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The Children’s Love Blanket: Telling the Story of the Fight Against Child Labor


Adrienne Henck | Posted August 26th, 2010 | Uncategorized

While the heavy issue of child labor sat at the heart of my summer work, sometimes the most important issue of the moment was deciding with a young girl:  “Should we use the light blue or the dark blue cloth to create the clouds in that picture?”.  These lighthearted concerns were part of the several weeks I spent visiting Child Friendly Villages and working with over 200 Child Club members to produce two Children’s Love Blankets.  The blankets are advocacy tools which represent a Child Friendly Village’s commitment to end child labor and promote children’s rights, including the right to education.  Most importantly, though, the blankets provide a medium through which Child Friendly Villages can tell their side of the story.

The Concept:  Protecting Nepal’s Children

A freed child laborer in the documentary, The Price of Childhood, produced by 2009 Peace Fellow, Kan Yan, commented, “The worst part about child labor is that we [child laborers] can’t get any love or affection from our families because we are away from them.”  The Children’s Love Blanket represents a Child Friendly Village’s commitment to give that love and affection to their children.  Blankets have a special meaning as a kind of security.  We feel warm and comforted when we are surrounded by a blanket.  In the same way, the village is saying to its children, “Through this blanket we made for you, we are vowing to protect you”.

The Process:  The Making of the Children’s Love Blanket

Along with a BASE staff member, I visited nine Child Friendly Villages.  After the children (and sometimes adult Child Friendly Village Committee members) gathered at the village community center, I explained the purpose of the blanket and asked if they were interested in participating.  Of course, they always said “yes”!   The children then worked in teams to each produce one square of the blanket.

A BASE staff member explains how to make the blanket while displaying an example square.  The picture in this square represents the hope that all children will have a bright and beautiful future.
A BASE staff member explains how to make the blanket while displaying an example square. The picture in this square represents the hope that all children will have a bright and beautiful future.

Here’s what the blanket-making process looked like:

A group discusses which children’s rights message to express in their blanket square.
A group discusses which children’s rights message to express in their blanket square.

A young girl makes a practice drawing.
A young girl makes a practice drawing.

Children choose the solid-colored backing cloth for their blanket square.
Children choose the solid-colored backing cloth for their blanket square.

Scrap salwar kurta cloth was donated by a local tailor.  The children enjoyed choosing the right colors for their pictures from the pile of cloth.
Scrap salwar kurta cloth was donated by a local tailor. The children enjoyed choosing the right colors for their pictures from the pile of cloth.

Next, the children cut the pictures from the scrap cloth…
Next, the children cut the pictures from the scrap cloth…

…and then sewed the pictures onto the square backing using needle and thread.
…and then sewed the pictures onto the square backing using needle and thread.

Once the squares were finished, the children wrote their names, ages and the meaning of their picture on a piece of paper…
Once the squares were finished, the children wrote their names, ages and the meaning of their picture on a piece of paper…

…and finally we took a photo of each of the groups with their masterpiece!
…and finally we took a photo of each of the groups with their masterpiece!

A local tailor sewed the squares together, adding borders and a backing.
A local tailor sewed the squares together, adding borders and a backing.

And here’s the finished Children’s Love Blankets!

BASE staff members proudly hold up the finished Children's Love Blankets.
BASE staff members proudly hold up the finished Children's Love Blankets.

The Continuing Story:  The Blanket as an Advocacy Tool

Ultimately, two blankets were made:  one will stay in Nepal to be used in BASE’s advocacy, and the other will go to America to be used for outreach.  BASE plans to use the blanket to:

- generate awareness about child labor and children’s rights by carrying the blanket in marches, rallies, and protests;

- influence the decisions of parents by taking the blanket when trying to persuade parents of child laborers to bring their children back home; and

- impact national and international policy by bringing the blanket to policy meetings with government officials in Kathmandu, UN members, and other NGOS to help share the story of Child Friendly Villages.

In America, the blanket will travel throughout the country, spreading the story of the Child Friendly Villages.  Events, in which The Price of Childhood will also be screened, are already planned at the Mercy Corps Action Center in New York City and at the University of Maryland. 

I have been touched by my experiences with BASE’s Child Friendly Villages.  Help me to tell their story.

————–

If you are interested in attending or hosting a blanket/documentary event, please contact me.

2 Responses to “The Children’s Love Blanket: Telling the Story of the Fight Against Child Labor”

  1. Cynthia says:

    I wonder if we could have you speak at the Food Coop if and when you decide to take a holiday break and visit NYC. Maybe between semesters? It would have to be planned in advance and I’d be glad to look into it if you decide you’d like to do this.

  2. Adrienne Henck says:

    Cynthia,

    I would love to speak at the Food Coop! Or perhaps even show the film as a part of one of the film nights? I will follow up with you about this.

    Thanks!
    Adrienne

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Children First: BASE’s Approach to Combating Child Labor


Adrienne Henck | Posted August 16th, 2010 | Asia, Uncategorized

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The message of her song was clear:  if we end child labor, all children will have the opportunity to become educated, and Nepal as a nation will prosper.  Or so went the beautiful, self-written song performed by Reka Paudel, 14, at a recent Child Club meeting in Kothari Village.

