Living in Nepal made me acknowledge there are far scarier things in this world than the worries I make up in my own head, that many children live through nightmares instead of just experiencing them in their sleep. Common stories Nepali children face (including ones I met and spent time with) would involve everything from rape and child sex trafficking to extreme poverty, physical abuse leading to permanent disfigurement, slavery, discrimination based on their caste and frequent natural disasters resulting in homelessness and loss of loved ones.
Human Trafficking in Nepal is and continues to be a major problem with young girls the prime target. Lonely Planet Guide Nepal (2012) estimate that 10,000 – 15,000 girls are tricked or sold every year into servitude, either as domestic factory or sex workers. They estimate that over 100,000 Nepali women are working in Indian brothels while UNICEF (2017) believe there are 13,000 girls being sexually exploited in Kathmandu alone. Unfortunately, even if these women are somehow able to return to Nepal they are shunned by their families and have virtually no assistance for themselves or any children. To gain a firsthand encounter, I recommend reading Sold by Patricia McCormick told through the eyes of a 13-year-old Nepalese village girl sold into child sex trafficking. I have a copy anyone is welcome to borrow, but please note it is an extremely confronting novel, at times I had to put it down and couldn’t pick it up again for weeks. Despite all their daily struggles and disheartening life stories the Nepali people’s resilience and ability to continue in the face of adversity is both remarkable and admirable. Anxiety and frustration are words not known to Nepali people and even trying to explain what these words meant were difficult.
Waiting for that feeling
During my time in Nepal my stomach would constantly be in knots and I found it difficult to sleep at night, constantly waking up with my thoughts, trying to dream up some ingenious idea of how I could make a genuine difference during my time in Nepal. I wish I could say I had an epiphany, that I was filled with warm, fuzzy, rewarding feelings but the reality was, I didn’t. Instead I felt overwhelmed with sadness and guilt. I had been lucky enough to be born into a developed country while 22,000 children in developing countries die each day due to poverty (UNICEF, 2017).
I had travelled halfway across the world filled with passion and inspiration to make a difference, even changing my travel time in Nepal from 2 to 6 weeks to ensure the trip was meaningful. I thoroughly researched NGOs, avoiding any large businesses charging ridiculous amounts of money to ‘volunteer’ with them and was very happy to see the children of NOH living in high standards and receiving a great education at a local private school. However, while my 6-week program fee did a world of good for the orphans, my placement was another story. Following Ramechhap, I tried (unsuccessfully) to get placements teaching at local Kathmandu schools (who were already overloaded with volunteers) and ended up working in Physiotherapy at a Special Education and Rehabilitation Centre (an area I am completely inexperienced in), an institution filled with many young, student volunteers. It was a great experience and I befriended and loved all the children, but did I feel I was making a genuine difference to their lives? No. Maybe I had improved their lives temporarily, buying them clothing and treating them with as much love, kindness, and patience as I possibly could until another volunteer came along and (hopefully) did the same. But, in reflection, a long-term stay is the only way to make a genuine difference, not a few weeks. Any small progress that may have been made may not last if the same learning practices are not carried on.
I found my time in Nepal confronting and overwhelming with a difficult living environment, even cutting my time there short by one week after my health began to deteriorate. Overall, it was a humbling experience and I truly learnt how many simple things I had taken for granted from sanitary bathroom facilities to clean, running water. I now find myself enjoying the smallest things, brushing my teeth with tap water, soft bedding, western toilet facilities, proper roads, wheelie bins and more! I only hope I never forget my experience in Nepal and continue to appreciate everything I have as a result of being born in Australia.
