Education is the only real ticket out of poverty for destitute, disabled, or orphaned children in Nepal. But education in Nepal isn't like it is in Western countries. Imagine not even being able to go to school or learn the basic skills needed to participate in society, to get a job, to create a better life for oneself. Without an education, a child in Nepal is destined to lead a life of extreme poverty and backbreaking labor.
An education is the only way to break the bonds of poverty, low caste, and disability. This is especially true of girls, who are often illiterate, married off before they are 14, and spend the rest of their lives bearing children and working endless hours. The literacy rate is very low, especially among women, and there is little assistance available for school expenses.
We are committed to support impoverished children until they are able to stand on their own feet. From the first five college scholarships given personally by NYOF's founder, Olga Murray, to boys from an orphanage in 1985, the number of students in our scholarship program has grown to more than 4,000. In fact, the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation is now one of the largest non-profit providers of scholarships in Nepal.
Why don't many Nepali children go to school? Government schools are often insufficient and the families cannot afford such simple items as the school uniform, supplies, and the small school fee. Private schools cost more than most families can afford. Often the family needs the money the child can earn by working. Abandoned children, of course, are forced to beg instead of study. Where schools do exist, there are often few trained teachers.
NYOF makes education possible for Nepalese children who have no other hope. We currently give scholarships to students from kindergarten through medical school.
Sumitra – who sold herself into slavery for an education
Most of you know about our Indentured Daughters Program, which liberates girls (some as young as five) from bonded labor. These little girls are sold by their parents to a labor contractor (for an average of $50 a year), who places them with families in far-off cities as domestic servants. Many suffer terrible abuses – beatings, back-breaking labor, sexual abuse.
A few months ago, our staff working in the area conducted in-depth interviews with some of the girls we have liberated. I was appalled at the things we learned. Here is just one of many stories: Get out your hanky.
Bonded at age five
Sumitra (not her real name) was sold by her parents when she was just five years old to work for a family in another district, and her younger sister was bonded to the same family a couple of years later. The girls were physically and verbally abused by the entire family. They slept on the floor on a rush mat, with only a thin sheet as a blanket, even during the coldest season. They were fed scraps of food and suffered constant contempt from the family they worked for because they were considered to be of a lower caste. The children tolerated the situation for seven long years until they could bear it no longer, and decided to run away, back home to their parents.
Their parents were not very pleased at their daughters’ return, for they were fearful that the employer would demand they give back the money they had already received as payment for the girls’ labor for a year. Nevertheless, they were allowed to live at home for a while.
Then Sumitra’s parents sold her again, this time to a joint family, consisting of a couple, their married children, and their spouses. The wife beat Sumitra mercilessly, and when the husband tried to intervene, the wife became jealous and the beatings became even more brutal. The adult children began to tease her and call her their stepmother, and the villagers picked up on the taunt. Although it is illegal to have more than one wife in Nepal, in rural areas it is not uncommon for a man to marry two or even three women, often much younger than the first wife. So the ridicule contained an implied threat that she would indeed be married off to the father, a man in his 60s. After suffering under these conditions for a few years, she again ran back home.
This time, her parents not only refused to send her to school, but wanted to arrange a marriage for her so that they could be relieved of the burden of supporting her.
Sumitra is an exceptional girl. Her desire for an education is the central goal of her life. She bravely resisted her parents’ attempt to marry her off (she was only 13 or 14 years old), and, instead, decided on a bold move which would relieve her parents of the burden of supporting her and at the same time fulfill her intense desire to go to school: she offered to work without wages for an employer who would enroll her in school. A family came forward that accepted the offer, and she went off to work for them. However, they did not keep their promise. They refused to enroll her in school, but she finished her work as quickly as she could and sat in on classes at the local school.
As it happened, the family lived in the Dang District, the area where NYOF has been working since 2000 to eradicate the bonding custom. One day, Sumitra met a group of girls who had been previously liberated from bonded labor by NYOF. She told them her story, and they knew just what to do. Our office was nearby, and they marched over and told Man Bahadur, our manager of the Indentured Daughters Program, about Sumitra.
Man Bahadur spoke with Sumitra, who said she wanted to go home. Throughout their conversation, she burst into tears whenever she talked about her past. He then went to the employer’s house and gave him a choice: He could either release Sumitra from her labors on the spot, or Man Bahadur would call the police. The bonding practice is illegal in Nepal, but persists because of poverty and local custom, so that was a real threat. We have an excellent relationship with the local authorities, who have pledged to assist us in our liberation efforts. Of course, the employer chose the first alternative.