Though Nepal has recognized child labor as a key human rights issue, the problem still persists.  Local NGOs, international organizations and the government have employed varied tactics to combat the problem.  Some approaches aim to improve the economic livelihood of poor families vulnerable to sending their children to work, while others focus on education.  Many rural villages, though, are combining these approaches through the creation of child friendly spaces. 

Child friendly spaces embody a commitment to protect children, end discrimination against them and support their basic the human rights.  With the welfare of children as the highest priority, these kinds of approaches place an emphasis on child participation, community mobilization and the promotion of education.

Making Villages Child Friendly

The Child Friendly Village is a unique concept, currently being implemented in the western Terai, which aims to create and sustain child friendly spaces at the village level.   The primary goal is that a village becomes child labor-free (no children are employed in the village and no village children are sent away to work) and that all school-age children are attending school. 

Paudel’s village is just one of more than 300 that have been designated as Child Friendly Villages in Nepal.

Reka Paudel, 14, of Dang district, sings about child labor.  Kothari Village, where she lives, is one of 313 Child Friendly Villages in southwest Nepal.
Reka Paudel, 14, of Dang district, sings about child labor. Kothari Village, where she lives, is one of 313 Child Friendly Villages in southwest Nepal.

Bachpan Bachpao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), a children’s rights NGO in northern India, pioneered the Child Friendly Village model in 2001.  BASE (Backward Society Education) then adapted the model and began implementing it in 2007 in some of the most marginalized communities in Nepal.  Approximately 10,000 people in Kanchanpur, Kailali, Bardiya, Dang and Banke, Districts are now living in BASE-designated Child Friendly Villages. 

BASE believes it is possible to eliminate child labor through Child Friendly Villages.  “This is one good way to eliminate the worst forms of child labor,” said Churna Chaudhary, Executive Director of BASE, “BASE’s role is to enhance the capacity of children by generating awareness of children’s rights.  Once they understand their basic rights, the children themselves will mobilize to work against child labor and other forms of discrimination towards children.” 

The Child Friendly Village model is critical in targeting rural areas and small villages which are the primary sources of children who move to urban areas to work as child laborers.  Hence, effective anti-child labor campaigns must focus on keeping children in their own villages, preventing them from going to work as child laborers and making the communities aware of the importance of education

Freedom for the Children

“Before, many children did not want to go to school and some were child laborers.  Now, because of the Child Friendly Village, children are going to school, and there is no child labor,” a Child Friendly Village Committee member from Surmi Katan Village in Kailali district reported.

Through structures such as the Child Friendly Village Committee and Child Club, villagers persuade parents to withdraw their children from work enroll them in school.  By making parents aware of the illegality of child labor, possible punishments, international regulations and human rights standards, many have a change of heart that results in freedom for their children.

Anti-child labor graffiti in Kothari Village wards off potential child labor brokers and reminds villagers of their commitment to protect children’s rights.
Anti-child labor graffiti in Kothari Village wards off potential child labor brokers and reminds villagers of their commitment to protect children’s rights.

One woman from Dakshin Amarai Village in Dang District sent her daughter away but was convinced by the Child Friend Village Committee to bring her back.  “We (the family) originally did this because we didn’t have land and needed money to survive,” she said, “my daughter worked from when she was 10 to 12 years-old.  Now our life is more challenging, but I compared that hardship with my child’s future and was convinced to bring her back.  I was also convinced when I learned about the laws and that I could be punished.”

BASE’s Child Friendly Villages and child labor rescue initiatives have freed approximately 1,000 child laborers since 2008.

A Holistic Approach

While other NGOs working in Nepal such as World Education and MS Action Aid, as well as various District Development Committees, have also embraced child friendly education approaches, BASE’s holistic village model uniquely addresses the multidimensional child labor problem.  Child labor is not only a cause but also a consequence of poverty, illiteracy and lack of human security.

Through a rights-based approach, the Child Friendly Villages aim to achieve both social and economic community development. 

The right to education underpins efforts to provide quality education to all children.  According to BASE Child Labor Program Coordinator, Pinky Dangi, “If we teach children about their rights and ensure they receive an education, then it will impact their future and be more sustainable.”

Many villages have also united under the structures of the Child Friendly Village to implement infrastructure projects such as road maintenance and sanitation improvement.  These projects impact the development of children, enabling them to have happier, healthier lives.  

The ultimate goal of the Child Friendly Village program is the complete eradication of child labor and the achievement of the United Nation’s “Education for All” Millennium Development Goal.

The Future of Nepal’s Children

The Kothari Village Child Club, of which Paudel is an active member, is working to increase local people’s awareness of children’s rights and fight against child labor.  They currently perform very successful street dramas and hope to incorporate other kinds of cultural performances, like song and dance, to their anti-child labor repertoire.

“I am not a child laborer, but I work too much in my home because my family is poor.  Also, I have seen others involved in child labor so I want to end it,” Paudel said, “Every opportunity should be available to all including good quality education.”

