Thinking of Children in International Development

Photo of child working at brick kiln factory by Matilda Branson

Photo of child working at brick kiln factory by Matilda Branson

by Matilda Branson

Working in gender issues, I sometimes push the children’s rights stuff to the side for UNICEF or Save the Children to deal with, or leave the child labour issues in the hands of the International Labor Organisation. I put it all into a mental box labelled “child rights stuff”, separate to all the gender and women’s rights things I work on day to day.

But ye gods, surely this is the Achilles’ heel of international development, the old approach of silo-ing everything into separate fields – women’s rights separate to children’s rights, water and sanitation separate to education, public health separate to economic empowerment. It’s crazy because everything overlaps, and a holistic approach has to be the name of the game, right? Of course child rights issues cross-cut gender and equality.

Sweat shops in India, child soldiers in Uganda, child pornography, the exploitation of children… In the world of international development, working side-by-side with child-focused organisations like World Vision and UNICEF and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and child-specific Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) like MDG 2 – “Achieving universal primary education” or MDG 4 “Reducing child mortality rates”– it sometimes seems that “children’s issues” are the easiest to tackle. There’s a reason sponsor-a-child campaigns are so successful – no one likes to let kids suffer and so many interventions for kids are needs-based.

Yet last month, I went on a monitoring visit to a brick kiln factory on the outskirts of Kathmandu in Nepal where I work, with an organisation named Animal Nepal, to investigate the working conditions of the many donkeys, mules and small ponies which cart devastatingly heavy loads of unbaked bricks to and from the huge chimney-like brick kiln to be cooked.

Brick kiln factories are where the bricks that are building a rapidly urbanising Kathmandu are made. But the cruel animal labour aside, horrible enough within itself, these factories are also home to young seasonal labourers –as young as six-years-old. These workers are young kids from poor rural families desperate to earn money, children sent as bonded labourers, or children living in poverty from India who hear through a middleman that they can make a buck over the border in Kathmandu. These are the children upon whose backs the brick industry is built in Nepal. Read more

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Is the World Starting to Care About Rape?

Protest in Bangalore after the December gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old student

Protest in Bangalore after the December gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old student

by Matilda Branson

As I shudder a little on a foolish sojourn to the bathroom scales, shudder at the excesses of Christmas and New Year festivities, then sit down to read the morning paper, I see the recent gang-rape of a 23-year-old medical student in India continues to be splattered across the pages of the world media. The woman died of her severe injuries two days later and five men are facing rape and murder charges, with a sixth facing charges in juvenile court.

This case has caused a wave of public protests across India, calling for an end to sexual harassment, assault and other forms of violence against women and the lack of accountability or enforcement of laws by authorities, endemic within patriarchal societies like India. This outcry has spread to neighboring countries like Nepal, where women’s rights groups and activists have submitted a petition to Prime Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and are staging rallies and protests outside his residence in Baluwatar, Kathmandu, dubbed the #OccupyBaluwatar on Twitter.

These protests, following the outcry of the Delhi gang-rape, centre on the rape case of Sita Rai, a Nepali teenager who last month was robbed of all her savings and raped by security personnel at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, upon returning from working in Saudi Arabia. Rights groups are demanding justice beyond mere compensation from Nepal’s Prime Minister and the government.

As we see protests sweeping across India, Nepal and neighboring countries, I wonder, is this the tide turning against a persisting global complacency on gender-based violence? With the world media for once receptive to reporting on violence against women and on a rape case far from home, with others like Nepal up in arms over similar rape cases, this might be the opportunity to get people to listen, and to take real action on stopping violence against women.

(photo by Jim Ankan Deka via Wikimedia Commons)

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Nepal’s 1st National Netball Team – After the Game

by Matilda Branson

Just a quick update on Nepal’s National Netball Team, which I wrote about in August. A quick word with the coaches revealed it was a crazy, fun-packed, intense, sporty and amazing week spent in Sri Lanka at the 8th Asian Netball Championship.

Some of the highlights included:

The girls seeing new things for the first time – including taking photos of vending machines in Delhi Airport on the way to Sri Lanka, seeing trains for the first time (and apparently a few close calls, as there was the assumption made by the girls, as with most traffic in Kathmandu, that the traffic, including trains, would go round them), going to the beach and seeing the sea, having McDonalds and having a good shop along the way. Remember – these were all firsts – seeing the sea for the first time, let alone everything else. Definite sensory overload.

After an Opening Ceremony attended in both sari and blazer, the games began. The games, they were tough. Remember, these girls went from zero, learning about netball, to becoming as professional as possible in six weeks and were in Sri Lanka playing the best in Asia. Read more

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Women’s Empowerment Through Nepal’s 1st National Netball Team

by Matilda Branson

As usual, life in Kathmandu tosses up some odd opportunities. Last week I had the pleasure of playing practice games of netball against the national Nepali Netball team.

This was the result of my expat friend phoning the Nepali Netball Association, whose number she found on the internet, to enquire into social weekly netball games. She was informed that no, there is no social competition – in fact, none at all – but would she like to coach the national team? In less than six weeks, my friend and her boyfriend (who learned netball coaching strategies from YouTube clips) have selected and coached a crack team of young Nepali girls aged between 18-22 years, six days a week in how to play the noble game of netty, just in time for participation in the Asian Netball Championship to be held in Sri Lanka next week.

