in grade twelve!”
Meanwhile, Shanti returned to Makwanpur and worked as a cook. Two years later, at age fifteen, she got married. Married life is not what she expected it to be. Her husband’s family is very poor and at nineteen she already has two children. As Rekha told me, “she is not too happy.”
After graduation, Rekha enrolled herself in college and went through a training program to teach groups of girls about family planning and violence against women. She completed the program and a friend suggested she start volunteering for SGT in her spare time. Six months later, impressed with her work ethic and intelligence, we put her on staff. Rekha is now a college senior studying education and, along with two other staff members, she manages over 1,000 girls and young women from our field office in Makwanpur.
We are so proud to have Rekha on the SGT team!
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