When Laxmi, 39, was arrested for the death of her husband, she had no option but to take her eight-month-old daughter Aarti with her to prison.
Her married life, in a remote village of Nepal, was not a bed of roses, but of bruises and pain, inflicted upon her by her husband, an alcoholic. One day, unable to endure this suffering any longer, Laxmi hit him back with a metal blowpipe. Little did she know then that she was dealing him a fatal blow.
Subsequently, she was taken to prison, Aarti in her arms and her other four children in the village with family members.
It was Aarti who caught the eye of Pushpa Basnet when, in 2005, the 21-year-old visited a prison in Kathmandu as an undergraduate student of social work.
Looking around, Basnet realised that Aarti was not the only child living within the prison walls. There were several others. The appalling conditions there were clearly not fit for a child to grow in, Basnet thought.
Besides missing out on the joys of childhood, these children lacked proper nutrition, education and medical care.
“There was something about Aarti that drew me towards her, a kind of energy pulling me to her,” recalls the founder member of Early Childhood Development Centre, (ECDC), an NGO in Nepal that works among children whose parents have been incarcerated.
For Basnet, it was the life-defining moment, one that would take her into uncharted waters. That night, at home, as she discussed the children’s plight with her parents, they hoped it was just one of those momentary things.
She wanted to do something for those children living behind bars. She met the jail warden there for permission to work with the children.
“He was an open-minded person,” Basnet, now 29, says. “He advised me to take the children out of the confines of the prison and improve their lot. He made it clear that nothing good could come from working inside the jail with the children.”
ECDC was thus formed and registered as an NGO in 2005. With contributions totalling Rs 70,000 (Dh2,920), pooled in by family members and friends, Basnet rented a place in Kathmandu and transformed it into a daycare centre for children.
“The warden played a significant role in convincing the mothers to allow their children to come to our centre,” she says. “He even visited the centre and was impressed with the arrangements there.”
To start with, there were four children. The little ones were kept engaged with activities, provided lunch and after their siesta were dropped back at the prison.
Basnet became a familiar sight in the jail, arriving every morning in a cab to pick up the children and take them to the daycare centre. Then, she would be back in the evening. Sometimes, her friends joined her to assist. Today the daycare centre functions in the vicinity of a Kathmandu prison.
“For the children, it is just a walk away. They come in the morning and return to the prison in the evening.”
At present 12 children attend this centre, which is managed by an ECDC staff member.
Life at Butterfly Centre
In 2007 Basnet set up the Butterfly Centre, a residential home for the older children. “I had two little boys aged three and four then,” she says.
Now, the Butterfly Centre has 12 rooms and is home to 44 children — 12 boys and 32 girls. Basnet lives here with the children who fondly call her mamu (mummy in Nepalese). There are four staff to assist her. One of them is Laxmi, who has been released from prison after serving her sentence.
“She had nowhere to go,” Basnet says. “Her family did not want her back in the village. So I asked her to join the Butterfly Centre.”
In Nepal, the plight of the less privileged women is pitiable. Uneducated and poverty-stricken, they have nothing to fall back on to support their family.
“Most of them get into trafficking drugs or women to make a few bucks. It is easy for them. However, once caught and jailed, their families don’t want them back,” Basnet explains.
The children attend the local school, Budhanilkantha Model Community Academy. Professionals volunteer time and take classes in painting, music and computers. Regular medical check-ups are done for the children.
No one, least of all Basnet, imagined that this journey off the beaten path would culminate in an international award.
This year, she joined an exclusive group of ten people shortlisted globally for their extraordinary work in improving lives of ordinary people. She was nominated as one of the Top Ten CNN Heroes. Online voters will select the CNN Hero. (See Box).
“The CNN Hero award has brought a greater awareness to my cause,” Basnet says. Today when I step out, people recognise me and donate in cash or kind. I was overwhelmed when a vegetable vendor offered me a kilogram of tomatoes for free for the sake of my children. It is happening too fast and I am trying to take it in slowly.”
It was a different story in the early years of ECDC.
“Many people thought I was crazy to take care of these children,” she recalls. “What began as my dream has been transformed today into the dreams of 44 children and their mothers too.”