As part of their preparation, a motley bunch of expats from Commonwealth countries (where netball is actually played, inherited from the UK) were recruited to form an opposition team for the national team to practice against.

They were good. Quite good. Although it may seem a case of Cool Runnings Nepali-style, these girls are fit, determined and kick-ass, their ball skills and team play damn good considering some first picked up a netball six weeks ago.  Read more

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Sipping Tea with Candy

by Matilda Branson

“Hello madame, how are you? Which country you from?”

This is a pretty common phrase I hear when, on my days off, I get my rubber-necking tourist persona on around Kathmandu, taking in the sites, amazing temples and general hustle and bustle of what can be frankly a bloody crazy city.

Often, I’ll tend to ignore these repetitive cries from locals, as they inevitably lead to my being implored to buy their Tiger Balm or mini Buddha statuettes. This time though, the biggest concern for the day, as I wandered around with a traveller buddy of mine, was what to have for lunch – so, I decided to give this local guy the time of day.

After finding out what I did (“where you live? What you do? How long in Nepal?”), and that I work with a minority (Dalit women), he told my friend and I about himself quite openly (with the added, “Call me Candy*”) – that he was formerly involved in the Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) community and identified as transgender. But now he has a young son and family and fears discrimination against his son, so lives a “normal” Nepali life, and only cross-dresses on special occasions. Then Candy asked my friend and me home for a cup of tea with his family. Read more

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Bring Your Baby to Work Day

by Matilda Branson

I never stop being surprised by the things which happen in my day to day work at the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO) in Kathmandu, Nepal. Whether it’s being hauled up to deliver gender training (starts in 10 minutes, ok?), or having to swing into action to respond to yet another horrible case of sexual and gender-based violence against a Dalit woman in a far-flung district or just having a pleasant chat at 9 AM with colleagues on arranged marriages and quirky Nepali customs, there is (excuse the platitude, but really, there isn’t!) never a dull moment in this NGO.

I work with a number of young Dalit women – between 25-35 years of age – the first generation of educated, middle-class Dalit women, who have battled a mountain of discrimination to get where they are today.

I’m sitting at my desk, tapping away at a report I’ve been avoiding for days, when I see a young colleague of mine walking up the small spiral staircase, to the rooftop, where “Didi”, the live-in caretaker of FEDO office lives. Not long after, I see another young colleague disappear up there. Why are they in Didi’s house? Why do they disappear up there for around 10-15 minutes at least four times a day each?  Is there an amazing staff room I haven’t heard about?

SO – it turns out that the young mums of FEDO have tiny wee babies around the 3-5 month mark, who they bring to work! And the babies sit up (I lie, their back muscles are not ready for sitting up yet; they lay around) in Didi’s house, supervised by an ancient Nepali lady whose nanny-ing wage is paid for equally by the mothers. In a society where to obtain any job is a fiercely competitive struggle, these mothers bring their babies to work, where they can be nearby and able to be breastfeed their children whenever needed during their work day. Read more

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This One Time, on Prolapse Camp…

by Matilda Branson

So… I’m about to head off to Far Western Nepal (read: remote, hilly, goat tracks) on Prolapse Camp. Sounds fun, don’t you think?

For those not quite in the know, uterine prolapse is a condition where a woman’s uterus falls down, or slips out of place, even coming entirely out of the body, as a result of weakened muscles. This is obviously not the exact medical definition, but describes the essentials of something that’s pretty damn unpleasant. It occurs in women of all ages, although the older you get, the more susceptible you are. These weakened muscles are caused by hard prolonged labour, having large babies, improper delivery techniques and hard work, carrying heavy objects and the like.

Over 600,000 women in Nepal are thought to suffer from uterine prolapse.  And it seems that the poorer you are and the harder life is (particularly in rural areas where women work on farms and boy do they work hard), the more susceptible you are to prolapse. Early pregnancy (child marriage is still pretty common unfortunately) or too closely-spaced pregnancies (child planning – also not that great in some areas) and going back to work too soon after giving birth are major factors.

And if you do suffer from prolapse in Nepal, there’s a high risk that your husband will divorce you, your neighbours will discriminate against you, and life probably isn’t looking too rosy. And you’re stuck with the constant pain and discomfort of the damn prolapse itself, too, which in severe cases may mean a woman becomes incontinent and highly vulnerable to infections. Really not fair.

While raising awareness about pelvic floor exercises may seem the obvious answer, you’ve got to really look at poverty and discrimination as definite factors increasing the likelihood of prolapse in women.

The good news? The Nepali Government, and some development agencies are aware of the problem and are spear tackling fallen uterus head-on. Approximately 200,000 women are in need of immediate corrective surgery (UNFPA, 2009), and surgery is offered free of charge by the Government. Good one, Nepali Government! Getting to hospitals can be tricky for women in isolated areas, but the invention of Prolapse Camps have helped to make treatment more accessible for women.

So – you now know more about uterine prolapse in Nepal than you did five minutes ago. It’s linked with poverty and discrimination. It’s pretty easy to fix – well, the immediate surgery, at any rate. Those underlying structural factors will take a fair bit more time to fix.  But that simple surgery can change a life – suddenly a woman can go from being discriminated and ostracised by her family and community, to a respected figure, with renewed self-esteem and able to comfortably negotiate her way through life once more. Pretty neat, really.

(lithograph from Grey’s Anatomy in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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