A Voice For the Voiceless

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The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

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Last Lessons from Nepal

Karie Cross | Posted August 23rd, 2010 | Uncategorized

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It’s my last week at the office: thus, time for final reflections.  When a 10-12 week fellowship gets cut to a mere 6 weeks because of Indian bureaucratic messes, it’s unbelievable how quickly the  measurement-defying Nepali time can go.  I feel a bit as though this summer has galloped right past me, and I’m watching its receding back and crying, “But wait, I’m not finished with you yet!  There’s still too much to learn, and I will miss Nepal too much!”

BASE staff teaching me how to be a Nepali woman
BASE staff teaching me how to be a Nepali woman

So what have I learned? 

Children are incredibly vulnerable, and we must protect them from exploitation at all costs.  Most of them are unable to stand up for themselves, so they rely upon us to take notice and DO something. 

Rescued child laborer Sangita of Santi Ekala Bala Child Club, photo credit: Michal Kaczor
Rescued child laborer Sangita of Santi Ekala Bala Child Club, photo credit: Michal Kaczor

“Happiness” does not equal development.  Just because children laugh and play here, just like they do in Maryland or in Arkansas, does not mean that they have no need of health care and education and affection from their families.  They are content with the bare minimum because it’s all they’ve ever known.  But in a country of corrupt politicians and no social safety nets, one accdent or illness in an impoverished family can mean years of labor for an innocent child.   Subsistence living is a constant risk, even if it looks happy from the outside.

I’ve been weighing my options and contemplating my future all summer long, and it’s official: I want to dedicate my life to this.  Hello, PhD in human rights?

And on a lighter note:

2 gallons of cold water in a bucket is perfectly adequate for the morning shower (?) (bath?).

I really can eat dhal bhat every day and not get tired of it.  I’m already dreading a dahl bhat-less existence in the US.  (Although I’m going to try to cook it very soon!  Who wants to come over for Nepali food?)

Tastes better if you use your hands!
Tastes better if you use your hands!

Nepalis are some of the warmest, most generous, and most considerate people that I have ever met.  Is it possible for an entire people group to be universally kind-hearted?  There’s a lot wrong with this country (e.g., they can’t elect a prime minister, the lack of bridges paralyzes transportation during the rainy season, and 2.6 million kids are working instead of playing and studying), but they’re definitely doing something right.  Americans could learn a thing or two from Nepalis about hospitality and taking the time to really talk to each other and build deep relationships.

Finally, take a look at my latest video.  (One more to come, but it’s long so I’ll post it from the Land of Fast Internet sometime next week.)  There’s not much new information here if you’ve been following along on the Child Friendly Village initiative, but my goodness, these kids are cute!

Thank you so much to all of my readers, commenters, donors, and well-wishers.  Even though I’m so far away from most of you, I haven’t felt lonely or abandoned for a single minute.  Your support made this incredible experience possible for me, and I really do believe that together we have made a small dent in the child labor problem in Nepal.

Darkness

Karie Cross | Posted August 18th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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Nepal is a land of many incongruencies.  Beneath the bright, summer sunshine, the women’s salwar kurtas sparkle and snap with brilliant colors, sequins, and embroidery.  The ubiquitous music, incense, and spices can make daily life seem more like a Bollywood set than genuine existence.  But then the monsoons chase away the sunlight, and at nighttime, the electricity disappears as an impoverished nation resorts to daily load shedding for at least a couple of hours.  Nepal quite literally becomes a land of darkness that just dresses herself with a bright façade.   

Hindu temple in Nepalgunj, photo credit Michal Kaczor
Hindu temple in Nepalgunj, photo credit Michal Kaczor

Unfortunately, Nepal treats its children with the same carelessness as its electricity generators.  Most of the time, they are happy, funny, cherished lights in their parents’ lives.  But if some impoverished parents become too desperate, they send their children away to work for food and clothing.  Like load shedding, nobody likes it.  But also like the blackouts, child labor practically becomes necessary for these families unless they receive aid from the outside.  But these children do not disappear for a couple of hours—they face years of separation, exhaustion, and deprivation during the most formative times of their lives.

Namaste, child club members!
Namaste, child club members!

I had the pleasure and the pain of speaking with returned child laborers for the first time while on a recent field visit to the Bardiya district in southwestern Nepal.

