As a therapist these days, faced with all the grim realities of our times, it's hard to escape the admonitions about becoming more involved in community activism, social advocacy, or social justice work of some kind. It's one thing to volunteer a few hours per week or take on some low-paying clients, but who has time to change the world when we already have our hands full trying to make a living and get through the obstacle course of a normal work week?
I now spend several months each year working in remote regions of Nepal, helping lower-caste girls, who are at the greatest risk of being forced into early marriage or trafficked into sex slavery, by making it possible for them to attend school and become the first girls in their villages to go on to receive a higher education. After 17 years of effort, we have hundreds of girls in our program from a dozen different villages scattered around the country. But I never planned or even dreamed of such a mission: it was something that fell into my lap.
Imagine, if you will, that you're in a remote village somewhere in the world--as I was more than a decade ago--conducting research on maternal mortality with a graduate student. While going about your business, you learn that young girls are somehow "disappearing" from school. The school principal shrugs and tells you that some families are so poor that they have no choice but to keep their girls out of school and working at home, where the lucky ones are forced to marry by age 12. The not-so-lucky ones end up sold, kidnapped, or tricked into sex slavery and smuggled across the border into India, where they can end up being raped 15 to 20 times per day. What if this principal standing next to you casually points to a young girl talking to her friends and tells you that she'll be "disappeared" next? What would you do then?
What if you asked the principal how much it would take to keep this little girl in school and away from harm, and he told you that it would cost all of $50? What if you impulsively reached into your pocket and gave the principal the money to save this girl's life, and then learned that unless you were prepared to revisit this village and check on this girl, she and the money would likely disappear? What would you do then?
I think that my present course is the logical consequence of a life spent acting impulsively and trying to do the most good that I can in the limited time I'm allotted. That's why, so many years later, I find myself somewhere in the Himalayan foothills, three planes, a bus ride, and long walk--mostly up a steep mountainside--to this ridge, where I'm resting with a group of volunteers and 55 of the scholarship children we support.
As I've done every year during the past decade, I've brought a team of therapists, graduate students, and other professionals with me to work with the girls we're supporting to have a better life. We've spent the prior week conducting home visits, consulting with parents and teachers, awarding new scholarships, and providing supplies and resources for the children.
As I breathe deeply and gather my energy for the climb to the summit, I review the morning's activities. We'd arranged the girls in small groups, each from a different village. They'd been asked to share something in their lives about which they were proud, as well as some difficult struggle they were facing. Since most of the girls are from the "untouchable" caste, it isn't surprising that many shared economic hardships, such as living in small huts and sleeping on the floor. But I was shocked by how many of the girls have lost parents--some to disease, others to abandonment. A few have fathers who are alcoholics or incapacitated. One girl's father was eaten by a tiger! As they were telling their stories, they were trying to hold back tears. I was amazed by their courage and resilience.
Supposedly, we're here to help these children, but they've done so much for me. Many of them, and their families, have nothing and expect nothing, yet they appear to accept their fate with cheerfulness and joy; maybe the next life will be better. As for me, it's when I'm here that I feel most alive, and at least for the few months after I return, I feel a new clarity and focus about what's most important to me, none of which includes ambition and materialism. If only the effects would last!Back Home
When I honestly examine my personal motives for doing work in such a remote region, I must admit I enjoy feeling like a martyr, escaping from the mundane aspects of my life, hiding from issues I'd rather avoid, having an excuse to travel, and having access to an exotic world that few outsiders have ever witnessed. But most of all, at the core of what I'm seeking, is the intimacy and caring I experience with my team members, the parenting role with the hundreds of children, the close relationships that develop over time. It's almost fun to commiserate with our team members about the difficulties we face, bitch and moan about the annoyances we encounter (squat toilets, limited food choices, armed Maoist rebels, traffic jams, fuel and electricity shortages, garbage strikes, unfamiliar cultural rituals). I love what I learn about the world--and what I learn about myself.