Looking Out for Little Sisters

I didn’t know the right age for school. When I was a little girl, all my friends were in school but I was not. So I used to ask my father, ‘when can I go to school?’ He always replied, ‘next year.’ I used to dream wearing school uniforms, carrying books in book bag and walking to school. But the ‘next year’ never came to me. One day I asked my seriously sick mother the same question that I used to ask my father. She replied, ‘We can hardly afford food and clothes for you, how can we meet the school expenses?’ Her answer made me realize our situation.

These are the words of Bidhya*, a young girl from Nepal.

The Issue

By many accounts, Nepal is the poorest country in Asia. Gender disparity, especially in education, is a critical issue. UNDP estimates that 66% of Nepalese men can read and write, while only 43% of females can. Young girls who are not in school are particularly susceptible to the injustices of child trafficking for the sex trade, child labor, and child marriage. In Nepal’s rural areas over 10% of girls are married by the age of seven, and 40% are married by the age of 14. UNICEF estimates 13,000 girls are sexually exploited in Kathmandu alone.

As school can be costly for families, marriage or sex traffickers promising “employment” can appear attractive prospects to parents struggling to put food on the table or young girls looking for a better life.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

We at the Little Sisters Fund believe the best way to combat these risks is ensuring girls the safety of being in school, the security of knowing they can continue, and the opportunity to succeed. We seek out girls like Bidhya, who have a burning desire to learn and work hard, but whose financial circumstances prevent it. Giving girls educational opportunity, the support they need to thrive in school, and the confidence to stand up to societal pressures is far more effective (both in terms of monetary and human costs) than trying to rescue and rehabilitate young women from unjust labor or the sex industry.

That’s why the Little Sisters Fund provides long-term scholarships to girls like Bidhya. Once we get girls in school, we surround them with support through complementary programs. These include preventative healthcare and health education because healthy children do better in school, teacher training to improve the overall quality of education, and counseling and awareness raising programs to chip away at entrenched gender expectations in the community. Finally, older and graduated “Little Sisters” give back by serving as mentors, which has the dual impact of bolstering their leadership capabilities and providing younger girls with much-needed female role models who are confident, compassionate, educated, and employed.

A few years ago, Bidhya passed her 10th-grade School Leaving Certificate with flying colors. Throughout our 15-year history, our girls have a 99% pass rate on this test – more than double the national pass rate. Bidhya is now in her second year on scholarship at a U.S university, where she is studying to become a nurse.

How Long Does Change Take?

The drastic change in Bidhya’s life and future prospects didn’t happen overnight. In a world of short attention spans and people searching for instant results, we believe that change takes time—half a generation, in fact. Unlike other programs and interventions that seek to “reach” a large number of “beneficiaries” through short-term projects, the Little Sisters Fund aims to maximize the impact of our investments by funding the full education of our girls for 8-12 years. And while half a generation may seem like a long time, we understand that educating a girl breaks the cycle of poverty—and once it is broken, it is broken for good.

What You Can Do

You can support girls like Bidhya in a number of ways:

  • Stay in touch with us and help us spread the word via Facebook
  • Follow us on Twitter at @LSF_Nepal
  • Share this story with your friends and network
  • Or visit www.littlesistersfund.org to read more stories like Bidhya’s or support us financially.

* Name has been changed

Why Mothers Need More Than a Hospital

In rural Nepal, pregnancy is referred to as a “gamble with death.”

Photo Credit: Possible

Rupa nearly lost the gamble. She was born in her own home, but her mother warned her of the dangers of home births. Rupa, like so many other pregnant women, wanted to give birth in a safe healthcare facility near her home.

When she went into labor, she immediately journeyed to the nearest clinic. There was only one midwife present and part way through her delivery the nurse suspected complications.

Rupa knew she needed additional help.

Rupa is from a district called Mellekh, which is a two-hour drive over rough roads to our hospital in Bayalpata—a drive that is impossible to make during the monsoon season because of the road conditions. Rupa called for an ambulance. Possible’s ambulance driver came to pick her up and bring her to our hospital in time to safely deliver a baby boy.

