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Teaching a girl to fish
A trek to the world’s highest peak gives rise to one of education’s greatest endeavours.
Little Januka (not her real name) grew up on the streets of Katmandu, selling trinkets to try to make enough money to eat and feed her three younger sisters. Her mother had passed away and her father had abandoned them. She moved in with her grandmother but had to work as a housemaid to warrant her keep. At age 15 she met with an opportunity to change her world.
She received a grant from The Little Sisters Fund (LSF) to enroll in a local government school. But she had to return each day from school to her grandmother’s where she continued to work as a maid without any salary. As a result, her initial tuition grant was extended to include room and board at a boarding school. From then on Januka’s future began to look more hopeful. “After going through such a terrible childhood, the main challenges for me were to do well in school so that I would be able to stand on my on two feet and do something for my other sisters.”
Today, not only has she made a difference to her three sisters, but she’s also working to improve the lives of young girls who, like her, lacked the privilege of having a basic education and a chance to be independent.
“Today all my sisters are proud of me. I am a commerce graduate and work as a receptionist in one of the best high schools in Nepal. I am very confident and can face any hurdles that come across my path. People in my village can’t believe that the little girl who used to work as a housemaid and was once helpless is now confident and can stand on her feet in a big city like Katmandu.”
Januka was recently married at the age of 22, in a country where the average age of marriage is 15. She often responds as a mentor to other “little sisters” who have received grants from the LSF. “I decided to remain [as a mentor] because this fund helped make my dreams come true, and it’s enabled me to lead an independent life and most importantly it gave me the opportunity to study.”
Over 40% of children in Nepal are working, and of these 60% are girls. Januka might be considered lucky, for more than 10,000 girls per year are trafficked for the sex trade, with Nepal ranking sixth in the world for child labour and having the most per capita human trafficking offenders worldwide. 20% of sex workers in Nepal are under 16.
The literacy rates of females in Nepal are also staggering at a mere 28%, compared to 64% in males. Januka now joins the ranks of the 51% of working females who have received an education. But Januka’s outcome wasn’t due entirely to a lucky streak. Her fortune is the result of a consolidated and diligent effort by several individuals throughout the world, an effort spurred by a young American who was out on a trek in Nepal. So many others have arrived from his part of the world; yet so few have left the country with the determination to make as much of a change as he has planned.
Trevor Patzer, the founder of the LSF, had a rather lucky childhood himself. He relates, “When I was 12 or 13 a family friend offered that if I was accepted to St. Paul’s School, an elite US boarding school, he would pay my tuition expenses. I was accepted in the spring of 1989 and true to his word, he paid for me to attend. He gave me the gift of education and it changed my life profoundly. Since my first day at St. Paul’s I’ve known that I wanted to help others, as I was helped, through the gift of education.
At age 25, Patzer took a trip to Nepal to trek to the base camp of Mount Everest, “It was then that I was exposed for the first time to the educational support needs in Nepal.” Patzer described the poverty he witnessed to be severe and widespread, “There is simply not enough to go around. Not enough money, food, clothing, housing or affordable educational opportunities. Just having food on the table for dinner is a luxury.” Patzer explains, “much of the country survives on subsistence farming and millions of people work long hours doing manual labour for less than the equivalent of 1 US dollar per day.”
After travelling over 5,000 km, Patzer realised that for a fraction of the cost he could help a student go to school. Today, his goal is to provide a million years of educational support amongst all LSF grant recipients by 2050. That equates to raising about $250,000,000 in the next 42 years, a hefty but not unachievable figure. The LSF is funded entirely by donations from individuals and foundations abroad, and today it supports just over 430 Little Sisters. Patzer hopes that number will grow to at least 650 next year, and that the number of scholarship recipients will reach over 122,000 by 2050.
If you think about it hard, that isn’t really a tall order. It is without doubt a big ambition for him and for all the staff, volunteers, mentors and donors involved in the LSF. The numbers may seem daunting, but the biggest investment it seems has already been deposited: that of hope.
The fate of Nepal’s future women lies in a few dollars. $150 pays for a year of tuition, books, supplies and a uniform for one Little Sister in a government school. $300 pays for one year of tuition, books, supplies and a uniform for one Little Sister in a private English speaking school. $1,250 supports all educational costs for one girl for the full term (6-8 years) in a government school. $2,500 supports all educational costs for one girl for the full term (6-8 years) in a private English speaking school where the girls write monthly letters to their sponsors.
$2,500 is about the average amount of fees for a term of university education in most developed nations. In Nepal, that one term spent in university could change the fate of a disadvantaged girl forever. But why just girls? Aren’t boys important too?
Last year, a friend of mine working with the United Nations Development Program in communities in Laos and East Timor, explained to me how educating and providing monetary support to a woman, usually a mother, also meant providing education and support for her family. But educating a man and giving him money, would end with him. Her two sentences were a simple explanation to the highly complex nature of people in desperate and disadvantaged situations.
It is not the first time the education of females has been given greater clout over the education of males. In a 2004 speech, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “I believed and still believe that there is no way that we can address the question of equity and social justice, that we can address the question of economics, that we can address the question of poverty, until all of us – the men and women in this room and millions and hundreds of millions outside – understand that the role of women has been grossly underestimated and under-reflected in many societies around the world…But I am absolutely clear that if we are to make a difference in society, that the role of women as has often been said is not just the role of educating one man to make him educated. The role is educate a woman and you educate a family.”
After working in Nepal for the past eight years, Trevor tells me that many people have asked if there is resentment that the LSF focuses on education for girls, and he explains that the people working with the LSF in Nepal have been excellent at working within the cultural confines of Nepal. He says, “To date, we have experienced very little kick-back. We take the needed time to stress and to communicate the importance of female education. As former Secretary General to the UN, Kofi Annan stated in 2003, ‘We know that there is no tool for development more powerful than the education of girls and the empowerment of women.’ The Little Sisters Fund addresses both and the people understand this and instead of being resentful, are appreciative for the opportunities we provide. Our support of girls also frees up additional resources for the other children to go to school (both male and female) and the families and society are most grateful for this.”
Those who will be even more grateful however, are the little girls that were once like Januka.
“My future plan is to do well in life and also to do something for the LSF which changed my life. Though I may not be able to help financially, I will always be there whenever I am needed.” That was the reply I got from Januka when I asked what her future plans were. It’s very inspiring to learn that after being empowered by this very unique gift of education, her future plans are to simply pay it forward.
“I hope they all will do well as they are very good and smart sisters. So far the programme has done so much for girls like us be it in education, health or other related things. I hope that later the programme will expand to other parts of Nepal, spreading the light of education to all the other underprivileged girls as well contributing to the country to produce enough human power for the development of the country.”
I could hear the young Januka again, the little girl that was touched and inspired. More importantly however, is the confident and hopeful revolutionary of the future that resonates within her – all fired up and craving for change to improve the lives of others like her.
The best part about all of this is that it isn’t something as difficult to grapple with and solve as say, climate change. Changing the life of even one girl is an effort that almost anyone privileged enough to pick up this magazine and comprehend it can afford. Finally, a state of affairs that doesn’t leave you sitting back and saying, “So? What can I do?”
For more information about The Little Sisters Fund, and on how you can donate, visit www.littlesistersfund.org
Debby Ng is an environmental photojournalist whose work has been published in several regional and international magazines, including the award-winning Lebanese magazine, Environment & Development. She has also worked with numerous Asian and international non-government organisations such as the TRAFFIC, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).