Sarbourati Chaudhary was terribly shy.  Although she is fourteen, she would barely mumble her answers to my simplest questions, such as “what is your favorite food?” (apples, oranges, and mangoes) or “do you have any brothers or sisters?”  (lots of brothers).  When I asked about her favorite thing to do for fun, she couldn’t supply any answer at all.  (Fun?  Incomprehensible.)  But at least Sarbourati’s broken life is on the mend. 

 

Sarbourati Chaudhary of Aansubarma High School
Sarbourati Chaudhary of Aansubarma High School

She worked in a private home in a bustling metropolis of 64,000, Nepalgunj, for two years because her family was very poor.  Although Sarbourati was sent away, her older and younger brothers stayed at home and attended school.  Like many daughters of impoverished families across Nepal, Sarbourati was singled out from her male counterparts to become the child laborer who left the family. 

Sarbourati told me that she missed her family very much while she was working in Nepalgunj.  When Child Friendly Village committee members asked her if she wanted to go and live at the Girls Rescue Hostel and attend the Aansubarma High School, she jumped at the chance to stop working, travel to a new place, and gain new knowledge.  Sarbourati still misses her family today, since they do not live near her new school.  But she wishes to study science and become a doctor, and she knows that a good education is the only way for her to achieve her goal.  Despite missing two years of school, Sarbourati is already in class 5.  I have no doubt that she will make a fine doctor someday, even though she’s not yet sure how she feels about blood! 

Child labor in Nepal is a crisis.  It is easy to become overwhelmed and to feel helpless in the face of such a complex, sobering situation.  But then brave, persistent girls like Sarbourati cut through the hopelessness like pinpricks of light on the far side of a darkened city.  So let’s light up this entire, load shedding landscape with the smiles of the 2.6 million other Nepali child laborers who still need rescuing.

Impressions from the Field

Karie Cross | Posted July 28th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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A few days ago, BASE staff member Birbal took Adrienne and me out into the field to visit the local Child Clubs of two villages to learn about their activities and to encourage their participation in a district-wide advocacy project (which will be revealed in great detail at a later date).  I had been under the impression that Tulsipur was rural, and indeed it is after the bustle of Kathmandu.  But out in Chootkighumna, Tulsipur’s bus horns, political announcements via loudspeaker, clattering of spicy dishes and smells of sweaty, striving humanity are all a distant memory. 

The Deukhuri Valley

It would be very easy to romanticize the seemingly idyllic existence in Chootkighumna.  The pastoral landscape is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, and all of the children seemed happy and well.  But beneath the shy smiles and positive attitudes of the children lies a different story of poverty and desperation.  The thatched roofs leak.  The poorest children cannot afford school supplies.  Too many children in rural areas, especially above age fourteen, become unmotivated, drop out of school, and turn to drugs and alcohol. 

Child Club members

As impoverished as it is, Chootkighumna’s Child Friendly Village status makes it one of the better environments for children in this area.  These particular Child Club members did not know any child laborers personally because the practice has been eradicated in their village.  But they are still working very hard to ensure that all children of school-age stay enrolled in classes. 

What impressed me the most in Chootkighumna was the resolve and strength of the Child Club members.  They were courteous to the strange, older Americans, but they were not afraid to truthfully voice their concerns (a leaky roof and the drop-out rate) and hopes (education for all and good teachers) when we began a discussion about child labor and education in their village. 

One young lady in particular, the 16 year old President of the club named Nilam Chaudhary, spoke many times about the club’s activities and the importance of education.  I could see why she had been elected President, as her charisma and confidence demanded the attention of everyone in the room. 

Nilam and her friends emphasized independence and standing on their own strength.  They seem to realize that education is the one, sure-fire way they can help themselves.  BASE and other NGOs will continue to do good work, but these kids know that the strength of their united voice is their own greatest asset.

Do we need advocacy on behalf of activists?

Karie Cross | Posted July 12th, 2010 | India

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Well, it’s nearly mid-July and I’m still in the states.  I’m beginning to suspect that the Indian government simply doesn’t want me to come to Delhi.  Perhaps they’ll be accommodating enough to grant me a visa in another month or so, at which point I will have two weeks left until the second year of my Masters program begins at the University of Maryland.  Better late than never, Indian government!  (Not entirely true in this case, unfortunately.)

This visa snafu can be chalked up to three possibilities:

1) The requirements recently changed on unpaid internships, requiring employment rather than entry visas for the first time.  Changes in bureaucracy = delays, delays, delays.  This is just your run-of-the-mill, bureaucratic problem.