There have been other NGOs supporting her in this campaign for the betterment of the children. Canada’s Glasswaters Foundation funded the operational costs of ECDC. Shikshya Foundation Nepal sponsors the education of 23 girls. Sundar Sansar takes care of the medical needs of children. Basnet has also started a programme in association with another organisation, Change Fusion Nepal, to train the incarcerated mothers in income-generating skills such as making dolls and handicrafts.
Our tele-conversation is interrupted by a din in the background. Basnet requests me to hold on.
“That’s my children at the dinner table. I asked them to lower their voices,” the indulgent mother laughs when she returns.
I can understand her joy as she talks about the shopping she did that evening for her children. Any guesses? Ten watches and 24 sunglasses! A gift from a kind donor.
Besides shopping, I can’t help thinking about the many PTA meetings that this mother has to attend and those anxious nights of sitting up beside her sick children.
“I have never regretted what I am doing,” Basnet says. “I love and enjoy what I am doing. It is their smiling faces that eggs me on to continue. Sometimes when things don’t work right, it can be frustrating, though.”
A major stumbling block for ECDC is renting a place for her children.
“We have shifted five times,” Basnet says. “On one occasion the house owner sold off his property and so we had to shift. It will be ideal to have our own property, so that even if anything happens to me in the future, my children will have a roof over their heads.”
As for PTA meetings, she says no one messes with her children. Besides the children from prison, Basnet reached out to two little sisters, aged seven and nine. “I had read about them in a newspaper,” she says. “One of them had been raped by her father in a fit of rage after his wife left him for her lover. She was 5 then. I brought them home.”
So how did she juggle between college and ECDC?
Basnet says she had no particular ambition in mind then. “I was not a good student and even got suspended from college for a year. Actually that was a good thing,” she says. “That gave me time to focus on my organisation and children.”
What about her family, you wonder?
Her father, Purna Bahadur Basnet, a businessman, had hoped that his daughter would take over his business after college. When he found her taking interest in the children from the prison, he was worried.
“I was more of a tomboy when young and my father treated me just like one,” Basnet says. “He gave me all the privileges that my brother got. Today he is happy with me.”
Her mother has supported her right from the beginning. She passed on their old furniture pieces to be used at the play centre that was set up in 2005.
“There were occasions when I did not have even Rs 10 with me,” Basnet says. “I sold my gold jewellery for my organisation. When my mother learnt of it, she was unhappy that I had not approached her for financial aid.”
Like any other mother, Basnet’s mother too wishes for her daughter to settle down in marriage. “Nowadays when she asks me for my photograph to show it to prospective grooms, I tell her, ‘Ask them to Google me. And also tell them that it’s a buy-one-get-more offer,” Basnet says.
In Basnet’s case, the lucky man will have a brood of 45 children and those still to come.
“It is not just living, you have to try to make your world a better place,” Basnet says. “If I give these children good education, they will not go through what their mothers endured.”
As our conversation draws to a close, a quote from writer Robert A. Heinlein’s comes to mind, “Being a mother is an attitude, not a biological relation.”
Voting for the CNN Hero
The CNN Hero award is given to ordinary individuals who through their extraordinary efforts have helped change the world and better the lives of others.
This year CNN has shortlisted ten heroes. Each will receive $50,000 (Dh183,500) and one of them will be adjudged the CNN Hero of the Year. Pushpa Basnet is one of the ten CNN Heroes.
Come December 2, at a grand ceremony in the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, the ten CNN Heroes will be honoured and the CNN Hero of the Year will be announced, who will take away an additional $250,000.
The CNN Hero of the Year is decided by a public vote. You can vote for your favourite hero at CNNHeroes.com, which is open until November 28. Voters can cast ballots for their favourite top ten hero up to ten times a day, every day. Votes can also be shared on Facebook and Twitter.
A new dimension will be added to the prize package for the 2012 Top 10 CNN Heroes. The Annenberg Foundation, a leading supporter of non-profits worldwide, will help the heroes further their work. They will receive free training along with a customised version of the Annenberg Alchemy programme, which provides practical guidance for non-profit leaders in fundraising, communications, management of volunteers, and strategies to build and keep a strong board of directors.
In its sixth year running, the CNN Heroes initiative has received more than 45,000 nominations from more than 100 countries and profiled more than 180 everyday heroes doing extraordinary work.
Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.