Early marriage and indentured servitude (known as Kamlari) are the two pervasive evils that plague impoverished girls of Nepal. “These remain some of the most harmful practices because girls are treated as property and are sent off by their families at very early ages (some as young as six years old) to do manual labor, or they are married off, start raising children, and never have the chance to enter school,” says Reema Shrestha, who has dedicated her life to educating young girls so that they may avoid such a grim future.
Nepali-born Shrestha herself was lucky. “I feel very fortunate to have been born in a supportive family that believed in education and could afford to support my schooling,” says Shrestha, who grew up in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. After tenth grade, her parents sent her to India to attend college and graduate school.
It was in the desolate slums of India where she first realized her potential for helping girls and young women. “While doing my master’s degree work, I went to work for different organizations addressing a range of issues, including addiction recovery, education, women welfare (rehabilitation center for trafficked girls) and adult literacy,” she says. “What I saw and experienced during this time, practically and theoretically, influences the work I am doing right now because I better understand the issues facing disadvantaged communities and how to assist them.”
After several years teaching girls in the slums of India, Shrestha received her master’s degree in social work and returned to Nepal in 2000. She volunteered for several organizations before ultimately deciding that the key to an impoverished girl’s success is education. She joined Room to Read, a nonprofit organization that focuses on literacy in Asia and Africa, in 2006 and is now the Girls Education Program Manager. Shrestha’s program has benefited close to 3,000 Nepali girls. She also works extensively with girls who have led isolated, dismal lives as servants—and she has helped hundreds of former Kamlari girls by enrolling them in Room to Read’s Girls Education Program so they can go back to school and graduate ready to make informed life decisions.
One girl stands out in Shrestha’s mind as the pinnacle of Room to Read’s success. Gita Tharu was a Kamlari before she was rescued and became a student in the Girls’ Education program, eventually graduating from secondary school. “She beat the odds,” Shrestha says. “She has since become a vocal advocate to end the Kalmari tradition, and she is very active in raising awareness within communities about the harm it causes. I am so impressed with how hard she worked to overcome her circumstances and succeed despite all her hardships.”
Today, Tharu works for Room to Read as a “social mobilizer”—a woman who serves as a mentor and who liaisons with the schools and communities—for girls who are facing the same situation and problems that she experienced at their age. “What she is doing is working because in the district where she works, the rate of families practicing Kamlari has dropped significantly,” Shrestha says. “Gita has become a true role model and inspiration for the girls she works with, who have all expressed their desire to follow in her footsteps.”
Tharu is a great example of Shrestha’s efforts with Room to Read to build a rapport with parents, head teachers, school management committees, community leaders and elders—all as a way to clear a path for the girls. “Continuous interaction and information sharing with the community leaders is critical because it’s through them that we are able to spread understanding and acceptance about the importance of education and literacy,” she says. “These leaders are very influential people and everyone listens to them, and if you succeed in getting their cooperation, you are able to spark change within a community.”
Generational traditions can be broken, but there are also new trends that communities need help avoiding. Shrestha says she is alarmed to recently see girls volunteering themselves for Kamlari: “There seems to be a growing fascination with material things like cell phones instead of receiving an education.”
She says she will continue to work with girls and their communities to stress how important education is in their lives—and in the lives of their future children and grandchildren. “When I look back and reflect on my career, I am more confident and passionate about the power of education today than I have ever been,” Shrestha says. “Thousands of girls in Nepal now have the opportunity to learn and become educated and productive citizens to contribute to their families and communities. It makes me very proud to know that I had a small part in making that happen.”
Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.