Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, plagued by a long history of government inefficiency and corruption. The reality of the remoteness and rugged terrain of the rural areas means that a large percent of the populace are denied basic services. Such as health care, education, transport, sanitation and safe drinking water. Add a ten-year civil war, resulting in the deaths of over 17,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands from the countryside to the cities – then the future looks bleak. In the already overpopulated cities, a jungle of concrete and pollution, there are few opportunities for the ‘disadvantaged’. Yes, poverty is a serious handicap. Government schools are often sub-standard, as are public health services. Add high rent for sub-standard housing then we witness already poor people forced to pay high fees to ensure their children receive even a mediocre education. These conditions have forced millions to go overseas to seek work, often in appalling conditions and too poorly paid near-slave labor.
Beni Rani Ghale, Founder of Steps Foundation Nepal (Steps), comes from the remote mountain village of Tipling, in northern Dhading district, between Langtang and Manaslu. She, as millions of others, experienced this lack of basic education and health serviced and was subject to gender inequality. She was married off at the age of 10, but luckily managed to secure a position in the local health post. Here she worked and studied, and at the age of 15 took a 6-month Maternal & Child Health Worker program. Becoming the world youngest Mid-wife. She bought herself out of her arranged marriage, and started her life’s work.
She returned to her district, and it was during this period the prevalence of gender ‘inequality’ really hit her. Having to assist birthing in cow sheds, by candle light, she realized there was a need for ‘change’. Women did not come to the health post as they had to work, it was too far, they were skeptical or ashamed, or they feared the result. As such, an easily treated condition, like uterus prolapse, became serious e.g., developed to phase 3. So instead of waiting for the patients to come to her she established regular visits to the villages. Here covering reproductive health and hygiene, birth control – and regular health check-ups.
Returning to Kathmandu for further education, she realized that the process of securing meaningful education was difficult for the village people, if not impossible. Her realization that education leads to a higher degree of ‘self-belief’ and personal empowerment, she created simple teaching programs. These emphasized that better personal, family and collective hygiene led to better health and improved living standards. But encouraging and supporting education at every level was her first goal. Parallel to her study, she worked as a Social Worker for a small NGO, covering a wide specter of projects – including being a translator for foreign medical teams holding health camps in remote mountain regions. Another project, was the collecting of waste materials off the streets in Kathmandu. Washing and sorting these and then delivering them to inmates in Kathmandu Prison. These prisoners she trained to make baskets and bags. These intern she sold to visiting medical groups and tourists – with her paying directly to the prisoners families.
(Workshop about Women’s Health)
She opened Beni Handcrafts Pvt. Ltd., as a registered social-aware-sustainable business. With the plan to provide handicraft training programs for women in need. This work training and general education was ideally to be financed by sales of the woman’s products, via her one mini shop. Unfortunately, the need ‘to help’ those in need surpassed income. The woman produced more than what she could sell, and debts built up.
Mountain People, a small Norwegian NGO, with ‘helping people to help themselves‘ entered the scene and saw the potential in recycled products, her drive and the value of her vision. Within two weeks they had opened two shops, created a logo, hang-tags, brochure, and then they left Beni to run her business and social work. Within a year debts were cleared, and a small profit generated. Jointly, they saw it was necessary to actually ‘visualize’ and to emphasis the value of Beni’s business and of her social work. ‘No one saw the social work she was doing‘. Noted Thorstein Nokelby, of Mtn People.
So, Steps Foundation Nepal, as an NGO financed by Beni Handicrafts, with the emphasis on: Education, Hygiene and Health – step by step – was registered. The first meetings were held in the open in vacant parking lots, sitting on dusty gravel. Then Northfield Cafe and Hotel Moonlight provided the use of free meeting rooms – along with complementary refreshments.
Since its establishment, Steps has been proactive on such issues as domestic violence, polygamy, child and forced marriage, as well as exposing the dangers of gambling and alcoholism. Another aim has been to challenge the tradition of ‘Chhaupadi‘, where women are banished to an outside hut during menstruation. In addition, Steps raises legal rights awareness, especially around divorce, where women are often penalized due to gender and a lack of knowledge.
Steps has worked mainly with women in and from isolated or deprived communities, often those who have been forced to leave the villages to try to find work in Kathmandu or overseas. Gender inequality is strongly entrenched in Nepali society, where women have less access to education, work opportunities and health services. About 50% of women in the rural areas have never attended (or completed) school and 60% do not know how to read or write. Women’s work contribution is usually far higher than men’s, and they often have to provide long-term care for their children and the elderly on their own.
The administrative work of Steps has been centered in Kathmandu, with the establishment of local Steps chapters in isolated rural communities. Mainly in collaboration with local Women’s Village Groups. They tend to adopt Steps ideas and methods while retaining their own identity. Other ‘interest groups’ have been ‘schooled’ in basic Steps principles – and operate independently.
Steps Foundation Nepal is registered and based in the Beni Centre, in Goldunga, Kathmandu. Steps Norway is registered as a Social Organization in Norway, a supporting organization – with main function to raise funding for the work of Steps Foundation Nepal. Beni Handicrafts and Mountain People are contributing supporters.
Steps is no longer ‘A one-woman project’
but a vibrant collection of inspired individuals and active groups.