April 2, 2013
KATHMANDU: Pushpa Basnet is a Nepali social worker striving to strengthen the rights of children living behind bars with their incarcerated parents. She is Founder/President of Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) and Butterfly Home, two non-profit organizations in Kathmandu. Her efforts were internationally recognized last December when she won the 2012 CNN Hero of the Year Award, a high-profile Hollywood event hosted by Anderson Cooper. Receiving the award has been life-changing for Pushpa. To give but one example, Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon is now producing a documentary about Pushpa’s work.
The work for which she is famous is far from glamorous. She has assisted more than 100 children of incarcerated parents. She runs a day care center for the prison children and a residential home for older ones. She has also helped to provide alternative residence, school enrollment, free meals and medical care to them.
What is perhaps most remarkable is that Pushpa is only 29 years old.
Today, I interviewed Pushpa at her “Butterfly Home” located in the Budanilakantha area of Kathmandu.
DUNHAM: A great deal has been written about your work since the CNN award, not the least of which is that the award comes with a $300,000 grant. That’s an enormous amount of money by Nepali standards – one of the poorest countries in the world. What interests me most is that you are such a young woman, living in an ancient patriarchal society; and yet you have accomplished so much as an independent women and against quite significant odds. How have your broken through Nepal’s gender barrier? Or has Nepal changed that much in the last few years?
Let’s begin with your childhood. Where were you born and when?
BASNET: I was born here, in Kathmandu, in 1983. Both of my parents come from a business background. I see my parents as very hard-working persons. We grew up in Dilli Bazar, in the center of the city. I have an older brother and a younger sister.
DUNHAM: What sort of business is your family involved with?
BASNET: Importing hydropower equipment from Japan, Singapor, Spain, China, Hong Kong…so most of the time during my childhood, my father and mother traveled a lot.
After a certain time, I decided I wanted to stay in a boarding school. As kids, we were really protected from the outside world. Because of the city atmosphere, we weren’t allowed to go outside that much. My dad didn’t feel comfortable letting us play outside in the streets. I was very curious and I wanted to interact with the outside world. My dad wanted to give us everything but he was also very protective. And we were very scared of my father because he was huge and the silent type. But my mom was a very close friend to me.
DUNHAM: Did you get your wish to go to boarding school?
BASNET: Yes, here in the Kathmandu Valley...a very good one. Both my sister and me attended.
Also, at an early age, we traveled with our parents a lot. Especially my dad wanted us to see what life was like abroad. In fact, my father believed that a girl should see the world before she gets married and settled down. He encouraged us to be independent. Until, we were in our late teens, we didn’t dress like girls. We were the tomboy type. And my father always told us, “You should do your work by yourself. You cannot depend upon any man.” For instance, we had to make citizenship on our own. [Note: Basnet is referring to the Nepali process of getting issued a citizenship card, which every sixteen-year-old must go through -- sometimes a lengthy and complicated process.] We were not allowed to depend on our father. That was my dad’s mentality.
On the other hand, we were given more opportunities than our brother. I felt that. My father’s thinking was, “OK, tomorrow the girls will get married, they will then have their husbands, they will have their life. But until that day, my girls should have the best lives.” On the other hand, my dad thought that his son would have plenty of opportunities, once he was grown…to travel…things like that.
DUNHAM: And what about the importance of education for you girls?
BASNET: My mom was sixteen when she got married. Too young!
DUNHAM: Why so young?
BASNET: Because her mom died and a guy from Kathmandu came to ask for her hand and so she got married. But my mom always wanted to study, so it was important for her that we girls got a good education. As for my dad, he too always focused on our studies.
DUNHAM: You were lucky to grow up in that kind of environment.
BASNET: Yes, but I really feel sad that whatever academic opportunities my parents provided for me, I never took that benefit! Of course now, I have my Bachelors, I have my Masters in two subjects. But back then, I wasn’t motivated or particularly gifted in academic studies. I was average. I was very good in extra-curricular actives, like sports, arts and craft…I was outstanding. But education? I thought, “Education doesn’t do anything for me.”
When it came time for my School-Leaving Certificate exam [SLC, which is similar to the tenth grade in the American system], I failed! And that was my turning point. There were 128 students taking the exam and I was the only one who failed!
That same day, my dad was preparing to fly to Japan, and I could see that he was crying. My relatives were telling him, “Whatever money you invested in her education, you could have invested it instead in business; you would have profited. But there is no profit in investing in girls! She has hurt your reputation!” So here was this very strong man – my father -- and I saw him crying because of my failure.
So at that moment, I promised myself that some day I would make him proud. I didn’t know in what way I would make him proud.
