Focus on the future

On the outskirts of the Pokhara Sub-Metropolitan City in north-central Nepal, a young girl who had almost fallen into the trap of child labour finds freedom in education and ambition

Preena Shrestha
UNICEF Nepal/2019/PShrestha

11 October 2019

Kaski, Nepal: Despite her slight build and soft, almost-musical voice, there’s something strong and steely about Julie Khatri. 

Part of that steel seems to stem from ambition. Julie, from the outskirts of the Pokhara Sub-Metropolitan City in Kaski District in north-central Nepal, is preparing for the Secondary Education Examinations – the national tenth-grade board exams – coming up in a year’s time. As one of the top students in her class, she’s not too worried about how she’ll fare in the test, and has already begun planning what to do after she’s passed: she wants to study science and hopefully teach the subject someday.

“It’s not an area girls are usually expected or encouraged to go into, but I love science,” says the 17-year-old. “I want to pass that feeling to young children, and get them excited to learn about the world around them.”

Yet another reason Julie works so hard at school can perhaps be traced back to a time in her past when education had not seemed like an option. At the age of four, Julie had lost her mother to brain cancer, and not long after, her father had gone to India to find work, leaving her and her younger brother, in the care of their grandparents. What had started out as a temporary living arrangement, however, soon turned permanent when it became clear that her father had no intention of ever coming back.

“It wasn’t easy to suddenly have to feed and clothe two young children, let alone send them to school,” says grandmother Sapana. “Me and my husband are construction workers so our income was already stretched thin as it was.”

It was owing to these financial constraints that when she found out that a local businessperson was looking for someone to keep his wife company, Sapana decided to send Julie, then six years old, in. “We thought that this way, at least she would have a comfortable place to stay and food to eat,” she says. “And the family said they would send her to school.”

Julie, who had already started to worry about the burden she was on her grandparents, had simply obeyed.

Things didn’t work out quite as expected, though. The chores were relentless and young Julie was constantly exhausted, unable to focus on her studies.

UNICEF Nepal/2019/PShrestha

“They worked her to the bone…. They would send her fetch water from this tap far away, and fed her scraps,” Sapana says tearfully. “How could they do that to a little girl?”

Around nine months after Julie had been working, while Sapana was still considering what to do, she was contacted by social mobilizers associated with TOLI, UNICEF’s partner organization, as part of a joint effort between UNICEF and the Pokhara Sub-Metropolitan City to eradicate child labour in the area. Upon talking to the family and learning about their situation – including Julie’s difficulties – the social mobilizers counselled Sapana.

“It goes both ways – supply and demand. You can’t just fix one without fixing the other,” says Gita Chhetri, one of the social mobilizers from TOLI who worked on Julie’s case. “While convincing caregivers not to send their children to work, you also need to make sure employers are disincentivized from hiring children.” Gita says the cost-effective efficiency of child labour is one of the reasons it is so hard to eradicate, especially in urban, commercial settings. “We need to tackle the problem from different angles, not just one,” she adds.

In time, thanks to the counselling sessions as well as a cash grant worth around US$ 130 – which the family used to buy a cow – Sapana was convinced of the need to pull her granddaughter out of labour. She brought her back home and enrolled her in the Shree Ramjyoti Secondary School in the sixth grade.

Since then, Julie has worked her way up the list of top performers in school, her teachers and principals all praises for her dedication. As encouragement, UNICEF Nepal – with generous funding from the Japanese National Committee for UNICEF – had recently provided her with a solar-powered reading lamp, so that her studies are not interrupted by power cuts. Julie is among around 20 former child-labourers in Pokhara who have received such lamps, and according to Sapana, the device has proved useful not just for Julie but for her brother too, who is a seventh grader at present. 

UNICEF Nepal/2019/PShrestha

“I like watching them sit and do their homework together because they look so smart,” the grandmother says. “Even though she does help me with the cooking, I make sure to do most of the other chores so that she has time to study.”

“It’s the least I can do after what she’s gone through.”

As for Julie, she is reluctant to dwell too long on those “bad days”, but prefers instead to focus on the future. “Education is a right that I was being deprived of, and knowing that makes me appreciate what I have even more,” she says, smiling.

“Being educated means you will be able to stand on your own feet someday, and that’s what I want.”

UNICEF Nepal/2019/PShrestha

There are more than 1.6 million children like Julie trapped in labour in different parts of Nepal. UNICEF is working with the Government of Nepal to eliminate all forms of child labour through programmes funded with the support of the Japanese National Committee for UNICEF. We have been tackling this issue in 14 select municipalities since 2011, targeting over 13,000 children. As part of the programme, UNICEF supports the children by providing them with a range of appropriate services and family-based interventions. Using different awareness-raising events like door-to-door campaigns and street dramas, the programme also aims to encourage children, families, employers and the community at large to adopt positive behaviours that will help eliminate the worst forms of child labour.