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When your man goes to India

Nepal, June 15, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps’ Khadga Ramtel, a monitoring and evaluation officer for our agricultural and infrastructure work, talks with women in the village of Katwalguan. Photo: Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps

The Nepali women we’ve been talking to don’t complain. Or not like I imagine most of us would if we were faced with the hardships they endure — on their own — every day. They live a long way from any services or resources. We bounced for three hours on bone-crunching rock roads, then hiked down a steep, slippery hillside to reach Katwalguan village.

Most of the time, the women here outnumber the men. That’s because many of their husbands and fathers have gone over the border to India, just a few hours away, to find work. Seventy-five percent of the households in Far West Nepal are in the same boat, with at least one male family member gone in search of a day’s wage.

Most of the village women are illiterate. While their men are away, they cultivate small one- to two-rupnee plots (about 1/20 of an acre) of rice or wheat. The irrigation pond they built with their own hands, through a Mercy Corps cash-for-work project, brings water closer to their fields.

But it’s still tough to coax food from the land. An entire harvest often yields only a suppa (the local flat basket that serves as a standard measure) of grain — enough to last a month or two. When it’s gone, they hike up the same footpath we descended, to purchase rice from the shopkeeper at the top of the hill. If they don’t have enough to buy it, they take the rice on loan. And if their husbands’ wages don’t reach home before the payment is due, they’re forced to borrow from their neighbors at the high local 36 percent interest rate.

“Dues and dues and dues,” said Pari Katwal, a 32-year-old mother of four. She quiets the squirmy baby in her lap with a quick, soft smile. “We are compelled to live like this. All our earnings go to food.” It’s true, and Pari works like an ox.

Still it’s not enough. The children of Katwalguan are clearly undernourished. Kids old enough to be in school are as small as toddlers. No one here looks well fed.

And yet these mothers, as they sat with us to share their stories, didn’t despair. Far from it. “We want more work,” said Pana Devi Katwal, 38. “Our women built one irrigation pond. Now we want another one. We’re interested to work. What is the next project?”

As we hiked back up to the Jeep, my stride felt stronger. “You’re walking faster on the way up than you did on the way down!” remarked Khadga. What a strange thing — I was. Maybe the women of Katwalguan, who are working so hard to lift themselves, gave me a lift, too.