Though the fight against child labor must happen on many levels—local, district, national and international—the collaborative efforts of BASE’s Child Friendly Villages is likely to have a significant, positive impact on the futures of the children of Nepal.

The Child Club of Kothari Village, a Child Friendly Village, unites against child labor.
The Child Club of Kothari Village, a Child Friendly Village, unites against child labor.

3 Responses to “Children First: BASE’s Approach to Combating Child Labor”

  1. Claire says:

    Adrienne, I was wondering whether the Child Friendly Village approach targeted also infrastructure for the kids directly, namely, schools and areas of play? Do you know if it also addresses economic factors such as teachers’ pay, and health care for the kids?
    It’s a really interesting post!

  2. Adrienne Henck says:

    As a rights-based approach, the Child Friendly Village model focuses on changing attitudes and behaviors related to child labor and children’s rights. That said, though, even if a community believes in protecting children and the value of education, if there is no roof over the school, they may still be reluctant to send their children there. Following the capacity development and leadership trainings that BASE has provided to many villages, many CFV structures, such as the CFV Committee and Child Club, have mobilized themselves to raise funds to support the education of the poorest children and former child laborers. Members donate 5 rupees (20 cents) per month to buy school supplies and uniforms for these children. So, the short answer to your questions is “no”. But I know that BASE would like to do more in terms of financing infrastructure, health care and other costs related to education. They just need a lot more support to do this. Thanks for your comments, Claire! Hope all is well!

  3. [...] them with training on leadership and advocacy. More info on CFV & Child Club can be found on Adrienne Henck’s blog. BASE Child Friendly Village (CFV) Signpost in Burigaun VDC, Bardiya District Photo by: Maelanny [...]

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Sabita and Sima


Adrienne Henck | Posted August 4th, 2010 | Asia, Uncategorized

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Sabita and Sima sometimes seem like Siamese twins, living parallel lives, acting out the same story.  Both sport the same boy haircuts typical for young Nepali girls, and both invariably giggle between every sentence.  Sima, 11, likes to eat oranges and study social studies, while Sabita, 10, likes mangoes and English. They both like to play volleyball.  Even if you didn’t know their backgrounds, or perhaps even if you did, you might think they were sisters.

Sima lived out the classic child labor narrative.  Following her father’s death, her mother, unable to support four children, sent Sima, then 9 years old, to the city with expectations that she could earn some money and attend school.  These were false expectations, indeed, for Sima never visited a classroom.  Instead, at the mercy of a house owner, Sima spent twelve to thirteen hours a day performing domestic labor.  She cleaned the house, washed dishes, did laundry, cooked meals, tended to the kitchen garden and collected cow dung for use as fertilizer.  Exhausted at night, attending school was an elusive dream.

At the same time, less than 25 kilometers away, a rich lawyer, who later claimed he did not purchase Sabita, was purchasing then 8 year-old Sabita.  A law student tenant with a different story may or may not have played a role in the transaction.  As a pawn in a web of shady transactions and incongruous stories, Sabita was also living out a classic child labor narrative.  However, regardless of how she came to be in the lawyer’s home, Sabita’s story of what happened after arriving was clear:

“I used to clean the TV room, sitting room and kitchen and corridor and my room too.  I used to wash uncle and auntie’s clothes.  Sometimes there weren’t many dishes so I would do them alone.  When there were guests, there were too many dishes so the aunt would wash with me.  They used to scold me when I made a mistake.  If I didn’t clean the dishes properly they’d say, ‘Look how dirty these dishes are, if you don’t clean properly we’ll get diseases!’  I stayed there for many days.  One day, Uncle and Aunt went somewhere for a few days.  Then I was just staying alone and I was so hungry.”

Enter BASE.  In the spring of 2009, BASE conducted a series of child labor raid and rescue missions that, in conjunction with other anti-child labor initiatives, rescued more than 1,000 children in a two-year period.  Sabita and Sima’s parallel lives converged as they were rescued and taken to a BASE rehabilitation center where they received initial care and support.  Sabita was later taken back to her home, but with her father dead, mother run away with another man, and brother burdened with financial problems, she decided to return to BASE’s care.  Both girls ultimately embraced their newfound freedom by demanding the rights of children as participants in the BASE-organized Nepal March for Education, part of the Global March Against Child Labor.

Sabita and Sima now live at the Children’s Peace Home, a charitable initiative providing care to underprivileged children, and ride a school bus everyday to the Hindu Vidyapeeth School, a prestigious boarding school.  With their lives interwoven, they share many things—a penchant for studying, compassion for their friends and the joy of youth.   Above all though, they share the same strength and resilience—and hopefully, because of BASE’s intervention, the same bright future.

Sima (left) and Sabita (right) take a break from playing volleyball.
Sima (left) and Sabita (right) take a break from playing volleyball.

The story above was compiled from two interviews with Sabita and Sima, one at the Hindu Vidyapeeth School and the other at the Children’s Peace Home, as well as the documentary, The Price of Childhood, by Kan Yan, 2009 Advocacy Project Peace Fellow with BASE.  Please see Kan’s blog for a more detailed account of Sabita’s story.

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What is Child Labor?


