Little Sisters


Photographers Edwin Koo and Debby Ng spent some time with underprivileged but inspirational girls in the highlands of Nepal where they are being helped by the charity Little Sisters Fund. catches up with the duo just before the opening of their photo exhibition on their time in Nepal.

little sisters

What have you learnt about female education in Nepal?

Edwin: Education is a given, a right, but not in Nepal. Poverty is still preventing girls from getting an education here. Education is very important, not just for its economic function. Education empowers the individual - it makes them aware of their rights and their potential - and that's very crucial to bring about change in Nepal.

What were some of the roles females play in Nepali society that you have experienced or observed?

Debby: When I first met the students, they're just like little girls their age. Most of them were shy and quiet. They don't speak unless they are spoken to, and when they do answer your questions, it's straight to the point, not beating around the bush and no extra answers.

I learned later that that's how they are taught to answer questions in school. After I got to know the girls, and they got to know me, I began to see that to call them little girls, or class them as "just a 10 year old" would be erroneous. The young girls are sisters, mothers, care takers, home keepers, role models, teachers, without even realising it.

In their tight-knit communities, they sometimes look after the neighbour's kid. They cook and look after their siblings. The keep the household in check. They're young mothers. Their mothers in turn, fulfi

ll the role that is conventionally thought to be the role of men and fathers. They go out to work, often times their jobs involve manual labour. Their bodies are extremely fit and some of them are even muscular, testament of the hard labour they endure.

Just say that they fulfil the role of men would be insufficient. Because when they come home, they are mothers again, checking that the kids are fed, that they've done their home work, play with them and read them stories, keeping the household in order. Thankfully, their daughters are well aware of their efforts. "Mother is God." says Aruna, one of the elder sisters of Baruna, who's one of the girls I followed for this project. Perhaps she answers the question.

Edwin: On one 8-hour bus ride, I discussed the topic of gender equality with a radio journalist whom i met on the journey. He had a Masters in English Literature, spoke very good English, and had a cosmopolitan outlook. But when I asked him why is it that mothers always eat last, and not together with her husband and son, he was stumped. It was a habit, culture, he explained. The "waiting on" role of women here speaks a lot about their social status.

While working on this project you spent a lot of time inside schools, observing classes. What were the classes like?

Edwin: Very well organised, but a lot of "what is" and "how does" questions. More critical thinking could help the students. 

Debby: Few questions are asked, students sit quiet and listen to teachers who read mostly out of the textbooks. Rote learning is very much the system of education in Nepal, as it is in many developing countries.

I met one particular girl named Menakshree who was very inquisitive and analytical, and these traits were almost entirely nurtured by her parents who are patient, and luckily for her, her dad is literate and able to read English fluently, though he is also shy when asked to speak English because he doesn't get much practice.

The interaction in the classroom is very much one-sided. That said, we'd only visited private schools, and the good ones, because the girls who have been awarded scholarships by the Little Sisters Fund go to schools that have been choosen by the Fund and assessed to be of a certain standard. We've heard that in government schools the situation is much more challenging for the students. Some teachers don't show up or classes end early. The result is that students learn less or eventually drop out of school. This is one of the reasons why the work of the LSF is crucial to yound women in Nepal, where most girls are expected to marry early and spend their young productive years toiling out in the fields. 

The education system there is largely affected by the political changes that have been happening in Nepal. Since 1990 and the restoration of a multi-party democracy, education has become a national obsession and the Constitution now assures that the state will be responsible for the education of every child. Despite this policy, problems remain where management is concerned.

It is challenging for the government to monitor how schools in cities and remote villages manage their schools. Private schools choose their own management system and decide on the fees and salaries of their teachers, and there are several cases where the installment of schools seem to be motivated by profit only.

On a positive note, since the 1950s completion of primary education has increased to at least 80 percent today from just 44 percent amongst children of school-going age. The government has also increased its spending on education from just 3 percent in the mid 1990s to 13 percent by the late 1990s. But whether these numbers tell anything of the standard of education in the nation is another question. 

I understand you spent a lot of your time in their homes, sharing intimate moments with the students and their families. Because most of them were girls and you being a male photographer, where there any specific challenges working with the girls and their families and how did you accommodate it?

Edwin: When I first meet them, I would lay down the "ground rules" for them. Nepalis are very accomodating and they seldom say "no", so I felt I needed to help them protect themselves. I would tell them first and foremost, that it's my privilege to be in their house observing them, and at any time, should they feel uncomfortable with my presence, they must tell me so I can make myself scarce.

