Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, plagued by a long history of government inefficiency and corruption. To this we can add billions of dollars of misplaced and mismanaged foreign aid. Plus a ten-year civil war that resulted in the deaths of over 17,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Add to this menu, remoteness and rugged terrain, then we see that rural areas are denied basic services, such as health care, education, transport, sanitation and safe drinking water. All contributing to a mass movement from the countryside to the already overpopulated cities. Here, in a jungle of concrete and pollution, there are few opportunities, forcing millions to go overseas to seek work, often in appalling poorly paid positions.
Steps Foundation Nepal (Steps) was founded in 2013 by Beni Rani Ghale, a healthcare worker and owner of a small Eco-sustainable business. Beni comes from the remote mountain village of Tipling, in the northern part of Dhading district, between Langtang and Manaslu, perched above the border to Tibet. As a child, Kathmandu was a fabled city, a 7-day walk away. Beni experienced this lack of basic services and gender inequality at a personal and family level, as a child and all the way untill she was a registered Maternal & Child Health Worker.
Beni fostered the idea that education leads to greater general understanding, which would lead to a higher degree of ‘self-belief’, and to a better personal, family and collective level of hygiene. Improved hygiene would in turn lead to improved health, living standards and to a higher quality of life.
As a district health worker (nurse/midwife), she saw that many women did not come to the local Health Clinic. Was it too far away, or that they had to work, were too poor, skeptical, ashamed, or they actually feared visiting. Experience showed that very often they had left it too late. So as a young district nurse she visited the nine village communities in her district on a regular basis. While treating the women in the outlying communities. Here she highlighted the importance of hygiene, diet and the dangers of early marriage. She introduced birth control, improved the understanding around menstruation, and how to respect and manage this natural cycle.
On returning to Kathmandu, Beni bought herself of her marriage. She worked as a Social Worker for a small NGO, and started a small business. Here she collected plastic waste wrappings off the streets, and trained family members to produce baskets and other products. These they sold to tourists. Acting as a translator for an American Health team going into the remote Rowaling district, she sold products to the team. On learning the profits went to help women in need, they contributed generiousy. So Beni started a small show, realising how she could help other women, by training them and creating work.
Beni Handicrafts Pvt. Ltd., as a registered business, was started with the intent to provide skill training and employment opportunities. Her goal was, and is, to empower women to find their natural potential, awaking their pride in being a woman, in a patriarchal society. Beni Handicrafts encourages and supports academic development from basic to higher levels, by providing flexible working hours, and in addition, in certain cases, covering part of school fees.
The was no profit, as all so called profits disappeared to helping others. Mountain People, a Norwegian based NGO, entered the scene, and saw her potential. They closed down her shop, secured two new shops, produced a brochure, hangtags, a logo and upgraded production methods. MP saw the need to ‘visalise’ and consolidate her work, so they proposed Steps Foundation Nepal. An NGO, financed by Beni Handicrafts, with the emphasis on: Education, Hygiene and Health – step by step. The first meetings were held in the open in vacant parking lots, siting on dusty gravel. Then Northfiled Cafe and Hotel Moonlight provided the use of free meeting rooms.
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 penalised 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 work of Steps has been centered in Kathmandu, but local Steps chapters have been established further afield, in isolated rural communities.
Steps is no longer, ‘A one-woman project’, but a vibrant collection of inspired individuals and active groups.