I had to wait a year before I could re-take the exam, and this time I passed.
DUNHAM: How old were you at the time?
DUNHAM: As I understand it, by twenty, your idea to help children in prison had already taken shape. How, in that three-year time gap, did the idea emerge?
BASNET: During the year that I had to wait to re-take my SLC exam, I got a chance to volunteer in Balmandir. [A large government-run orphanage in Kathmandu.] I learned a lot through that volunteer work. I saw how the organization was run, but I also realized how lucky my childhood had been. I had parents, they provided everything for me, but I did not respect it. Everyday I had complained. But orphans, they had no one to complain to and no way to obtain what they wanted. Whenever these orphans received something, they were happy and grateful.
So I studied my Eleven and Twelve [the higher secondary schooling in the Nepali system] at St. Xavier Academy. At that time, I still didn’t know what subjects I wanted to study. So I landed up in commerce because that’s what my parents wanted me to study. I passed in all my subjects …no failures this time.
Then it came to study for my Bachelor Degree. I wanted to study in the United States. But my dad didn’t want me to do that and, really, I was scared also. My dad said, “No way. You have to stay back in your country and do something here.” My dad was the kind of person with a long-term vision. He still wanted me to get into the family business. But I was never interested in that.
St. Xavier had a Bachelor program in Social Work. In that program, there were three days a week for the classes and two days for internship in various organizations for one year.
DUNHAM: What year was this?
BASNET: It was 2004. The problem for me was that it was really hard for me to get into that program. In Nepali terms, it was like getting into Harvard…something like that. So, how, with my grades, could I get admitted? I had one thing going for me: My year’s experience at Balmandir Orphange. And, ultimately, that volunteer work was what got me into St. Xavier.
From the beginning, I was discriminated against because everyone knew that I had failed my SLC, low grades. I was laughed at. Both the students and the teachers laughed at me. One teacher in particular, picked on me and looked down on me and the situation grew worse and it was really hard for me.
The second year, I was placed in a police station in Kalimati for my internship. I got a chance to visit the law court and the police headquarters, but I never had a chance to visit the jail. The only jails I had seen were in the movies. So I asked one of the women police officers if I could get permission to visit the jail. And she said, “OK”. And that was one of the most important moments in my life.
When I went inside the jail, I found it to be a beautiful community. It was quite a warm place. I was with the policewoman and two of my friends. We weren’t allowed to actually go inside the cells but there people all around. So at one point, there was a woman washing her clothes and she had a nine-month old girl playing on the floor. In Nepal it’s no big deal to just go up and hold someone’s child. And that’s what I did. One of the police told me not to do that. “Her mother is a bit cracked,” she said. So I lowered her down, the baby held on to the hem of my dress. And I suddenly thought, “Oh, this girl has called me up. This is not a place for her to be stuck in.”
When I got back to my home, I told my parents that I had seen a small baby and I wanted to help her. And my parents said, “No way. You have your college, Pushpa. You cannot change directions like that -- just hold on to anyone’s baby.”
For a week, I couldn’t get the baby out of mind. During that same week two things happened at the college that were bad. First, I got into a big argument with a teacher and he kicked me out of his class. Second, a friend and I got caught bunking my class [playing hooky]. The result was that I was suspended for a year.
But my mother said, “Don’t worry. You’ll wait for a year and then you’ll go back.” I was terribly embarrassed about the whole thing but I also thought, “If my parents are still supportive, it doesn’t matter. I need to face reality. If I have made mistakes, I have to face it. That’s my punishment. But I should not give up my hope.”
That year’s suspension from St. Xavier turned out to be a real opportunity. It was a perfect time for me to show my teacher that I could do something of real value. And that’s the time when I started my organization with a couple of friends and my sister. That’s when we started gathering money, taking old stuff from my home.
DUNHAM: What was the level of cooperation from the Department of Prison Management?
BASNET: It varied according the jailers. I went to the jailer in the Kathmandu jail and said, “Sir, I saw a small girl inside the prison. I want to do something. Can I come into the jail and start a small program?”
And the jailer said, “OK, Pushpa, but I cannot just give you that girl. You can’t do this as an individual. You need to come as an organization. And you need to have a concrete idea.
And I said, “I want to start a school inside the prison.”
And he said, “If you want to do that, it’s nothing new. You won’t be changing the environment. If you really want to do something new, you need to start something outside the prison.”
I was only twenty and the idea of starting something outside the prison was much more challenging that what I had in mind.
And he said, “Why don’t you go to the CDO [Chief District Officer], ask him how to register an organization.
DUNHAM: What was this guy’s name – the jailer? He sounds as if he was instrumental in your work.