Adrienne Henck | Posted July 28th, 2010 | Asia, Uncategorized

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What is child labor?  Is it the village children sold out of desperation by their poor families to be domestic workers in Nepal’s urban centers?  Sure.  Is it the thousands of children who are trafficked to India to work in various sectors including prostitution?  Absolutely.  The kids bonded to landlords?  Laboring in quarries, brick factories, mines, factories and construction sites.  You bet.

How about…

the boy waiting on customers at the tea shop
the boy waiting on customers at the tea shop

or

the boy selling ice cream?
the boy selling ice cream?

What about the swarms of children ubiquitous on any Nepali highway, hawking bottled water, snacks and other treats to travelers?  Children like:

the corn sellers, earning some extra cash for school supplies,
the corn sellers, earning some extra cash for school supplies,

and

the bottled water seller, who only works during the one-month summer vacation.
the bottled water seller, who only works during the one-month summer vacation.

Probably, maybe, perhaps, and possibly.

And then there’s the Tapa children who, alongside their parents, are busy bees serving customers at the family-run Sithal restaraunt.

Are they really child laborers?
Are they really child laborers?

It depends.

Why all the ambiguity, you ask? 

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the term “child labor” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.  It refers to work that is:

- mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and

- interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school, obliging them to leave school prematurely, or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

However, the definition of “child”, while guided by international norms, is largely left to national interpretation.  The Children’s Act of Nepal, 1992, established that a child is any person below the age of 16 years.  According to the policy, though, anyone under 16 engaged in economic activity is a not child laborer.  There are two primary reasons for this incongruity.

First, labor is only legally restricted to those below 14 years.  For those in the 14 to 16 age bracket, labor is fair game as long as it abides by certain restrictions.  Following Nepal’s ratification of the ILO’s Minimum Age Convention (No. 138), the Child Labor Act, 1999, which amended the Labor Acts of 1992 and 1993, enlisted specific occupations as hazardous work and prohibited the use of children below 16 from such activities.  In addition, the Act stipulated working hour restrictions, stating that children from 14 to 16 may not work between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

And second, there is a distinction between labor and work that permits child workers. While many recognize child labor as wrong, societal norms underpin a culture of indifference to child workers.  Most Nepalis just don’t think anything of it when they see a child working, especially if it is a poor child. 

The distinction holds that children, regardless of their age, working by their own free will and under non-exploitative conditions that protect their rights, are legally permitted to work.  BASE, for example, defines children who go to school and also work (e.g. help with family business or work temporarily during summer vacation) as child workers.  While these children should not be required to work more than is appropriate for their physical and mental capacity, they aren’t child laborers. 

BASE also incorporates an interesting assumption into their operational definition of child labor:  any child not receiving an education is a child laborer.  Because a child not attending school is at high risk of becoming a child laborer, BASE conceptualizes these children as child laborers and similarly targets them with their anti-child labor initiatives.  This critical assumption is underpinned by BASE’s emphasis on education.

So given all these international and national regulations, variable definitions and assumptions, the child labor question remains.  What exactly constitutes child labor?  Every night as I eat dahl bhat at my favorite dinner spot, Sithal restaraunt, I am reminded of the ambiguity.  Sarita, 16, always eager to read my Nepali-English phrasebook, serves food to customers; Sithal, 13, the namesake of the restaurant, washes dishes; and Bobina, 8, recent karate brown belt-recipient, chops vegetables.  Sujendra, 14, the only boy and unofficial comedian of the establishment, has the daily responsibility of making the roti, that delicious South Asian flatbread staple. 

Sithal and Sujendra
Sithal and Sujendra

Bobina, Sarita and Sithal
Bobina, Sarita and Sithal

The role of these children in the economic profitability of the restaurant is undeniable.  But they are attending school, and even extra-curricular activities.  They laugh, play and seem generally happy.  I still wonder, though, if they are missing out on their childhood and how a childhood with more work than play will affect their development.  Every handful of dahl bhat that I shovel into my mouth is accompanied by the aftertaste of this big, moral dilemma.  Is this child labor?  Am I supporting it by patronizing Sithal restaurant?  And even further, am I now part of the larger-scale social problem that perpetuates the system of child labor in Nepal?  Swallow.

I don’t have all the answers to the child labor question.  But I do know that instead of asking, what is child labor?, perhaps we should be asking, who is in school?

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The Children of Nepal in Numbers


Adrienne Henck | Posted July 19th, 2010 | Asia, Uncategorized

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Before delving into the crux of child labor: the what, the how, and the why, let’s establish the hard facts of who.  That is, who are the children of Nepal?  And how many ways can we count them?

41 percent of the total population is below 16 years old.

2.6 million children are engaged in child labor.

50 percent of child laborers work without pay as family members or bonded laborers.

20 percent of the total workforce is comprised of children (one of the highest proportions in the world).

2 times as much work is performed by 10-14 year old girls compared to boys in the same age group.

42 percent of 10 to 14 year olds are working rather than attending school.

63 percent of the male population and only 35 percent of the female population over 15 are able to read and write.

And just in case you were wondering…

34 percent of marriages involve children below 15 years of age.

