UCA News

Catholic nuns empower distressed Nepali women

Good Shepherd Sisters founded an NGO to offer skills training and funding so young women in Pokhara can become self-reliant
Usha Rokka, 25, is seen at her rented home in Pokhara of Nepal.

Usha Rokka, 25, is seen at her rented home in Pokhara of Nepal. (Photo supplied) 

Published: March 11, 2024 03:20 AM GMT
Updated: March 11, 2024 07:21 AM GMT

On a spring afternoon in early March, Usha Rokka took a break from sewing ladies’ handbags ordered by a customer to give snacks to her seven-year-old son who just returned from school.

The 25-year-old single mother has been living in a tiny, rented one-room house in Pokhara, the tourist city in western Nepal since leaving her abusive husband and in-laws seven years ago.

She and her son have a simple, happy life thanks to Rokka’s thriving home-based business that a group of Good Shepherd nuns helped her start as part of their project supporting vulnerable women.

The business yields up to 30,000 rupees (US$277) a month, enough to pay for Rokka's house rent, daily essentials, utilities, and schooling.

Rokka still remembers her nightmarish days years ago when she attempted to commit suicide twice out of frustration as she failed to find a job to support the family.

She fled her in-law’s house in Kushma, a two-hour drive from Pokhara and came to the city in 2018.

“The first time, a fisherman saved my life when I jumped into Phewa Lake and then a neighbor took me to the hospital when she heard my son crying after I drank poison,” she said.

“I couldn’t feed my son properly. I was being mentally tortured by my husband and the people in the village,” she added.

Rokka endured years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her in-laws, especially her stepmother-in-law because she did not bring a dowry (cash and valuables) from her parents.

Dowry is considered a social malpractice in many countries as it is blamed for endemic domestic abuse against brides. Despite being illegal in most countries the practice is still prevalent in many parts of South Asia.

Her in-laws were so abusive that they did not provide enough food for her despite her pregnancy. Moreover, she was forced to work on their farmland and do domestic chores day after day.

“I lived with the abuse for more than a year and after the birth of my son. At one point I felt, I couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to run away and come to Pokhara to take up any work to feed myself and my young son,” Rokka said.

A new life

Those hard times taught her to become stronger.

Now, she is busy meeting growing demands from customers who sell her products — mobile pouch, grocery, travel and fancy ladies’ bags — to local and foreign visitors flocking to Pokhara city. Each bag sells for 100-1,500 rupees (US$0.75-$11).

“I am happy with the orders and sales I am doing these days,” Rokka said with a smile.

Rokka’s life changed for the better in June last year thanks to the intervention of the nuns.

Good Shepherd Sisters founded Opportunity Village Nepal (OVN), a non-government organization, in 1998. It launched its anti-human trafficking project in 2016 to support trafficking victims and vulnerable women.

The OVN provided Rokka 70,000 rupees (US$530) to start a small tailoring business, a skill she honed after she passed 10th Grade before marrying her fiancé at the age of 17.

Like Rokka, a total of 95 young girls and women aged 18-30 have received vocational training in sewing, handicrafts, baking and bead-making, among others. A total of 75 including Rokka received cash as capital to start small businesses.

Nuns to the Rescue

From 2018 to mid-2023, Rokka tried to make a livelihood doing various jobs from being a domestic help, a cleaner in a restaurant, working in the adult entertainment industry and as a garment factory worker.

During her stint at the garment factory in Pokhara, she earned between 3,000-7,000 rupees a month, which allowed her to pay rent, food and her son’s education. However, the factory was shut down during the pandemic and she was left jobless.

She came to know about OVN through a member of a peer-support group linked with the organization. For three months, she attended classes on psychotherapy and life, which helped her to overcome her trauma and then on business development plans.

After she completed the courses successfully, she was selected to receive cash support for business development.

The nuns say the project was conceived after they found many young girls and women suffered domestic abuse and were victimized by trafficking rings that sell them off into the thriving adult entertainment industry in Pokhara.

Good Shepherd Sister Hemalata Boddu, 36, coordinator of the project, said she was impressed by Rokka’s zeal to learn skills and sustain herself.

“When she came here the first time, she was broken and had low self-esteem,” she said.

During one of the counseling classes, Rokka expressed her desire to start a bag-making business and sought funding.

“She showed some of her work which she sewed in her room, and we were impressed with her work and decided to provide her with some seed money to kick off her small-scale venture,” the nun said.

Rokka says she is thankful to the nuns for helping her become self-reliant.

“I am grateful to OVN for helping me to set up my business and become self-sufficient. I would have been living miserably without their guidance and support to help me lead a meaningful life,” she said.

Sister Boddu said they have also been working for young girls employed in the entertainment industry who are exposed to various forms of abuse including physical, mental, and financial.

“Adolescents and youths are at high risk of trafficking and sexual abuse in society and most of them are in the adult entertainment sector that is thriving in tourist cities like Pokhara,” said the nun who earlier worked with vulnerable women in the Philippines and India before arriving in Nepal in 2021.

“We are among the first organizations to work with young girls and women in the entertainment sector in Pokhara. We are dedicated to helping women, girls and children, especially the most vulnerable to lead a graceful life,” she said.

Besides offering training and funding to women like Rokka, the OVN has made strides in battling human trafficking and supporting victims.

It runs one transit home and one child protection home for trafficking victims and vulnerable women.

Hundreds of young girls and women from rural parts of Nepal migrated to cities and some moved to India after a devastating earthquake in 2015 killed thousands of people and rendered millions homeless, according to the OVN.

While searching for jobs, many were entrapped, exploited, and abused by traffickers, says OVN director, Sister Anthonia Soosaiappan.

About 40,300 people, mostly young girls and women have been trafficked within and abroad since 2020, according to a 2022 National Human Rights Commission report.

Moreover, Nepal has a high number of domestic and gender-based violence cases.

In 2021-2022, more than 20,000 gender-based violence cases were registered across the country, according to data from Nepal police.

Usha Rokka joined the International Women’s Day program at OVN office in Pokhara on March 7 before returning to her house in the afternoon.

She now dreams of helping more women like her.

“I hope with some technical and financial support, I will be able to open a training center and teach young vulnerable girls like me to sew and help them to change their life in a better way,” she said.

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