The sun is setting on the crowded and dusty streets of Thamel, Kathmandu. Tourists sporting backpacks and dreadlocks file in and out of the complicated maze of table vendors and store fronts, with each salesman promising a more authentic product than his competing neighbour.
While the chaotic normalcies continue outside, I find myself in Local Women’s Handicrafts, a store located on a side street of Thamel. I’m nestled between racks of colourful yak wool products, hand-sewn dresses and bracelets made of recycled sari silk, with tears in my eyes. Nasreen Sheikh, the organization’s founder, is telling me the story of her roots. In a beautifully articulate manner, she starts with this story:
“I grew up in the very poor and rural village of Rajura. When rich people passed through my village, they would always throw their orange peels on the side of the street. When I was little, I would walk to collect firewood, and on my way I would pick up the orange peels and just smell them, longing to taste one, but knowing I could not because they represented a life I did not have. Once Local Women’s Handicrafts was founded and I could afford to have my own property, the first thing I planted in my backyard was an orange tree. It reminds me every day of where I have come from, and where I am now.”
The women of Rajura are often denied an education and forced into arranged marriages. Seeing this as a likely future, an 11 year old Nasreen fled from her village and began working for her older brother in Kathmandu. He worked in a handicrafts factory, but was soon fired after Nasreen’s arrival, a termination that would force Nasreen to return to her village since he could no longer support her.
The night before she was scheduled to make the journey home, Nasreen was restless. At 5 am, she awoke and sat on the stoop “to watch life on the streets of Kathmandu, dreaming that I had the life of the people I was seeing.” As she looked out on the early-morning scene, Nasreen was startled by a man walking his dog. After he assured her that she was safe, Nasreen recalled that, “I was struck by something in his voice. I broke down in the moment and told him my story.” This story included her longing to stay and receive an education, rather than be subjected to a likely abusive arranged marriage back in her village.
It was there on that stoop during this early morning interaction, that the man decided to help Nasreen fulfil her wish. He took Nasreen under his wing and gave her basic schooling until she was ready to enrol in a formal education setting, which he helped fund.
After a few months of obtaining an education and working in a handicrafts factory, Nasreen came across a pregnant 18 year old begging on the streets. Nasreen could quickly tell that the woman was from the same region of Nepal as she was, since they spoke a similar dialect. She had recently been left by the boy that she had run away with to get married. Nasreen insisted that the woman come work with her at the handicrafts factory.
By the age of 14, Nasreen had recruited seven women to leave the factory and start their own organization. However, at 18, Nasreen began to feel pressure from her own family to return home and get married. Fearing that her family would track her down, she hid for over a month in a different part of Kathmandu. “With the help of my friends, my teacher, and my brother, I had the strength to continue to go forward with my life and not give in to the pressure of my village and family. As a result, myself and my family were ostracized from our village because they said my mother was bad since she couldn’t control her own daughter.”
This didn’t stop Nasreen from maintaining her focus on the women that needed her help. As the organization began to gain traction in the community, Nasreen raised $25,000 in loans from international friends and customers to buy a plot of land that would act as a space for the women of Local Women’s Handicrafts to train. The training process lasts for six months, during which time the women have the choice to pursue sewing, weaving, embroidery, design, jewellery making, knitting, or pattern work, while being provided a stipend, optional housing, and a potential sponsor. The products made during this training process are sold in Nasreen’s shop. The training not only provides women with tangible, marketable skills, but also a confidence to be independent and self-sufficient; qualities that are necessary for a socially and economically sustainable future for Nepal.
“When you have the capacity to develop your strength, you can live your life with pride and dignity, and everyone deserves that. All you need is a bit of support and hope. That is what I hope to give these women, if they want to make a change in their life. With a bit of hope and support, they can come here to work and live until they figure out what’s next.”
Local Women’s Handicrafts’ priorities shifted, however, when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 25th 2015 and the following 7.3 magnitude earthquake on May 12th 2015 occurred. Since then, Nasreen’s team of 28 women, aided by the monetary support of international donors, have helped rebuild multiple shelters and have supplied 480 homes with a one-month’s supply of food. Nasreen has also started a separate training program specifically for women who suffered losses during the earthquakes. The $60 a month sponsorships provided by international donors allow these women to rebuild their homes and aid in the overall recovery process.
“So many people felt depressed that all of their work was gone in seconds. On the other hand it really united Nepal in a completely unselfish way. Families began coming together and building together, cooking together, and becoming one. They are helping each other instead of letting small things divide them,” said Nasreen.
Diana Brugos, an operative for Operation Sock Monkey, a Canadian-based NGO, has known Nasreen since the summer of 2011. Nasreen affectionately refers to Diana as “Aama,” meaning “Mother” in Nepali. “I could go on and on about how wonderful she is,” said Diana, equally as affectionate. “Nasreen is determined to improve the lives of women in Nepal. She is humble, generous, compassionate, intelligent, personable, friendly, and a pure beauty inside and out.” As for how the earthquake has affected Nasreen and the Local Women’s Handicrafts: “I think it definitely challenged the ladies and Nasreen, but her leadership and determination will enable them to move on,” said Diana.
To find out more about Nasreen, her organization, and Local Women’s Handicrafts’ post-earthquake recovery programs, visit http://www.lwhnepal.com/