NOTE: Unfortunately, not all Orphanages are like NOH, with many taking advantage of the ‘Voluntourism’ trend. For this reason, there are even calls to outlaw 'voluntourism' with both SBS and ABC weighing up on the issue and many questioning the harmful impacts short term placements have on the children. You can find more information here and recent news articles published by ABC here or on The Feed SBS VICELAND here.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and considered a LDC (Least Developed Country). I had travelled to Nepal with the hope to make a difference, to teach and educate but instead I felt overwhelmed by my actual ability to make a difference in a country whose religion was so deeply ingrained in the culture. Despite most outdated cultural beliefs being ruled as illegal in the past decade (yes, that recently) customs are still widely practiced especially outside urban areas. A few issues I am passionately opposed to include but not limited to:
Chhaupadi - the act of banishing women to the cow sheds during their period and following child birth (also referred to as being jiuto – impure) was only made illegal in 2005 although if you follow the Nepali media you will find it’s still widely practiced in villages outside of the cities. You can read about a recent case where an 18 year old Nepali woman died while being banished to a shed during her period here. Even within the cities while women are not required to leave the house it is common for them to not be permitted to prepare food or come in physical contact with anyone whilst menstruating. Some remote Nepalese communities even believe they will suffer bad luck, such as natural disasters, abrupt death of animals, and illnesses, if women are not banished to huts or cowsheds when they menstruate. On top of experiencing isolation, women can be prohibited from drinking and given less or no food to eat while they are on their period.
The Caste System and being born into a lower caste and therefore a lesser ‘human’ because is a belief that you have done wrong in your previous life and this is your karma (puts a new spin on what we refer to karma in the western world doesn’t it). Lower castes accept this as their fate and rarely question the brutality they receive from being born into a lower caste. This can also be the attitudes and beliefs for people born with disabilities and as a result are sometimes treated inhumanely.
Kamalari - When poor rural families are desperate for money or cannot afford to look after their children, they may sell their young daughters into slavery for very little money often to higher caste families. These girls are known as Kamalaris and are often faced with inhumane standards of living, physical abuse and some even wind up dead. You can gain some insight into this practice here.
Women Inequality - I witnessed women inequality first hand and although education is breaking down some barriers, especially in urban areas and Nepal has drastically improved women rights in the past decade, there are still many outdated beliefs. I watched as a wife sat on the dirt ground, waiting for her husband to finish his meal before she could eat her own, I watched her hike hours to collect and bring back 40L of water on her back while her husband sat around eating, I heard stories of discrimination against widows as many believe the wife is the cause of the husband’s death due to immoral acts (which are usually without any evidence) or crimes wives had committed in a previous life. Insight into this issue can be found here. Overall, some believe giving birth to a female child is considered less desirable as the female will eventually be sold through marriage to become the ‘house help’ for the husband’s family.
Violence Against Women - While women face many issues from lower literacy rates and less economic status, I’ll finish this section with a UNICEF quote regarding the violence experienced by Nepalese women. “As many as one in every five Nepali women experience physical violence and one in 10 sexual violence. Nearly 1 in 10 adolescents aged 15-19 experience physical violence during pregnancy. Most often the violence is perpetrated by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member.” (UNICEF, 2017)
As a treat to ourselves, one weekend my new Belgium friend and fellow volunteer, Mieke, travelled to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal with views of the Himalayas. I loaded up on travel medication knowing it would be a rocky bus ride and was glad I had; at times, it felt like we were on a ship in the middle of an angry ocean (the roads in Nepal are the worst I’ve experienced in all my travels). After about 8 hours, we finally arrived and checked into our cosy hotel, The Blue Planet Lodge, a short walk from the main strip. Pokhara had a really relaxed, holiday atmosphere; a huge lake acts as the center point and main attraction for the town. If I were to compare it to Kathmandu I would prefer to stay in Pokhara. Occasionally, when the weather was clear, we would catch glimpses of the Himalayas. It was breathtakingly beautiful and for the first time, I had a strong desire to trek through them.
We spent the weekend relaxing and enjoying the sites, everything from a family walking their cow to a cow sitting/guarding a shopfront. One encounter stood out in my mind; among all the beggar children we saw two young pre-teen girls each holding a baby. One of the babies was clothed, the other naked. As we passed, I turned back to see the girl with the clothed baby removing its clothes and it took me a moment to realise why; to get more money. Despite pulling at our heart strings, we did not give any money to the beggars knowing very well where it was likely to end up. If you enjoy reading, I highly recommend Little Princes by Conor Grennan as it gives insight into how these children end up begging in the streets. I have a copy if anyone wants to borrow!