Soon after we arrived in Bhaktapur a handful of the Unatti girls had their ears pierced. A strand of cotton hung in a limp loop through their lobe; a few days later this was replaced by a small twig, to be followed in two months, by an earring. There is no refrigeration at the Unatti home – so I knew there was no ice to numb the earlobe, and I suspected there was no other form of anaesthetic either. What did they use? Nothing. Does it hurt? Did you cry? No! We are strong!
I was impressed by their resilience – and curious about their housemothers’ expectations that these young girls are strong and would rise above any pain or discomfort. From time to time I asked about their ears, but the girls never admitted to pain and they never complained.
Being strong and not giving into does not negate the girls’ also being vulnerable and uncertain at times, or the rightness that girls and women to express the full range of their emotions. Nonetheless, this desire to be strong was intriguing – not something I hear elsewhere amongst young women and is a quality, along with their resilience and self-reliance, that I admire. I believe it serves women well.
Around the same time we took a walk with the Unatti girls through the foggy morning and farmlands, up and up to an extraordinary and ancient temple overlooking the valley: two hours there and two back. Some girls are young – around 11 years old and oldest are about 16. As the morning coolness gave way to a warm day, we all become hot and tired on the return walk. Yet these young girls did not complain and were reluctant to let me carry their coats for them. They happily joined in word and observation games as we made our way down the hill towards home.
They do not need or receive constant food or encouragement. But they do receive subtle encouragement from the housemothers and each other to be capable, to try as well as meet the challenges set for them. Underlying both the ear piercing and the long walk was the expectation that these girls could manage and a desire within each of them to manage.
Towards the end of our time in Bhaktapur we were invited to run an art and drama program in a local secondary college. This very poor school has few resources but, we were told, it is trying to establish a culture of learning. An odd thing to say about a school, I know, but there are many problems within the education system in Nepal – so a school aiming to embrace contemporary educational ideas is one to support. We soon discovered a school falling very short of their goals. We were confronted with (amongst many things) 40-plus male and female year 7s students who had not be informed of our visit and no teachers present to support the program.
As usual, we started the program with games and mime – a tried and tested way to break the ice and get to know each other a little; the girls would not join in. Nepali girls tend to be reserved at first. We understand that drama can be a little daunting for less confident students, however, with a little time and encouragement most are unable to resist the fun and laughter, and jump in. I encourage girls to participate simply by participating myself and sometimes Alex and I consciously create space in amongst the exuberant boys for girls to participate and perform. But these girls hung along the back wall, entwined in each other, looking every way but to the group. Some urgently needed the toilet! All refused to respond. We had never met anything like them before.
Until this experience I had only met Nepali girls who are prepared to try. I found it exasperating to watch the boys make the most of the opportunity whilst these girls held back and cowered. The boys’ enthusiasm was delightful – but it seemed to make the girls even more reluctant to participate.
Alex and I work very closely together in our workshops. We believe this combination of the male and female artist co-facilitating the program provides strong role models to students. Each of us has our unique skills set so as one is teaching, the other is supporting. We believe this partnership demonstrates positive and useful lessons to students and teachers about equality between men and women.
We split the group of students in two along gender lines – a first for us. I planned to take the girls away for a chat and a drawing project and expected that on following day we would again work together with Alex and the male students. However, even in this segregated group the girls held back, huddled together, refusing to speak or respond. They were beyond shy, they were resistant, uncooperative and didn’t seem to feel any responsibility to participate. How to encourage these young women to take this opportunity to try something different? How to open their minds to their imagination, and creative practice?
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is burdened by poor government, poor infrastructure, poor education, a lack of creative responses to immense problems as well as an entrenched view of women being the lesser of the two sexes. We heard worrying stories of a growing number of incidents of family violence, we saw large families struggling to properly feed, care for and educate their children. We saw girls taking on the responsibility to mind younger siblings and as a result, their education suffering.
I asked these students what they thought was one of the most important contributors to a country’s development. No response. Education for girls and women, I said.
“Education is important for everyone, but it is especially significant for girls and women. This is true not only because education is an entry point to other opportunities, but also because the educational achievements of women can have ripple effects within the family and across generations. Investing in girls’ education is one of the most effective ways to reduce poverty. Investments in secondary school education for girls yields especially high dividends.
Girls who have been educated are likely to marry later and to have smaller and healthier families. Educated women can recognize the importance of health care and know how to seek it for themselves and their children. Education helps girls and women to know their rights and to gain confidence to claim them”
The school had fostered some notion that these girls could be anything they wanted in life — they told me of their desires to be a doctor, teacher, nurse and engineer but the school had not put in place the follow-through steps – study, concentration, participation, curiosity, resilience. These girls were drifting and were without an anchor or the proper educative structures to help them meet their potential, achieve their own goals or, in the very least, make inroads into their existing cycle of poverty. The gap between the desire and reaching anything near that goal was palpable. My mind returned to the young girls, their ears and the walk, as well as their desire to learn.
In yoga we practice being tall and strong – imagining a thread being pulled from the top of our head – drawing us skywards – to make our spine long and strong. It feels good and projects a sense of stability, calm and energy. “Women are strong!” I encouraged the girls. “You have to be strong ~ stand up! Hands out of pockets and stand away from each other! Be tall.”
I took my lead from the conversations we had with the Unatti girls. I took my lead from the physically strong women I saw around the town, I took my lead from the facts I know about Nepal, and from my own conviction that women are strong, courageous, bright and capable. It serves no one well when women and girls are subservient, ill educated and meek.
The three days with this school was an immense struggle – at times I felt we were making progress, then at other times, nothing. But as we spent more time together and their artwork began to take shape, we could see the results of being persistent, and they were proud of what they were achieving. And they laughed when I refused their requests for the toilet.
Women are strong, was my mantra; you have to be strong.
One evening a group of the young Unatti girls came to our guesthouse for dinner. After this three days with the girls I wanted to understand more what does strong meant to them: Confident. Not afraid. Willing to try. I hope something of those concepts rubbed off onto the schoolgirls.