Rupa’s story has a happy ending. She gave birth to a beautiful baby boy after an intense labor and the imperative help of two of our midwives. Mothers who are fortunate to be close to a hospital can also experience safe and healthy deliveries. Without having trained staff and professional services, the baby could have died. At Possible’s hospital hub in rural Nepal, the number of births taking place within the facility has grown over 900% since 2010. We believe a hospital is not enough.

What pregnant women really need, in a region with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, is access to safe birthing centers closer to their homes and support throughout their pregnancies.

Which is why Possible exists, and why we have pioneered an approach called Durable Healthcare that puts safe births at the center of our integrated model. It is also why the percentage of women delivering in health facilities is one of our six Key Performance Indicators.

We solve the problems of pregnant mothers like Rupa by having female community health workers provide training and referral support in villages. The health workers coordinate with local community governments to transform clinics into safe birthing centers and link clinics to a central hospital with ambulances for emergency deliveries.

This model is supported financially through a partnership with the Nepali government’s Safe Motherhood Program, where both pregnant mothers and Possible receive payments for attending prenatal care visits and delivering in a health facility. It is a model of safe births that works fully for pregnant women, not partially—a model that ensures all mothers can have a happy ending like Rupa.

This post is from one of our partners. Possible, is a healthcare company that delivers high-quality, low-cost healthcare to the world’s poor. 

Women LEAD: Summer Development Internship in Nepal

Women LEAD  empowers young women to take key leadership positions alongside men in Nepal. Women LEAD is the first and only leadership development organization for young women in Kathmandu, Nepal. Since 2011, we’ve empowered more than 400 female high school students with the skills, support and opportunities to become leaders in their schools, communities and nation.

Women LEAD is looking for an excellent writer who is passionate about young women changing the world and wants to get international development experience. The Development Intern will join our team in Kathmandu for the summer (at least two months) and have the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on our organizational growth and sustainability. We’re looking for self-motivated students/recent graduates who want to work in a fun, collaborative, and fast-paced environment; bring their own strengths and creativity to the position; and dive into our work on young women’s leadership development.

S/he will fulfill an important role as we pursue grants and local funding for our projects and administration, providing essential research for the development of our grant prospecting and application strategy. The intern will assist the US Executive Director with grant prospecting and writing while gaining on-the-ground experience in fundraising and grassroots development. S/he will work closely with our staff and participants in Nepal to collect and compile information on our qualitative and quantitative impact and create content to be used for future grants. This is an excellent opportunity to learn about fundraising strategies and grant writing for a small nonprofit.

Deadline is February 15th. Please click here for more information.

Half the Sky: A Life-Changing Read

It all started my sophomore year of high school, after I read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. A riveting call to arms against the injustices that women face, Half the Sky not only underscores the alarming dimensions of discrimination that women experience, but also highlights the urgent need for us to tackle these problems and turn the tides against gender inequality.

After reading Half the Sky, it became self-evident that education is not only a catalyst for positive social change, but also a crucial springboard for gender equality and women’s empowerment. The compelling stories of women whose voices had been silenced inspired me to advocate for women’s and girls’ education. I wanted to help women escape the myriad poverty traps in which they found themselves, desired to move them one step closer to being adequately equipped to contribute to the fabric of society, independent of any hurdles that worked against them.

Givology pioneers a new model of "crowdfunding" philanthropy to make the largest impact at the lowest cost. Since its launch in 2008, Givology has raised more than $300,000 to help over 2,800 students in 26 countries through 46 grassroots partnerships (Source: Givology)
Givology pioneers a new model of “crowdfunding” philanthropy to make the largest impact at the lowest cost. Since its launch in 2008, Givology has raised more than $300,000 to help over 2,800 students in 26 countries through 46 grassroots partnerships (Source: Givology)

The first step I took after I finished Half the Sky was to apply for a volunteer position at Givology, an online giving marketplace that leverages dollar donations to grassroots education projects in the developing world, making my first foray into the world of nonprofit management. Givology’s enlivening mission of giving every child access to a quality education and its phenomenal network of volunteers, giving teams, grassroots partners, and donors resonated with me deeply, ultimately motivating me to start a Givology chapter in Hong Kong in support of Givology’s women’s education-focused partners.