I will also tell them that over and above the stories and pictures, the more important thing is them. My pictures are secondary to their needs. I try to make it clear to them, because respecting your subjects is very important for good journalism.

How did the teachers and parents of the students you were working with respond to you?

Debby: Teachers were very accommodating and cooperative. Initially students would get distracted by us being in the classroom because having someone running around you with a camera is not a common thing. Owning a camera is not a common thing! But the teachers managed to work together with us to keep the students calm and to remain attentive during class, which benefited our work because we needed the students to be comfortable and to practically ignore us so that we can observe them in as natural a setting as possible.

Edwin: The parents are very warm and welcoming. On most occasions, I had to decline lunch offers. Sometimes, they would sneak out and buy biscuits for me during tea time. They would buy the more expensive kind and insist that I finish it. It's very touching to see that people are so generous despite being so poor. The teachers were very accomodating. Once I explain to them my approach to photography, they would leave me alone to observe and explore angles.

Debby: Parents were very welcoming and very interested in our work. There were times when I wished I were able to better communicate with them because we speak a different language. Most of the time they try to show their hospitality by continually offering us drinks and food that we had to politely refuse because it's difficult to take photographs while you're eating! They were open to sharing with me their thoughts about putting their girls through school, their worries about keeping the home together because of employment problems and in the cases of some of them, fear that they might have to leave their homes if the landlord so decides. Everything is very volatile and uncertain and so they simply work as hard as they can to do what they can in the present for their children. Generally, the mothers were very grateful for us going to visit their homes as it is a rare thing to have someone foreign visit them and they I think they are touched that we manage to find comfort in their tiny, crammed homes. 

You spent over 12 hrs a day with the students each day, following them from their homes to their schools and accompanied them as they went about their lives. You've met their neighbours and their friends. How has this experience shaped your understanding of the underprivileged living in Nepal? Can your describe this aspect of your experience?

Debby: I think I'm very privileged to have had this experience in Nepal. It's a very touristy country, especially in Kathmandu, but so few people, even aid volunteers, have the opportunity to sort of live with the girls and learn of their lives as intimately as we have.

While Nepal's external environment is trying, the roads are poorly built and transport is a little frustrating, I'm lucky to have been able to go past all that and see the lives of the country's people. Hear of their stories and listen to their hopes for the future.

Speaking of neighbours there was an occasion when I visited the home of a girl named Mamata. Mamata's father collects garbage from the street and they practically live in a garbage collection compound. Her door step is strewn with litter, but it's not litter in their compound because it is really their property now! Her family shares the compound with three other families and one of her neighbours came asking for me to photograph them as well because they thought that I'd be able to help them get a scholarship for their children. That was a difficult situation because I didn't want to offend them or make things difficult for Mamata's family who felt uncomfortable that they seemed more "privileged" or that they were not helping their neighbour.

Neighbours there are very supportive of each other. Kids run into each others homes and all are welcomed with food and drink! They are all very well connected. While this kind of support seems to only exist in rural village ages in Asia, where people in the city seem more reserved and perfer to keep to themselves and have their own space, the families living in the city continue to maintain a certain kind of synergy to make things work, and keep each other happy. Every family that I visited was sad to see me leave. Some fathers accompanied me along the dark streets out from their homes to the main street where I could get a cab home, and mothers cried. It was a very humbling experience and it's certainly given me a new and deeper perspective about the country and it's wonderful people.

Edwin: It's hard to imagine 30 families sharing one communal tap. But it happens. Sabina Rai, one of the girls I photographed, lived in such a place. And the tap had insufficient pressure, so neighbours would take turns every morning to pump out the water using clunky metal pump, manually. You would see a whole army of pails waiting at the wash area. Thats how ridiculous it is. Then there was another girl, Sharmila Sapkota. She lives in a place where 10 families shared one filthy toilet. I remembered it was dark and wet, and there wasnt enough headroom to stand up straight, because it was built under the staircase. Coming from Singapore, one can never imagine such horrendous living conditions. People spend so much effort surviving, and yet, they are such gentle and kind people. It's amazing.


The exhibition opens at The Cathay in Singapore on March 5th.


Related story:

Teaching a girl to fish



First Published: 
March 2009

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debby ngDebby 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).

[email protected]

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