Elongated creases extend from inset gaunt eyes. Dark tanned skin flows delicately past a flattened nose to lips that smile with pride. The elegant folds seem to grasp hold of virtually every surface, encapsulating the face and amplifying each gesture made. These premature wrinkles are earned by years of toiling unprotected, at high altitude, under a hot Nepali sun. They are the faces of beautiful strong women who strive every day to ensure a safe prosperous future for their children and grandchildren.
In the remote countryside women’s faces and bodies have been permanently altered by the labor they perform. While traveling throughout this beautiful nation I have noticed something surprising. Women (mainly older women) in rural areas of Nepal are chiefly responsible for the heavy labor involved with farming this harsh landscape. I have witnessed this scene time and time again. A hand woven wicker basket overfilled with anything from firewood or rocks, to grass and hay are carried behind, held up by a piece of cloth that wraps around the forehead. Hunched over with most of the weight supported on their back they slowly climb up the terraced mountainside. This technique while effective, slowly and irrevocably ruins proper posture.
Another startling observation; there are very few young men in any of these communities. I am able to spot plenty of children and older men but hardly any males between the ages of eighteen to forty. When I inquire as to why I get one of three answers. They have gone to another country in search of better paying jobs, left to attend university or they have fallen into bad habits (drinking / gambling). While they are gone there is no one else to tend to the farmland so it becomes the women’s job in addition to the rest of their daily responsibilities (cooking, cleaning, child care, etc…). The hopes and dreams of each community are literally carried on the backs of these women. Their hard work in the fields and at home makes it possible for others to strive for betterment. I don’t think I have or could ever be that selfless, however this is the reality of daily life in these isolated towns.
Coming from a developed country it feels wrong, alien even. I find myself fighting the raw emotion to grab each basket and run them up the mountain. I know it is an old fashioned sentiment but chivalry still exists in my world. I still hold doors open, give my seat up when none is available and carry heavy items whether help is needed or not. But as the saying goes “Culture is King”, we are here to help in a different way and I must accept that I cannot change this practice or the necessity for it. I have been lucky enough to sit and talk with these amazing women; receiving their feedback on how the SAMMAN project is helping to increase the maternal, neonatal and reproductive health of their town. I am encouraged to see how women are empowered to learn and speak up about their health needs and the positive change this program is promoting in their lives. I always leave these meetings a little overwhelmed at the deep divide between the developed and the developing world. I describe some of these differences in a previous blog (A Purposeful Gathering). Despite the obvious hardships, women here remain steadfastly committed to their responsibilities. One thing is for certain, they are the backbone of their communities and given proper support, I have no doubt that like those heavy baskets, these women will continue to carry them forward and up to a more prosperous future.