Published On: April 10, 2021 09 : 00 PM NPT By: Ehimalayan
Lesia Povkh , a journalist from Ukraine on behalf of ehimalayan (News Portal) has taken an exclusive interview with Katherine Demsky, Director of “Bridges Between” a NGO which is as follows :
KATHMANDU, April 20:
Lesia: Hi Katherine, grateful you found some time for Ehimalayan News Portal! Our readers would be really happy to know about your activity here. First of all, tell us the name of your NGO and what it stands for.
Thank you for your invitation. I represent “Bridges Between”, the subtitle is supporting women’s education in Nepal. We are motivated to support education in lots of different areas. We started in Solokhumbu to support this rough population. And within the last 3 years we 100% concentrated on work in Kathmandu.
For 10 years we’ve been in Solokhumbu area and had this 4 small schools serving women in Phaplu focusing on general literacy in Nepali language and some skills that they need in the future. So some years ago we purchased tablets so women can learn how to make a phone call, how to make a photograph, how to record their voice. Just general skills that they were not knowing. And these skills sets, which their children were getting, were pulling moms and daughters apart. So, in one aspect I’ve seen that culture been lost, language been lost as moms and daughters were not talking. So we pulled in the technology piece and we started teaching arts and crafts. Again, this brought moms and daughters together to talk and share. After the earthquake, we have seen that a lot of families came from villages to Kathmandu thinking that things were better here than in the village, but it wasn’t. The unemployment rate was high before 2015, and even higher after. A lot of those men took jobs in the Middle East, and illiterate village women stayed living in Kathmandu where you have to be able to read, to take a bus, count money. Every day these things are important. So seeing these, I started slowly to shut down my programs in rural areas and start funding my programs here, in Kathmandu, where women are getting real disadvantage by not knowing how to read.
Lesia: What kind of skills they have in the mountains and what kind of skills they need?
So up there they have all the skills for surviving in rural areas. Teaching them literacy was something extra for them, something fun, but not needed for their survival there. And one of my teachers said: “If you have not enough food in the village you go to your neighbour. If you have not enough food in Kathmandu you starve”. There is no base of their community so independence is so much important for their survival.
Lesia: Katherine, these women you are talking about, do they have an interest in gaining new skills?
If they have enough for survival why would they need to know how to make a phone call or read?
It’s a long topic that is still been discussed. Every school is focused on different skills. One school that is close to trekking routes was focused on literacy. They see the advantage of being able to read and speak English. Other villages were more interested in learning Nepali literacy so they would be able to help their children with homework, participate in afterschool life. And the problem with these groups when we ask them what they want to learn, they don’t know what the options are. They don’t know how to answer that question as they don’t know what’s available to them. So years ago I started to bring foreigners to those villages for cultural exchange. People I brought started to teach the classes that they knew the best: photography, knitting, sewing, arts. And this opened up lots of options for women. So, after I talked to them again, those women knew what they want to learn. We started supplying them with arts and crafts materials so that they could have time as women to talk about needs and things going on during the classes.
Lesia: I think still many families stayed up there. And many young girls won’t leave. What their future be like? Like their moms’ life or things are getting better for them?
Now all the girls in Solokhumbu are allowed to attend schools. They want to go to schools; their parents want them to be in school. And they see the value. As I said especially those who are closer to trekking routes. Those schools that are further away seen less value but anyway, opportunities for girls are completely different from for these women. These women did not even have this option.
Lesia: as I live in Kathmandu, I see so many women working on construction sites carrying heavy loads of bricks, digging the ground and all. I consider they are illiterate. And I think they think that this is the best what they can get as they can’t read and write. What should women do once they come to Kathmandu? What their options are and how to get in touch with the right people and organizations?
So the first program that I started supporting here in Kathmandu is Shree Shradha Women’s Schools at Ward 15 in Swayambhu. This school is running for 13 years, the founder is a Nepali woman with a master degree in education. She saw me teaching a few house cleaners how to read, how to catch a bus, how to buy food. So she started teaching women basic literacy and nowadays it is a certified school by a Nepali government. So these women after finishing 10 years of education have the equivalent of high school education.
Lesia: What are the fees?
There is a fee of 400 rupees per month. However, nobody was turned down if they cannot pay. Moreover, that is where the “Bridges Between” comes in. SO we are not running or serving at the school, we support them financially that they could continue their education.
Lesia: tell us something like an inspiring story about how the life of one woman has changed after attending this school.
Last year we started a series of interviews at Shree Shraddha. There are 55 women aged from 14 to 70 years old going to that school. Their education level is all across the board. Some women are started learning literacy at the first-grade level, and some younger women are studying at a 10th-grade level and they study all the curriculum like Nepali, math, English, science, all subjects they would have in a government school. Our older women are taking what they only want to. They do not want to learn chemistry.
A few years ago one woman did graduate from Shree Shraddha School and went on to a college to be a Montessori teacher. Now she works as a Montessori teacher for kids.
Lesia: this is amazing! What are your vision and plan?
Therefore, in rural areas women are illiterate. There are women in urban areas who have no technologies skills. Right now, we offer a scholarship to learn graphic design. It is a 2-month class for women who already have set of skills in computer and literacy, and this would give them an opportunity immediately to find a job to work from home, as their resume would be looking more professional and with needed experience. These kinds of programs hopefully will support women who choose to have a family and they could work from home between their other responsibilities.