BASNET: Yes. Rishi Kesh Dhungel is his name. On the one hand, he was trying to push me away, probably because he didn’t believe I could do it. But on the other hand, he was showing me the way. One of my friend’s brothers was a lawyer who helped with the legal work. But it was still difficult for me to find people who could share my vision. Eventually, my friends and I got the seed money to get the organization started.
But it was still very difficult to get the organization registered. The officials said, “Oh you are too young, girl. And they made fun of me. They really couldn’t believe that a young girl was capable of starting something like this.
My dad was totally against the idea, too. I think he was afraid of me getting into trouble…working in a prison, you know? But my mom was totally supportive. “Do what you want to do. Believe in yourself.” She believed in us.
After finally getting registered, I took the papers back to the prison and they said, “OK, now you need to have a place to take these children.”
So we rented a small place and set up a small classroom. So that’s how we started, only as a day care center.
The next problem was with the parents of the children: To let their children go away from them – that took a lot of convincing because the mothers didn’t know who I was. But it was the jailer, Rishi Kesh Dhungel, who convinced the mothers. He played a very important role in overcoming that hurdle.
DUNHAM: Let’s talk about the mothers for a moment. What are the crimes that put these women into jail?
BASNET: Drug dealing, human trafficking and especially murder…usually, killing their own husbands.
DUNHAM: How many years are these women incarcerated?
BASNET: For drug dealing, twenty years.
DUNHAM: You have achieved so much already. What are your next goals?
BASNET: I’m now concentrating on going outside the Kathmandu Valley and focusing on other jails. Remote prisons. I’m going to remote prisons now to work.
DUNHAM: In how many districts outside the Valley have you been working?
BASNET: Sixteen, up until now.
DUNHAM: How do you find out that there is a child incarcerated with his or her parent? Who notifies you? Is there a system in place?
BASNET: Not really. Initially, I just worked with the Kathmandu prison. I just walked in and saw the children. Now, after the CNN award and all the publicity, the people contact me. Tomorrow, for instance, a girl is coming from Bardia [mid-western Nepal] prison. When a mother calls me for help, I have to tell them to send me all of their papers. I must have proof that that child belongs legally to that particular mother. Because, in the past, I’ve had cases where “parents” were faking that they had a child. I have to be very careful about fraud.
DUNHAM: Are there fathers in prison, who have their children staying with them, or is it just mothers?
BASNET: There are fathers with kids in jail. I have children who come from imprisoned fathers. But in male jails, only boys are allowed to be with their fathers. The girls are not allowed. If a husband has killed his wife, and if he has a daughter, for a few days, the female jails will take care of them.
I’ll tell you about one current case. I have a six-month old baby, here in Butterfly House. She’s been here since she was one-and-a half months old. Her father killed her mother just because his wife wouldn’t cook him an omelet. Can you believe it? He set her on fire with kerosene and she died of the burns. So the police called up and told me about the father and asked me if I could take the daughter. Now she is with me and the father is in Kathmandu prison.
But usually, if a father is in prison, usually he has relatives to take care of his children. But if a mother is in prison, she is considered to have disgraced her family and the family won’t take the children.
DUNHAM: What are the main reasons for women killing their husbands?
BASNET: Because of sexual abuse and physical abuse. The women get so angry and feel so helpless and then one day they just snap and they end up murdering them.
DUNHAM: How has the CNN award changed you and your organization?
BASNET: Before, when I spoke, people didn’t care what I had to say. Now, whenever I speak, people take me very seriously. That’s the reality. Sometimes I think, “Is this really happening?”
Before, if my documents had to go through the government, they wouldn’t read them properly. Now, they are much more careful and read closely.
Also, there is this: We have always been transparent about our spending. But now there is much more scrutiny about our expenses because of the CNN grant money. On a personal level, I’ve lost much of my privacy. That’s the down side.
DUNHAM: What are you future goals?
BASNET: In five years I would like to have my own Butterfly Home.
DUNHAM: I’m confused. You do have your Butterfly House. We’re in it!
BASNET: Right now, we just rent this building. We need to have something that we actually own. In five years I hope to achieve that goal. In ten years, I would like to have one of my children, who has grown up in the Butterfly Home, to take my position. In fifteen children, my children will be getting married. By then, I hope that they will go back to their villages and start their own branches of Butterfly House.
That’s why, whenever I go outside the Valley to visit jails, I take my older children with me, so that they can see what this is all about…how I do my work. And when we come back, they have to write a report. You see, they are learning the business of what they are now participating in as beneficiaries. My children are Butterfly House’s real future.
For more information about Pushpa Basnet’s organization, click on the link below: