“Where I’m from, when you’re a girl, you can’t do anything else apart from getting married, it’s the only thing we can have on our mind”
My name is Saheen. I don’t know exactly when my birthday is, but by guessing I would say that I am 19 or 20 years old. I don’t know because my parents don’t remember. So I can be whatever age I want and celebrate my birthday everyday !
I come from a very small and poor village in Terai, Saptari district. My parents were heavily stigmatized by society, because my father didn’t work and he had a mental disability. My mom was house wife. I have 2 sisters.
Where I’m from, when you are a girl, you can’t do anything else apart from getting married, it’s the only thing we can have on our mind, there is no other life. So, every girl is prepared for marriage. As soon as you reach the age of 10, you start to get prepared for marriage. I saw how society was and how everyone was like, so I thought that I had to get married too.
But then when I was 9, my sister Nasreen, who had left for Katmandu told me that if I wanted, I could join her over there, and so I did. Everything was different. The buildings seemed so big and those buildings had such big windows ! Before, I thought that my whole life would be about getting married, but everything started to change when I got here. Here, people were wearing jeans and tee-shirts, and women were very active, they were driving motorbikes and all of that !
Nasreen came to Kathmandu when she was 9 or 10 years old and worked in a sweatshop for the textile industry, she was in a child labor situation. She worked there for two years. Then I came to join her in Katmandu and worked with her for a while, she told me how to stitch. Then when I was 12 years old I was able to make really nice things, so I started teaching other women, and we started the Local Women’s Handicraft center.
“I wanted to have a different future, so I told my mother that if she wanted to force me to have that kind of life she’d better kill me. “
In our culture if your big sister is married, then it is your turn to get married. I was lucky enough to have Nasreen who isn’t married. My parents pressured her into marriage but she always refused and ended up fleeing the village.
My parents told me to not look up to Nasreen and that I shouldn’t keep in touch with her and that I should cut her out of my life. They told me that I should get married, that getting married would turn my life around, but I deeply felt like that was untrue.
One of my cousin was 15 or 16 years old when she got married and now when we meet, she is just crying all the time. It seems like her life is already finished. There’s nothing she can do about it.
I wanted to have a different future, so I told my mother that if she wanted to force me to have that kind of life she’d better kill me.
Nasreen got a lot pressure from society to get married. But now my family has sort of put her aside and in our village no one respects us because we didn’t get married and we didn’t respect the culture. Nasreen and I think that somebody has to wake up for things to change, because if we are not the one who initiate change, then who will? It’s very important.
“If one women can become independent, she can then change the mindset of her entire family”
My job used to be about training women to make handicrafts. At that time, Nasreen was running the shop. But In 2015 we decided to make a change and I started working in the shop. I did that because I wanted to learn more, to grow and to meet people from all around the world. Nasreen currently travels around the world and speaks about the project we are working on. Now I am able to speak up and I have become a more open person. I feel empowered.
Now the women who have worked for a while in the factory are handling the training for the new women. They’re glad to have a new experience and it helps them gain a lot of confidence. I now take care of the shop. It is a lot of responsibility because the women we train are relying on the sells I make. We want to be financially sustainable and not rely solely on donations.
In the beginning it was very difficult to put this project together, it took a lot of hard work and a lot of love. Now, many many women want to join us and they come from all around Nepal to be part of our women’s empowerment center.
I am so happy to be working for women. I feel like my sister and I are able to change those 35 women’s lives. I think that if one woman can become independent, she can then change the mindset of her entire family. So, we are not only helping those 35 women, we are helping something like 500 people. I feel like my dream is coming true.
People buy a lot of things in India and Nepal, but there is so much child labor. Often, people don’t think about who’s making it, they just think about the price. I think that when you buy something you should at least care a little bit about who’s making it. If people are buying from this shop, they’re not just buying, they’re helping ! When you buy here, it gives a woman a job and it changes her life. And also some organizations they just give the money and not the job so the people are getting dependent, which is not good either. This doesn’t change things.
“They have more hope now, which gives me more power”
I’ve always thought that I should change the mindset of the people of my village so now we are trying to open a workshop in my village. The workshops are not just about learning a trade, they also teach about health education, child marriage, education and so on. Because when all the women get together they are stronger. We’re still working on this, but this is my dream.
We are helping women here but over there they really really need help. However, we can’t directly go there and run some workshops. It’s too difficult for us because the village people don’t respect us. This is why we need the workshop here in Katmandu to be very strong. Then we can open one over there.
I wish all women would become independent and no one would decide for them. I can see already in our workshop, we give women education and four of them are already running their own business, I feel so happy to see that change. It’s happening now. I wish I could do more because there are so many women who come to our workshop to ask for work and for help.
We have already helped people in the village though, by distributing supplies to those affected by the flood. They were grateful that we helped them. I took the opportunity to ask women what they’d think about the idea to open a workshop over here. The women welcomed the idea quite well, there were very happy and they thought that it was a very good idea. They have more hope now, which gives me more power.
“It’s not love, it’s just work”
Over there, in the village, women can’t speak out. Everything is decided for them by their family. When they are 14 or 15 years old they have to get married but they are still children, how could they decide for themselves ? And marriage is such a big responsibility. They have so much work to do to please their husbands. I feel like when a man takes a wife, he just takes a worker. I feel like it’s not love, it’s just work. And who you get as a husband depends on how much you can pay, the woman’s family has to pay the man to marry her and also give furniture and things like that. The more you give the more you can have a good man, if not you don’t have money, you get a really old man.
Things won’t change in a day. It’s not possible to change things that quickly. The government has tried to enforce changes and forbid marriage for girls under the age of 16, but no one respect the law…
That’s why I want to open a workshop in this village, so we can give education to women.
“When women get their first period, their family will put them (…) in a dark room”
For me, the biggest problem for Nepalese women is related to menstruation. In the mountainside, when women get their first period, their family will put them for 6, 7 or sometimes up to 12 days in a dark room where you can’t even see the sunlight. During that period, a girl is not allowed to see her father or her brothers, she cannot be near men. Usually, at that time, we are only teenagers so we believe our family. We can’t decide, if they say this is right, then we believe them. It’s very scary. They just follow the culture, and this has been happening from generation to generation. They think that if they don’t do it, it’s not good for the family, if they do it, then it’s like they are getting a blessing. That still happens a lot today. Some people are changing this practice but mostly the higher casts, or the rich families, they are more open. But the low casts, they have to follow everything. The name of this practice is Chhaupadi.
In 2005, the government passed a law to ban this practice, yet the people never stopped doing it. There is no control anyway. In the workshop here in Katmandu, all the women have experienced that practice. They still follow some rules, for example, even now, if I have my period, I can’t enter the kitchen. And if no one is there, then I have to wait for someone to go in to get me food.
“I thought I had cancer”
I can tell you my story. When I first got my period, my family was not at home at the time, I didn’t share this with anyone because I was too shy to say anything. I didn’t know what was happening to me. And before it happened, I had just seen a movie where a woman had a cancer, and she was bleeding so much. And exactly one week later I got the same thing, so I thought I had cancer ! I didn’t know what menstruation was. This first time, the bleeding stopped quite quickly, I remember praying and thanking god.
But then the next month it happened again ! But fortunately that time my mother was there. I told her and she started laughing and told me that it was normal. She also said, “I have to put you in the room”. I told her that it had happened before, but that no one was home, so it was too late, so they didn’t put me in the room. In my village, some people still do that, put the girls in the room, but not so much. It mostly happens in the mountain side.
When I had my period, I used to use the same cloth for 8 hours, sometimes even 9 hours, and my mother told me that I could use any type of cloth. What I was wearing was old cloth because we weren’t able to buy sanitary pads. At that time, I didn’t wear underwear so she bought me some.
Since I was using the same used cloth for a very long time, about one year later I got an infection. I was bleeding a lot and it was smelly, it was very bad. But it wasn’t my mistake, no one had explained anything to me. Again, that time I wasn’t able to tell anybody, I didn’t even tell my mother. There was so much blood I didn’t know what to do. One day she saw stains on my trousers, there was so much blood, so she asked me “what is happening”? So I told her that I didn’t know what to do. She took me to the hospital. Eventually, I started to pay attention and I was able to manage my periods.
Periods in Nepal considered impure, I was hurting myself for a really long time because of this stigma. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of this, it’s normal. Actually, women are very connected to the earth during their period, and it’s a blessing that we get reminded by mother Nature that we all are one pain and one joy, light and dark, day and night, it’s all part of life.
“In our women’s empowerment center, women make reusable sanitary pads”
In our women’s empowerment center, women make reusable sanitary pads. What I do is I go to public schools, where the poorest children go, and I distribute the pads. Plus, I give about one hour of education about menstruation. I tell them my story as well, I am Nepali, so they connect with my story and they understand it. I tell them that they have to change the pads every 3 or 4 hours, otherwise they can get infections. It’s important because in our culture, when you get your period, no one explains you how to deal with it. Plus, the disposable pads are very bad for our environment. It takes 800 years to decompose. But poor people can’t afford them anyway…
When I go to schools to give away the pads, I am so happy because they listen so carefully, then I ask, “do you have any problems ?”, and they start to really share, about the pain, and about many things, and they ask many questions to me. They’re not shy anymore. I feel happy that they’re asking questions! They become more open. With the sanitary pads we give a little bag that is waterproof and made from recycling. With this waterproof bag, they can put the dirty pad in there and the smell won’t come out so they feel more comfortable. And when they go back home, they can just clean it, and dry it. Also, many girls are shy to dry their clothes out in the sun and out in public, that’s why we made the pads look like a hankie so there is no problem about that.
When I distribute these items, I give education to boys as well. It’s complicated because they are very shy. But they’re coming to school to get educated, so they should get all the education they can. I feel so happy to have boys there as well because in the future maybe they will have a wife or a daughter, and if somebody has a problem they can help. If they don’t know, how can they change things ? They do feel shy but still, they listen.
If you want to learn more about Saheen and Nasreen, or about their project, you can visit those links :
www.locwom.org this website will give you information where we are building our second learning center.
www.lwhnepal.com This website you can shop fair trade handmade products made by our women.
www.nasreensheikh.com This website will tell you the story of Nasreen and where she is speaking so you can join in our mission.