Lesia: What was the situation during a lockdown? How it affected your NGO and plans? Did you have classes online for your students?
Bridges Between paid 100% of salaries to our teachers at Shree Shradha School so they never missed their paycheque. They are paid extremely poor and they make only half of what teachers make here. Being a teacher of adult students is seeing as a low job. Therefore, it is very difficult to employ more of them and keep them working in a school. Also, we want to support them. Our teachers are meeting during the lockdown and creating a curriculum, cleaning the school. It makes them happy that they are secured and they are not suffering due to lockdown. One of the thing that we are doing is continuing to create a positive atmosphere.
There is a woman Sanu Rai that established this school 13 years ago. She is the one who employs all teachers.
Lesia: what made you think to come to Nepal and do what you do for women here?
I grew up in it – serving the illiteracy. I saw my grandparents doing the same in Guatemala, teaching basic Spanish literacy for the indigenous population so it helped for their employment in the future. Besides, by that time I was just 7-8 years old, our friends were in the Peace Corps. It was my environment, something very normal. Just before coming to Nepal, I was working with people with disabilities and I wanted to find groups here in Nepal as well, but my friends directed me to work with women here. Why Nepal? I came trekking here and just understood this is where I want to be.
Lesia: we often hear that a lot of scams involved in volunteering in Nepal. How to see which programs are genuine and which ones will bring a good impact on locals and their living?
That’s a really good question. Because I have been working in this field for so many years with volunteers in the United States. I started a Facebook group called “Women’s Emerging Travel”. Because so many women reached me out to find an orphanage to volunteer with. And I am completely 100% against any volunteering programs with children involved. I believe if you want to support – pay a cheque. If you come for 2 weeks and interact with a 5 years old child, loving them, and treating them well, and then leaving them – it is so detrimental to their development. It causes many problems, and it causes human trafficking. Even if you volunteer a year, and you can do it, but what traffickers see is foreigners will give money if they see children in need. So we can never get out of this. And foreigners need to stay out of this, they should only send money. That’s it. I feel very passionate about this, and the reason I chose to work with grown-up women – they could make choices, they can speak up if they have been abused in any organization. They have all resources to speak up if they see anything going on in the classroom. But these are women, and 5 years old children can’t make their choice.
Lesia: who are these women? Wives, unmarried, divorced, abused.
In Shree Shradha it’s anything you can think of. After lockdown, I want to collect all the stories and put them on a paper. The abuse and life they have gone through – shocking to us. But they are completely common to those 55 women, and when we started to talk with them, they were crying not because of abuse or because their fathers left them, but because never asked them how they feel, they never let those feelings out. We saw a need that those women need a place and time to share those stories. Sometimes, just talking about it – gave them such a sense of relief. This is how we created a social hub in our school. It’s a kitchen, table, chairs – women hang out there after classes. It’s bringing all women together to share their experience. Teachers love it, and students too.
These women have their own small business: snack shop, or sewing something. They earn a few hundred rupees a week, not on a big scale. But they have no confidence if they charge enough if they could make more money. They don’t know if they give enough change, they are terrified to go shopping. Their husbands are in the Middle East, they are left here alone. Cast system also plays a big role. Someone from higher cast comes to illiterate family and says you should work here, you can earn money – they will listen to them. Uneducated families or lower cast families don’t know how to demand, how to know their rights.
Lesia: let’s say some women are tired to suffer, they are abused at home, and they want some changes, where should they go? Is there a place in whole Nepal to seek consultation or help?
Yes, there is an organization called Single Women Organization. Single women in Nepal – they are divorced, or widows. They are not unmarried women like those that we would think on the west when we say, single women. They are highly marginalized, often deemed as witches with bad luck. It’s not only difficult for them to find employment, but it’s difficult to find a house to live in. No one wants them. There are houses in Kathmandu, and few in rural areas, but because of corruption, you will often hear how these houses are burned down, destroyed. We hear that every year because no one wants them around.
Lesia: I know a factory in Kathmandu, they provide training for vulnerable women, and teach them how to sew bags or clothing of recycled materials, or do some handicrafts. And in 3 months they can build a stable income for them. And for young mothers, there is a kindergarten for their kids. So while they work and make money, their children are getting basic education, they have food and they are taken care of.
Right! There are so many modern ways how to help them, take them out of poverty. Of course, there will be women not able to make it, but we need to keep trying doing that. Not enough people are trying to help them. We need to keep doing what we do and raise awareness.
Lesia: What is the biggest challenge?
Stealing money. To raise donations is not hard. But when people inside the company steal it – it is hard. In the USA, there are ways to get back stolen money – a person goes to jail and has to pay back what was stolen. We have laws and rules that work. And here, a person stole money and that’s it. There is no way to get that money back. You can steal money from Trump (I’m not saying you should), but stealing money from poor people already – come on… That’s the challenge.
Lesia: To sum up, what could you suggest if you were a minister or education in Nepal?
I think the culture of creative thinking should be implemented from the early childhood. Kids here are great with memorization, all they see – books, books, books. Young people in Nepal are extremely creative, but they need more of it in schools, so they could create their own changes for their own country. I believe all the changes should come not from abroad, but from young generation.