2) The Indian government has done an extensive background check on me, and they have come to the conclusion that I am up to no good.  Can’t be trusted.  Clearly a threat.  Notorious for:

Crocheting
Crocheting

And even:

Baking chocolate chip cookies
Baking chocolate chip cookies

3) This is merely indicative of much of the world’s changing attitude toward activists and the trouble they cause. 

Let’s explore option 3.  On July 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Krakow, Poland, about a “global activist crackdown.”  Clinton says that the “walls are closing in” on NGOs and non-profits that advocate on behalf of human rights.  She particularly cites Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, China and Russia, but I have to wonder whether changing the visa requirements for volunteers headed to India should not add the sub-continent to her list.

Here’s an excerpt from Clinton’s admirable speech:

Too many governments are seeing civic activists as opponents, rather than partners. And as democracies, we must recognize that this trend is taking place against a broader backdrop.  In the 20th century, crackdowns against civil society frequently occurred under the guise of ideology. Since the demise of Communism, most crackdowns seem to be motivated instead by sheer power politics. But behind these actions, there is an idea, an alternative conception of how societies should be organized. And it is an idea that democracies must challenge. It is a belief that people are subservient to their government, rather than government being subservient to their people.

 Now, this idea does not necessarily preclude citizens from forming groups that help their communities or promote their culture, or even support political causes. But it requires these private organizations to seek the state’s approval, and to serve the states and the states’ leaderships’ larger agenda.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that this is all just conjecture on my part.  Perhaps India recognizes the need for activists who work to further develop human rights in its comparatively new and widely admired democratic society

OR…perhaps the Indian government is embarrassed by the way it deals with many of its poorest citizens, like the wastepickers of Delhi who try time and again to tell their government what they need to live a dignified, healthy life.  Rabble rousers like me can only make that worse.  No wonder you won’t let me in, India.

Are we human?

Karie Cross | Posted June 18th, 2010 | India

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I’m supposed to leave for New Delhi in 22 hours.  Ordinarily, this circumstance would find me slipping 3 oz. bottles into ziploc bags, counting shirts, and making copies of my passport.  But alas, I’m sitting on my couch in Arkansas wondering whether India will ever decide to let me in!  My visa still hasn’t arrived.  I’ve called the embassy too many times to count, and IF I’m lucky enough to get through, they ask for my passport and application numbers instead of my name.  It’s enough to make anyone feel inhuman.

So I’m taking this opportunity of unexpected, extra summer couch-time to read everything I can get my hands on.  Here’s a passage from one of the India books I’ve been reading that really struck me:

In Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, a lot of Indian drivers are parked outside a glittering shopping mall in New Delhi, waiting for their rich masters to emerge from the air conditioning.  As they wait, one poor man (distinguished by the sandals on his feet, as opposed to the real shoes of rich men) attempts to enter but is stopped by guards at the door. 

Instead of backing off and going away– as nine in ten in his place would have done– the man in the sandals exploded.  ‘Am I not a human being too?’

I imagine that this is how the wastepickers must feel sometimes, when the government disregards their rights and privatizes the very recycling services that the wastepickers have been performing for decades.  Are they not Indian citizens too?  Should not every citizen of the world’s largest democracy be able to speak freely about his or her rights?

Ghazipur landfill in Delhi

In an article published in 2009, Neha Sinha writes about the inherent dirtiness and subsequent discrimination that comes from a career in wastepicking.  Relying upon research done by Chintan, Sinha reports:

We [insert Indians, Westerners, government officials, whatever you like] think wastepickers take irreverent pride in being dirty, or do not care about being dirty.  But a study done by Chintan in Delhi shows that it is the “dirtiness” of the wastepickers which prevents them from finding a place in hospitals, toilets, public watering points, and society itself.  Further, the study shows that the dirt is not just a consequence of work conditions, but also wastepickers’ living conditions, with most of them simply not having access to facilities for cleanliness.  And finally: nearly 100 percent of the wastepickers say they aspire to be clean. 

Just because the wastepickers have grown used to their living conditions does not mean that those living conditions are acceptable.  Of course they aspire to be clean!  They are human beings too. 

Wastepickers, for what it’s worth, I’m coming as quickly as I can.  I can’t wait to meet you!  Here’s hoping the Indian embassy will let me.

Fellow: Karie Cross

BASE


Tags

Adiga advocacy Amartya Sen BASE capability approach carbon footprint child club Child Friendly Village child labor children's rights Delhi dhal bhat eating meat education environment HDCA health care human rights India international development Kamalari load shedding Nepal New Delhi vaccines wastepickers women's rights


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