12,000 women and children are trafficked to India annually.

5,000 children are working and living on the streets.

And…

8,000 children have been orphaned and more than 40,000 have been displaced due to the ongoing-armed conflict between the government and Maoists (CPN).

The numbers say it all, don’t you think?

Tharu children, Kothari Village, Dang District (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)
Tharu children, Kothari Village, Dang District (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)

(Sources: CWIN-RAIC/CBS/UNICEF/Ministry of Education/ILO/UNFPA/Nepal Media Council and Jim Flood’s “Child Labor in Nepal:  A Brief Overview”)

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A Ten-year-old Makes Your Frappuccino: Child Labor in an American Context


Adrienne Henck | Posted July 6th, 2010 | Asia, Uncategorized

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Child labor.  Over the past few weeks, this issue has been the focus of my work with BASE.  But what does child labor really mean?  Is this something that we, as residents of affluent America, can really comprehend?  Humor me for a moment and step outside your present reality…

Can you imagine a ten-year-old working at Starbucks, blending your Frappuccino? 

Or at McDonalds, flipping your quarter-pounder, wiping dirty tables, and carrying bags of trash bigger than she is to the dumpster out back.  It seems unreal and even bizarre.  But try hard and imagine.

Your car needs fixing and you take it to the mechanic.  Can you imagine that the oil-covered face underneath the hood of your Honda Accord belongs to an eight-year-old boy?  Seriously.

The high-rise going up down the street?  A troupe of 12- and 13-year-olds are the muscles behind that enterprise, mixing cement, welding beams and, from dawn to dusk every day, sending it higher and higher towards the sky.  Can you really imagine this?

That t-shirt you’re wearing looks good on you, even though it was made in a factory full of nine-year-olds, sweating to keep pace with the production line.

In your home, imagine you have a servant.  Sounds nice, doesn’t it?  Someone to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner for you, do all your dirty dishes, wash your laundry, and clean your house, including that  grime under the toilet seat that you’d rather not think about.   It’s a lot of work for a seven-year-old and often takes her no less than 18 hours a day.

These children, they’re probably not getting paid, and if they are, it’s not much.

They’re not going to school.  How could they find the time or energy with their workload?

And they’re certainly not laughing, playing and enjoying their childhood the way other children are.

Imagine that it’s not just one child, or even a couple.  This is 1 out of every 5 children in America.  That’s 13 million.  Wow.  Imagine that.

Good thing you only have to imagine, though, because if you lived in Nepal, this would be real.

Forgotten Childhood (source: Flickr)
Forgotten Childhood (source: Flickr)

4 Responses to “A Ten-year-old Makes Your Frappuccino: Child Labor in an American Context”

  1. admin says:

    Adrienne,

    Amazing post. Something for everyone to think about.

  2. Karie Cross says:

    That’s a powerful picture at the end, summing up a powerful post.
    Thanks for giving us all something to think about, and good luck in your work in Nepal!

  3. Stephanie says:

    There is a story about child labor in Haiti in today’s New York Times.

  4. Bruno says:

    I like this blog, advocacy is a blog with a nice content, unique articles and nice images / photos. Thanks

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Sumitra Tharu: On Being a Girl and Realizing the Value of Education


Adrienne Henck | Posted June 27th, 2010 | Asia, Uncategorized

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I recently attended a gender equity training lead by BASE.  While the stories of the men and women participants, but especially the women, were not surprising to me, they were nevertheless sobering.  Tharu women work hard.  I mean, really hard.  As the women listed out their daily tasks, from domestic chores to back-breaking labor, it was clear to everyone in that concrete classroom that women share a disproportionate burden of the workload.  In addition, they are severely under-valued and lack basic rights and decision-making powers.  Despite the significant strides towards achieving gender equity that were made at the training, there is still a long way to go.  (Check out photos of the training on Flickr.)

Over-worked, under-valued:  A BASE Gender Equity Training participant uses a picture to illustrate the unequal burden of the workload that women perform compared to men. (photo:  Adrienne Henck, 2010)
Over-worked, under-valued: A BASE Gender Equity Training participant uses a picture to illustrate the unequal burden of the workload that women perform compared to men. (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)

Within the context of this bleak reality, I present the story of Sumitra, a young BASE staff member and shining star, who has overcome many of the challenges of being…a girl.

Sumitra’s Story

My parents know the value of education.  My father always encouraged me to go to school.  In my village, my family was the first to send a daughter to school.  Despite being very interested in studying, my cousin only made it through the third grade before being married at age 21.  Next my elder sister was enrolled.  She made it through the tenth grade before being married at age 19.  That’s what girls did.  They got married and took care of their new families.

Finally, it was my turn.  While most girls didn’t want to go to school because the classes were full of boys and parents didn’t see the value of investing in education for girls, I was able to complete through the tenth grade.  I wanted to continue studying, but my family wasn’t ready to invest.  They didn’t want to spend money on me for higher education, because I was a girl.  I cried a lot to my father and uncles.  I begged them over and over to let me go to college.  Finally, my father agreed, though he couldn’t convince my uncles.