I have had the time of my life so far leading local advocacy campaigns and fundraising initiatives with Givology’s Hong Kong chapter, which is currently raising funds for family violence intervention training and vocal empowerment programs for women in Guatemala, for Starfish One by One. Through education and mentorship, Starfish One by One harnesses female momentum to accelerate change, achieving this in Guatemala, the Western Hemisphere’s worst context for women.

Through an innovative program and bar-setting mentorship, Starfish One by One, one of Givology's grassroots partners, is creating a generation of 500 empowered, rural indigenous women that will unlock the doors for thousands of others and break cycles of poverty (Source: Starfish One by One)
Through an innovative program and bar-setting mentorship, Starfish One by One, one of Givology’s grassroots partners, is creating a generation of 500 empowered, rural indigenous women that will unlock the doors for thousands of others and break cycles of poverty (Source: Starfish One by One)

In Guatemala, Mayan women and girls live on the fringes of society, trapped on the bottom rung of the Guatemalan social ladder. Only 5% of rural Mayan girls complete their elementary school education, 70% of women are illiterate, and an estimated 9 in 10 women have been a victim of domestic violence. These foreboding figures should propel us to act, to give in a sustainable way that transforms these girls’ families and communities into more healthy and equitable entities.

Equally close to my heart is my work with Women LEAD Nepal. An incredible nonprofit with the mission of empowering adolescent girls to become leaders, Women LEAD Nepal values the voices and opinions of young women, expediting women’s access to the same educational, professional and leadership opportunities as their male counterparts.

In societies that are patriarchal and male-dominated, women form an under-served population and for the most part find it difficult to stand their ground. Having kickstarted a Women LEAD chapter in Hong Kong as a junior in high school, I witness the manifold returns of investing in women’s education and leadership training, namely bolstered confidence, the ability to self-identify as a leader, amplified voices in acts of advocacy, and clearer work-life goals. We see Women LEAD’s students pursuing tertiary study and professional paths in avenues of their choice, see a rise in sustainable family units and further inter-generational transmission of literacy.

Women LEAD's Leadership Institute in 2013. 90% of Women LEAD’s graduates are attending university in Nepal, India, the USA and Bangladesh - an amazing feat! Women LEAD’s programs equip young women with leadership skills not just for the future, but starting today. (Source: Women LEAD Nepal)
Women LEAD’s Leadership Institute in 2013. 90% of Women LEAD’s graduates are attending university in Nepal, India, the USA and Bangladesh – an amazing feat! Women LEAD’s programs equip young women with leadership skills not just for the future, but starting today. (Source: Women LEAD Nepal)

One component of women’s empowerment that Women LEAD also stresses is solidarity. It’s not about individual success or personal development, but advancing together as an empowered, enlightened community of women. Women LEAD’s Leadership Institute provides hands-on leadership training that adequately equips girls for career success; it simultaneously redefines traditional masculine roles and foregrounds sisterhood, underlining the potency of women’s alliances. A crucial synergy of friendship and mentorship is at the crux of Women LEAD’s vision of effecting real and sustained change for women; it is this synthesis that can, with education, break cycles of poverty and set girls on the path to prosperity.

My acquaintance with these two remarkable organizations began only after I read Half the Sky, a true testament to the fact that a little help can transform the lives of women and girls around the world. I can only imagine how many millions of others were spurred into action after reading Kristof and WuDunn’s stories of resilience and courage. Such is the immense power of Half the Sky, which strikes chords within us and imbues us with the confidence that we can – as part of the movement to improve the lives of women and girls – make a difference.

External Resources:

The Half the Sky Movement is dedicated to ending the oppression of women worldwide. Through inspiring stories of extraordinary women, this movement hopes to not only raise awareness of women’s issues, but also provide concrete ways to empower women.

Givology is a 100% volunteer-run social enterprise that connects donors and volunteers to grassroots education projects and student scholarships around the world. From school supplies to library construction to empowerment workshops, it emphasizes transparency and maximizing the impact per dollar given.

Women LEAD is the first and only leadership development organization for young women in Nepal. Having empowered more than 200 young women to become leaders in their schools and communities, Women LEAD’s programs women with intensive yearlong leadership training, skills building, mentoring, and a peer-support network.

