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Catholic nuns help vulnerable Nepalese girls get a new life

Some 5,743 girls and women were victims of gender-based violence in the country in 2022, a report released last year says
Girls along with staff members pose for a photograph in front of the Christmas crib at Opportunity Village Home (OVN) founded by Sisters of the Good Shepherd at Hemja, 212 kilometers northwest of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu

Girls along with staff members pose for a photograph in front of the Christmas crib at Opportunity Village Nepal (OVN) founded by Sisters of the Good Shepherd at Hemja, 212 kilometers northwest of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. (Photo supplied)

Published: January 15, 2024 11:11 AM GMT
Updated: January 15, 2024 02:58 PM GMT

It’s a warm December afternoon and a group of young girls are soaking in the winter sun in the front yard of a protection home run by Catholic nuns in Hemja, a highway town located 212 kilometers northwest of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.

Sister Rachel Leela, who heads the home run by Opportunity Village Nepal (OVN) founded by Sisters of the Good Shepherd, joins the group as they chit-chat while enjoying an afternoon snack of roasted corn kernels with cups of tea.

One of the girls, 13-year-old Sita* Pariyar, immediately gets up, hugs the nun, and offers her a roasted corn kernel.

“How did your math exam go?” Sister Leela asks her.

“I did okay, I will pass,” Sita replies shyly.

It’s the last week of December and Christmas celebrations are in full swing at the OVN. The girls thank Sister Leela for the Christmas gifts they received the day before.

UCA News visited the residential facility set up to provide safe shelter to vulnerable girls and young women who have survived sexual abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking.

There are 17 of them, aged between 4 and 18 years old, currently housed at the safe home. They hail from various districts of Nepal and the OVN home is their home now. Here they are looked after well by the nuns and other staff members, who also provide them holistic education support.

Sita was only seven when she was brought here by local authorities after her older sister Babita* was sexually abused by her stepfather. This was six years ago.

Sister Leela recalled the stepsisters hailing from Kaski district were traumatized and needed a loving, safe place to live and recover.  Babita was then 10 years old.

They were referred to OVN by a child welfare officer after the police filed a case of attempted rape against their father.  He is now serving time in jail while their mother remarried, the nun said.

Babita and Sita have two brothers who are placed under the care of Catholic fathers who run a school in Pokhara, the second-largest city in Nepal after Kathmandu, about 12 kilometers away.

“We have done our best to provide them a safe and fear-free environment,” Sister Leela told UCA News.

Now 13, Sita is studying in class 7. She loves to play with the other girls who are also survivors of abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. Some of them are orphans.

Babita stayed at the home for nearly six years. She has been reintegrated into her family and is currently living with her maternal grandmother.

Babita is currently studying in 11th grade and the nuns continue to support her education and provide her counseling. She visits her sister regularly.

“I enjoy living here and going to school with my friends. We enjoy playing together after school hours,” said Sita.

The protection home in Hemja was started in 2010, nearly 12 years after OVN was founded by the Good Shepherd sisters with the help of Canadian Jesuits to help poor, vulnerable, and marginalized groups, especially girls and young women.

OVN used to conduct vocational training for young women who were vulnerable to various forms of abuse and exploitation to help them become financially independent.

“During the course of our work, we received requests to provide a safe home for girls and young women from both the local community and authorities,” said Sister Leela.

She heads a team of 10 staff members, including three sisters. They ensure the girls are provided with psychosocial care, both formal and informal education, and help them develop life skills. The girls stay until they are 18 then reintegrate into families.

The girls are sent to a nearby school. In some exceptional cases, OVN supports the higher education of those older than 18 years.

“We are committed to helping our girls choose the right path for their future,” said Sister Leela.

The OVN promotes education for the girls and also motivates them to be compassionate to one other.

“We are there whenever they need us, even after they move out of the home,” she added.

Gender-based discrimination, abuse, violence, and exploitation remain huge challenges in a country like Nepal with a population of 30.72 million.

A report released by the rights group, Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC) on International Women’s Day in 2023 said a total of 5,743 girls and women were victims of gender-based violence in the country in 2022, of which 111 women were killed as a result of domestic violence.

Another report by the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre found nearly 22 percent of women between the ages of 15-49 years were physically abused in 2022. Some 7 percent of them were sexually abused. 

Lack of social and economic support, early marriages, broken families, forced labor and poverty, among others, are leading factors for the rise in cases of abuse and exploitation against young girls and women in the country, the reports conclude.

“We are happy to see our girls who come to visit us share their plans for the future even after they are reintegrated with their families,” Sister Leela said.

Anju Sharma, 18, a former resident of the protection home was there to celebrate Christmas with the nuns and other girls.

Anju and her older sister were 6 and 11 years old respectively when they came to the shelter after their alcoholic father abandoned the family. Their mother was unable to support the girls.

Both the sisters stayed at the home, received an education, and are eager to give back.

Anju was reintegrated with her mother and brother just before the pandemic and is pursuing an undergraduate course in management while her sister is doing her bachelor's degree in nursing in India.

“I am extremely grateful for the love and support the sisters and staff from OVN gave us during our stay here,” she told UCA News.

Once she’s completed her course, Anju wants to come back and work as an accountant with OVN.

“I want to give back what I received and also take care of the younger girls who became my new family,” she said.

*Names have been changed to protect their identity.

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