First, I got an intermediate degree at a local college.  Then I went to a university in the city of Nepalganj for my bachelor’s degree.  During my second year, I was hired to participate in on-the-job training with BASE.  Due to the hours and location of the office, I was no longer able to attend class.  However, with my earnings, I could afford to purchase the books and course materials and study independently.  For three years I did this, only going to the university campus to complete the exams.  My friends said that I was doing really hard work.  It was challenging, since I couldn’t attend the lectures, but I always preferred to study so I didn’t mind.  At work I encouraged my colleagues to attend college though they felt it was impossible to manage their time between work and school.  From 9:30 AM to 6:30 PM I worked at the office, and in the evenings I studied.

Once I got my bachelor’s degree I felt I had to leave BASE and go for a higher degree in Kathmandu.  At that time Dilli Chaudhary, the President of BASE, encouraged me to apply for a scholarship though the Nepal Embassy, offered by the Rai Foundation.  With BASE’s recommendation, I was awarded the scholarship and went to Delhi, India for my MBA.  Now I am working for BASE as a Program Coordinator of the Youth Action Fund and simultaneously completing a second master’s degree in Public Administration. 

The value of education:  Through hard work and persistence, Sumitra hopes to set an example for other girls as well as the entire Tharu community. (photo:  Adrienne Henck, 2010)
The value of education: Through hard work and persistence, Sumitra hopes to set an example for other girls as well as the entire Tharu community. (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)

Being Tharu

In my Village Development Committee (collection of about ten villages), I am the only Tharu girl who has earned a Master’s degree.  In total there are only six people from my village who have received a Master’s.  Of the other five boys, only two are Tharu.

Everyone says that the Tharu community is backward.  I think we are not backward but that we are made backward by other castes.  Many years ago, the Tharu used to produce crops, but they didn’t get proper wages or benefits for their labor.  As a result, they didn’t have sufficient funds to send their children to school.  Money is important for education.  The Tharu had land, but they didn’t have the knowledge that they were required to legally register their land with the government.  Other castes took advantage of their ignorance and seized ownership of the land.  You see, Tharus lost their land due to their lack of education.

Tharu are very hard working people.  You will never see a Tharu sitting idle.  They just don’t earn enough, and they don’t know how to modernize their agricultural practices so they are stuck in poverty.   As a result, the Tharu don’t have access to the government and lack political representation.  I think we have to get to the top.  Education is the way to get to there. 

The Value of Education

My father suffered a lot of problems due to lack of education.  When he was in the third grade, his father died.  After that he had to manage all the family affairs:  provide the income and do everything necessary for the survival of his mother and siblings.  He was only 12 years old.  His education ended at that point so that’s why he has always felt that he should encourage his own children to go to school.

Most Tharu girls get married at age 16, but I am still studying.  Because of my achievements, many people use me as an example.  They say, “Look at Sumitra, she is studying, maybe we can be like her.”  I feel so proud.

Education is important for everybody but especially for Tharus.  If we are educated, we can get good jobs in the government or NGO sector.  Then we can make real change.  But if we are not educated, how can we expect change?

I am not sure what I will do next.  I would like to get a Master of Philosophy (doctorate) degree and work in finance.  Whatever I do, I know that the power of education will help me to succeed.  Hopefully, others will follow in my path.  Even now my uncles realize the value of education!

One Response to “Sumitra Tharu: On Being a Girl and Realizing the Value of Education”

  1. Iain says:

    Great Post Adrienne.

    It’s a very insightful and well written post that I enjoyed greatly and I look forward to more in the future!

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A day in the life of a Peace Fellow in rural Nepal


Adrienne Henck | Posted June 22nd, 2010 | Asia, Uncategorized

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Because every blog needs a little personalization, I thought I’d share a typical day in my life here in Tulsipur.

7:00 AM  Good morning!  Although others have been up since sunrise, cooking, tending to animals, walking to their jobs, I finally wake up, thinking:  the air is so cool.  The reality of later being drenched in sweat is distant, unthinkable.

7:10 AM I throw a towel and bottle of mineral water (for brushing teeth) in a plastic bag and trudge out of my apartment, down to the next landing and into my bathroom, a concrete room with one hole, two buckets and a lot of mosquitoes.  Brr, the water is so cold at first, but I like the feeling of clean.

8:00 AM  Tea time!  I head to the local tea shop for some sweet milk tea and cholasamosa, a delicious mix of mashed up samosa, curried chickpeas and a sprinkling of red onion.  I am not surprised to run into a few BASE staff, also enjoying a cup of chiya.

Chiya and Cholasamosa:  Breakfast at the neighborhood tea shop (photo:  Adrienne Henck, 2010)
Chiya and Cholasamosa: Breakfast at the neighborhood tea shop (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)

8:30 AM  Before starting work, BASE staff often sit in a courtyard under a giant rubber tree, reading the daily newspaper, talking about politics and exchanging personal stories.

9:30 AM Blogging, social networking, reading the 13 new emails from my mother asking, “Sweetie, where are you?  Are you eating enough?  Is everything OK?”