Combating Child Marriage in Nepali Villages

Photo Credit: Her Turn
Photo Credit: Her Turn

By: Kathryn Sall, Her Turn Intern

Renuka Thapa came to Nani Maya Gurung’s office crestfallen. Between her tears, broken sentences filled the room. For weeks she had fought with her parents. They were forcing her to get married, but at 18 years old, she wasn’t ready. She had hopes and dreams of a life in Kathmandu – working, earning an income, living on her own. About to complete grade 12, she wanted to finish school and use her education. They wouldn’t listen. Marriage was the appropriate and most secure next step for their daughter, and they felt it their right and duty to make the decision for her. Why waste time finishing school when they had a stable future lined up for her? Renuka disagreed. Thankfully she went to Nani, and thankfully Nani had observed a Her Turn workshop.

Nani sits with her shoulders slightly rounded, eyes fixated on the Nepali district map behind me. Her long black plait rests on her back and her weathered, tawny hands nervously click a pen on the desk in front of her. She speaks with caution, answering our questions with brevity and somber eyes. I strain for her eye contact, but she only gives fleeting glances to Wongmu, the Her Turn Field Coordinator. A teacher at Shree Devi Secondary School, Nani observed the Her Turn girls’ education and empowerment workshop three months ago. We came to Nani’s village, Petku, to conduct interviews with the workshop’s participants, their parents, and their teachers. We hoped to better understand Her Turn’s impact on the community.

With time, Wongmu softens Nani. In answering our questions, the stolid face begins to show glimmers of a grin. She gushes about the changes in the girls – their increased confidence, ability to communicate and stand up for themselves, willingness to take risks. We relish in the good news. The conversation then turns to heavier parts of the curriculum, the often unspoken realities that individuals in her village face – domestic violence, sexual abuse, human trafficking, and child marriage. As Wongmu broaches child marriage, Nani’s staidness returns. Child marriage plagues the village, she tells us. And the consequences are dire.

In fact, child marriage plagues all of Nepal.

An estimated 41% of girls younger than 18 are married off by their parents. In more than one third of new marriages in Nepal, the girl is younger than 15. Often forced into the marriages because of lower dowries, the illusion of protection from the new husband, or a lessened financial burden, the young brides suffer physically, psychologically, and emotionally.

Once married, girls are forced into sexual activity and become pregnant before their bodies fully mature. Young mothers’ pregnancies often lead to debilitating physical ailments like uterine prolapse – a serious and painful condition in which the tendons and ligaments surrounding the uterus can no longer hold it, and it slides into the vaginal area. These girls experience tremendous pain during sexual intercourse, vaginal bleeding, urinary incontinence, and difficulty performing the day to day manual labor expected of them. Even a task as seemingly simple as lifting a baby can become near impossible, not to mention cooking, cleaning, child care, and agricultural work. Women who suffer uterine prolapse are deemed “impure” by their husbands. They are more likely to suffer from marital rape and domestic abuse.

Obstetric fistula, a condition in which the mother’s pelvis is too small for the baby’s shoulders or head during labor, is also common in child pregnancy. Caesarian sections have all but eliminated obstetric fistula in countries with the medical access. Protracted labor causes fistula, tearing of the vaginal wall. While difficult to track in rural areas, reports show occurrences in 88% of girls’ pregnancies between the ages of 10 and 14. And it comes with the same social stigma as uterine prolapse. Thus girls fear consequences and neglect to seek treatment. The younger a mother, the more likely she is to experience these conditions. The prevalence of obstetric fistula and uterine prolapse are difficult to estimate precisely because of the stigma attached to these conditions.

Early pregnancy is the single leading cause of death in girls 15 to 19 years old in low income countries.

The ramifications of child marriage extend beyond pregnancy related trauma. The younger the girl, the more likely she is to be abused. Marriage often means the end of a girl’s education, limiting her agency and ability to earn income. Human traffickers often marry young girls, promising families a safe and secure future, only to sell them into the sex trade.

Despite its widespread acceptability and prevalence, child marriage is illegal in Nepal.

With parental consent, Nepali law states that a girl must be 18 years old to marry. Without parental consent, she must be 20. Though seldom enforced, these laws may better the lives of Nepali young women.