A happy ending
Man Bahadur and some volunteers returned with Sumitra to her home in the Bardiya District. Her mother was not too pleased about her return because, she said, they did not have enough to eat even without Sumitra’s presence in the family. But our staff spoke with her at length and convinced her that she was damaging her daughters by bonding them away. The family received a baby goat to make up for her lost wages, and they signed with a fingerprint an agreement to keep Sumitra at home and in school.
NYOF will support her education through high school, and the NYOF staff continues to monitor her situation. Last year, NYOF extended its liberation program to the Bardiya District, and Sumitra is one of the most active and committed of the returned girls who are helping us to eradicate the bonding custom in Bardiya. She acts in street plays to bring awareness to other girls and their families about the dangers of selling children into servitude.
NYOF has had an interesting spring. In April, PBS aired a documentary on the program NOW about our project to free young girls from indentured servitude in west Nepal. They sent over an observant and savvy crew from New York, which did an excellent job in explaining and describing the terrible practice of indenturing young girls as servants. I know that many of you saw the program (if you did not, you can find it at http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/414/video.html). I thought you might be interested in some “behind-the-scenes” events during the filming. The program included the story of Sushila, an 11 year old girl we rescued on camera from her job as a bonded servant, but what went on behind the scenes was just as interesting.
Sushila had been indentured by her father to work as a servant for a family in Kathmandu. Neither she nor her father received any compensation for her services, but the indenturing family promised to provide room and board and send her to school; to their credit, they did so. The PBS crew went to Sushila’s home village, where they met the woman who was her employer. She had come to fetch Sushila to return to work for a third year. The employer could have been assigned the role by central casting, so perfectly did she fit it. She vehemently denied that she employed a child servant and went sashaying off down the road, angry at the suggestion. Of course, she returned later, packed up Sushila, and brought her to resume work in Kathmandu.
We contacted Sushila’s father and asked if he would allow her to return home, in exchange for which NYOF would provide the family with a piglet or a goat, which they could sell at the end of the year for a profit. In addition, we offered to give her a scholarship to attend school, as we do to for every rescued girl. He agreed, and took the 10 hour bus ride into Kathmandu, where Raju, a member of our staff, met him. Raju had called the employer in advance to tell her about the purpose of their impending visit. But when they arrived at the home where Sushila was working, the employer was not at home. This is where one of the two best scenes in the program occurs – Sushila was called out of the house, saw her father, and was puzzled at first by his presence. But when she learned why he was there, she broke into one of the brightest smiles that ever graced a screen.
The employer arrived a few minutes later, accompanied by a posse of relatives, and a royal row ensued between Raju and the employer and her relatives. Only a few seconds of the argument is in the film. They objected to the cameras, and demanded to know why Raju was picking on them, since Nepal is full of child laborers. Raju replied that we had not singled them out, that we had rescued 3500 girls in Sushila’s position, and that they must know child labor is illegal in Nepal. He demanded that she be allowed to go home with her father.
The dispute lasted more than an hour, during which tears coursed down Sushila’s face as the adults around her squabbled about her fate. “You see,” said the posse, “she is crying because she loves it here and doesn’t want to leave.” Her father said not a word – he is a poor, uneducated man, and in some aspects Nepal is still a feudal society. It would be unthinkable for him to argue with these rich and educated people, not even in defense of his daughter.
Sushila was finally allowed to depart with her father and Raju. On their way to the bus station to return to their village, they stopped for a bite to eat, and Raju said Sushila could not stop smiling. Then came the other priceless scene: Sushila is on the bus with her father, and when she is asked what she will do now, she says “I’m going to go to school, and I will play, and do work in my own home.” In that order! There’s a child who knows what’s important in her life!
Sushila’s story is far from the worst among the children who are bonded away. Many of these little girls are severely abused, since their working conditions are entirely at the discretion of their employers and no one checks to see how they are treated. At least, Sushila was allowed to attend school – a privilege which few of the bonded girls enjoy.
We are on a crusade to rescue all these children and eradicate the bonding custom in Nepal. If you would like to help, what better time to do it than now – as a Mother’s Day gift. For $100, you can bring a girl home to live with her family, buy a piglet or a baby goat to compensate them, pay her school expenses for a year and support our terrific awareness program to turn the community against the well-established bonding practice -all in your mother’s name. We will tell her about your gift if you give us her address.
If you would like a copy of the program on DVD, we will send one to you free of charge.