Office Space: The BASE Child Labor team at work (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)
Office Space: The BASE Child Labor team at work (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)

10:30 AM Around this time I expect some unexpected plan for the day to be announced.  I head out with the Child Labor team to visit a school/orphanage/village.

12:00 PM  The heat and humidity creeps in.  The unreliable Nepali electricity goes out.  No fan, ugh.

1:30 PM  Nepalis typically only eat two meals a day, in the morning and at night.  Sometimes they eat a small mid-day snack.  I feel like gluttonous American for requesting lunch, but my body is protesting the cultural assimilation.

2:00 PM The power comes on, and I rush to charge my computer and mobile phone.  Nepali electricity is a mysterious force that I understand even less than Nepali politics.  I certainly do not not take it for granted.

2:30 PM  The power goes out.

2:35 PM  The power comes on.

4:00 PM  I learn that an insurgent group has announced a nationwide strike for the following day.  While strikes are not uncommon in Nepal, it means that all shops will be closed, no motor vehicles will be allowed to move and my plans of visiting the Children’s Peace Home in a neighboring town will be cancelled.  Sigh.  Personal goals aside, it also means that schools will be closed, and children will once again be denied their right to education.

5 PM The workday ends.  If it’s Friday then I’ll be back in the office on Sunday, because it’s a six-day work week.

Kamala cooks: Eating dahl baht at this family-run restaraunt is one of the hightlights of my day. Despite the pensive photo faces, they are a cheerful bunch.  (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)
Kamala cooks: Eating dahl baht at this family-run restaraunt is one of the hightlights of my day. Despite the pensive photo faces, they are a cheerful bunch. (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)
 

6:30 PM You know, I thought I would get tired of dhal bhat, the staple Nepali meal consisting of rice, curried vegetables and lentils, often with some raw cucumbers and pickles on the side.  So far, though, it tastes like mom’s home cooking to me!  Maybe that’s because Kamala cooks it for me every day at her family-owned restaurant where I invariably take my dinner.  And maybe, also, it’s because I eat it in the excellent company of Sorita, Bobina, Sithel and Suhendra, my three new sisters and brother.

Bobina cuts tomatoes: After school, all the children help out in the family restaurant. With no complaints, they chop vegetables, wash dishes and serve customers food and drinks, including hard liquor. (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)
Bobina cuts tomatoes: After school, all the children help out in the family restaurant. With no complaints, they chop vegetables, wash dishes and serve customers food and drinks, including hard liquor. (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)

7:30 PM I rush home so that I can wash away the day’s sweat and dirt with a bucket of water before it becomes dark.  Three-inch cockroach who guards my bathroom:  because of you, I am afraid to use the toilet after dark.  One day, perhaps, we will be at peace with each other.

8:00 PM  The sun sets, and the power goes out, this time for the scheduled daily load-shedding.  The darkness of the Nepali countryside is coal black, amplifying the evening chatter of neighboring familes.  Should I read a book by flashlight or give in to my impatience and go to sleep?

10:00 PM  Expecting the unexpected has become my routine.  And even that thought is comforting.  I sleep.

(Note:  The above account grossly underrepresents the actual number of daily power outages.)

—–

For an much more detailed and even more entertaining account of life in rural Nepal, check out this excellent blog.  Melinda is a volunteer at the Children’s Peace Home where several former child laborers, rescued by BASE, are now living.

4 Responses to “A day in the life of a Peace Fellow in rural Nepal”

  1. Tereza says:

    What a great post! Your writing makes your experience vivid and a thrill to read. Your photo entitiled Kamala cooks is gorgeous! Thank you for sharing so much of your life with us. I hope I have some adventures to share soon as well.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Great photos. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Chris says:

    So well written and descriptive, I hope it is not as hot there as the DC area.

  4. Krishna Chaudhari says:

    Dear Adrienne

    You have really heart touching great wordings with rememberable exeperience in your life with BASE. Deffinately you have been in dailly problems with the new situation, new people, new language, new cultural, new attitudes in Nepal. I would like to request you please feel free to share with us. We can accompany you if you need to go for shoping, lunch, dinner or breakfast.

    I hope your future is bright and these sorts of experiences, dailly difficulties will show you the rays of success.

    Thank you for with us in BASE

    Krishna Bahadur Chaudhari
    Program Coordinator
    Partnership for protecting children in armed conflict (PPCC)
    BASE Central Project Office, Tulsipur, Dang

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Education under the rubber tree


Adrienne Henck | Posted June 20th, 2010 | Asia, Uncategorized

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Every day before beginning work, BASE staff members usually take time to socialize in the office courtyard.  Sitting in red and blue plastic chairs in the shade of a rubber tree, they read the daily newspaper, talk about politics and exchange personal stories.  One morning the friendly Diplal, BASE’s Administrative Head, decided to forgo the usual lighthearted banter and school me on the breadth of BASE’s work. 