Armed with this knowledge from the Her Turn workshop, Nani met with Renuka’s parents. She explained that though frequently ignored or unknown, Nepali law prohibits child marriage. They could not force marriage onto their unwilling daughter. The ability to support herself by if imaging her education would give Renuka security and independence. Why quit school now when their daughter was so close to finishing? After days of convincing, they finally conceded. Renuka now lives and works in Kathmandu. She is finishing school and working part time in a corporate office.

The fight against child marriage is not straightforward or easy. The issue is tangled with poverty, dowries, misogyny, fixed gender roles, and lack of education. Nepal needs policy enforcement with heavy consequences on a nationwide scale as well as localized intervention programs. But mostly, communities and individuals need education. With increased awareness of the realities of child marriage, perhaps girls’ school enrollment and retention rates will improve. And through education comes a world of possibilities. Hopefully Renuka’s choice to delay marriage does exactly that.

Join Her Turn on Facebook, read more blog posts from Her Turn and sponsor a girl’s life skills education by donating to Her Turn.


Read more related posts on Girls’ Globe:

Women LEAD, a volunteer’s reflection


By Megan Foo

Volunteering with Women LEAD has opened my eyes to the harrowing reality that many girls in Nepal face: the reality of being denied a quality education.

The initiatives I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of, be it conducting research on girls’ education in Nepal, blogging about the importance of women’s leadership, or leading our Hong Kong chapter and organizing fundraising events to provide leadership training to Women LEAD’s girl pioneers in Nepal, have reminded me of the host of deep-rooted obstacles to education equity in countries ravaged by extreme poverty. The prospect of attending school remains a distant dream for girls in Nepal, many of whom face cultural, gender-based and economic barriers to education.

But more significantly, volunteering with Women LEAD has shown me the importance of leveraging the power of women. Women LEAD has adopted an enlightened philosophy: the full participation of women in schools and decision-making levels is crucial to creating peaceful and inclusive societies. Our untiring advocates, who are hellbent on fighting for gender equality and women’s leadership, work with the belief that neither a family’s economic situation nor deep-rooted social stigmas should limit a girl’s potential to succeed in school and become a game-changing leader in her community.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once said,

Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.

The impact of giving a girl an education reverberates in myriad contexts and changes the very fabric of our society, turning the tides of gender inequality and safeguarding our global economy. Claire Charamnac, Women LEAD’s Co-Founder and United States Executive Director, is a relentless champion of women’s education and leadership. A young female leader herself, Claire understands the importance of empowering girls with the same opportunities as those given to boys, and believes absolutely in the power of women to create change in their communities and nation.

In Nepal, 60% percent of women are illiterate and one-third of girls ages 15-19 are married.

A meager 18% of Nepali women have a secondary education or higher and 10% of the country’s leaders are women. However, the dedicated team at Women LEAD stresses the need for girls’ education, and emphasize that education, including leadership training, is critical in lifting girls out of poverty and breaking the glass ceiling.

Our Leadership Institute’s results are astonishing: 90% of Women LEAD’s graduates are attending university in Nepal, India, the USA and Bangladesh.

The girls who come into our programs lack family support for their academic and vocational choices, and have limited access to financial and educational resources needed for their professional success. Women LEAD’s programs, however, equip young women with leadership skills not just for the future, but starting today. Over the course of the leadership programs, our participants actively channel their skills and knowledge to empower hundreds of girls in their community.

Leadership workshops for younger girls shed light on issues typically swept under the rug, including domestic violence, reproductive education, gender-based discrimination and corporal punishment.

Women LEAD’s dynamic Internship Track allows women to intern at Nepali NGOs and hone their professional skills, gaining work experience in their chosen field. Through our School Leadership and Internship Tracks, women will learn more about themselves and their country, and potentially spearhead Nepal’s political and economic initiatives.

But Women LEAD’s work does not stop here.

We hope to provide scholarships to 160 promising young women leaders: 10 year-long scholarships, and 150 four-month scholarships. By supporting Women LEAD and sponsoring scholarships for our next generation of women leaders, you will engender a safe community of young leaders where women realize that their opinions, passions and talents matter. Bygiving these girls a chance to attend school, you will be empowering them to gain confidence in their skills, and encouraging them to raise their voices and become the vanguards for change. You are not just investing in one woman; you’re investing in the future of Nepal, and the future of our society.  

Donate, spread the word, and help Women LEAD change Nepal, one young woman leader at a time.