BASE office courtyard: a space for socializing and learning
BASE office courtyard: a space for socializing and learning

Bonded Labor.  Child Labor.  Education.  Human rights.  Health.  Family Planning.  Women’s socio-economic development.  Gender equity.  Microfinance.   My head was spinning as he spouted off the issues BASE’s work addressed and their acronymed program names (e.g. CBCDC for Child-based Development Center, CDDD for Child Development Discussant Program, and C2C for Child to Child Education…).  BASE’s work seems to touch on every issue.  They are everywhere, doing everything.  I couldn’t help but wonder, what is the common thread?

I have realized that it all comes back to education.  Bonded labor was abolished in 2000; however, two over-arching problems have remained.  For one, the government did nothing to rehabilitate the freed kamaiyas (bonded laborers).  The law granted them freedom, but with no land, skills or education, they were prisoners of poverty.  And for the other, persistent poverty has given rise to and perpetuated the rampant system of child labor that exists today.  Families, unable to provide for all of their children, have been hoodwinked by false promises of schooling and big city futures.  Ultimately, their children end up being sent away to distant, unknown places and enslaved as domestic workers. 

BASE’s core approach rests on the tenet that through education, Tharus can rise above their marginalization and claim their basic human rights.  This is a classic rights-based approach to development.  And I love it!

For a great synopsis of the history of the Tharus narrated by BASE President Dilli Chaudhary, check out this video by 2009 Peace Fellow, Kan Yan.

2 Responses to “Education under the rubber tree”

  1. Kate Bollinger says:

    Hi Adrienne! Sounds like things are going well in the Terai – and BASE sounds like a great organization! I’ve just arrived in Kathmandu to begin work with the WRRP. Good luck with everything and I’ll be looking forward to continuing to read your blog :)

  2. Adrienne Henck says:

    Thanks, Kate! And welcome back to Nepal! Good luck with your work with WRRP. The issue of uterine prolapse is one that I think many people aren’t aware of. I’m looking forward to following your blog as well.

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A Surprising Perspective: Introduction to Bonded Labor


Adrienne Henck | Posted June 12th, 2010 | Asia

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Despite some difficulties in getting here (immense gratitude goes out to my amazing supporters), I present this latest entry to you with love from Kathmandu.  With just one day in the city before beelining to my final destination in rural southwest Nepal, I stopped in at the US Embassy to meet with Peter Zirnite, Economic/Commercial Chief of the Political and Economic Section and expert on labor-related issues. 

Mr. Zirnite briefed me on the issues of bonded labor, child labor (including the practice of kamalari or daughter selling) and marginalization of the Tharus.  While I was not surprised to learn of the insufficient and unreliable documentation of these issues, another idea that Mr. Zirnite shared with me almost knocked me out of my chair.

Until the 1950’s, the primarily Tharu-inhabited Terai region of Nepal was a malaria hot-bed.  However, as scientific studies have documented, the Tharu possess a genetic resistance to the disease.  With the influx of international aid in the post-World War II era, malaria was nearly eradicated, priming the region for habitation by other Nepalis. 

Though the practice of bonded labor can be traced to ancient times, the influx of land-seeking Nepalis during the 1950’s and 1960’s resulted in the birth of the modern kamaiya, or bonded labor, system.  The migrant Nepalis brought with them cultural norms of private property distinct from the Tharu belief in common land ownership.  These contested norms, combined with the Tharus position at the bottom of the caste system, produced conditions ripe for the perpetuation of inequality and marginalization of the Tharu.  Enter bonded labor.  Tharus were forced from their homes, forced to work for landowners to survive and burdened with debt that was passed on to their children.     

This is the part where I nearly fall out of my chair.  Some Tharus attribute the modern practice of bonded labor to the international development initiatives that eradicated malaria from the Terai.  While this view is only held by a minority and is not necessarily supported by BASE, it nevertheless represents a very interesting take on the multiple faces of international development.  Is this a case of good intentions gone wrong?  A failure to adequately weigh the importance of local culture?  Please share your thoughts below and stay tuned for my next entry from the Terai.

Tharu thatched-roof home: Land rights have been a highly contentious issue in the Terai region of Nepal (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)
Tharu thatched-roof home: Land rights have been a highly contentious issue in the Terai region of Nepal (photo: Adrienne Henck, 2010)

2 Responses to “A Surprising Perspective: Introduction to Bonded Labor”

  1. Stephanie says:

    Great entry. It’s good that you’re bringing the locals’ thoughts to us. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Melinda LIes says:

    Hello Adrienne,

    I am currently living at Children’s Peace Home outside Ghorahi (a few km’s from Tulsipur). I would love to meet you while you are here. We have a couple of BASE supported children at CPH, Sabita and Sima – two beautiful spunky little girls! I am only here until June 24th, so hopefully you will get message in time. I will also try to contact someone at BASE and set up a meeting. This is an amazing country and as you are finding out, with an interesting culture.

    Best regards,

    Melinda

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Fellow: Adrienne Henck

Backward Society Education in Nepal


Tags

america backward society education BASE bonded labor child friendly approach child friendly village child labor children's rights child work child workers cultural norms culture dahl bhat education education BASE education for all education rights electricity family planning gender gender equality gender equity human rights international development international labor organization kamalari malaria marginalization microfinance minority rights Nepal strike tea terai tharu tulsipur women's empowerment women's rights women's socio-economic development


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