Her name was Shushma. And to Debbie DuPey, the young woman she met in Nepal personified the issues Ventures in Peace is trying to address: extreme poverty, a harsh existence and a constant struggle to survive.
“She’s 20 years old, unemployed and illiterate, and that’s the typical situation in Nepal,” says DuPey, who recently spent three weeks in Nepal gathering information for a new program Ventures in Peace plans to launch.
Ventures in Peace is a Spokane-based non-profit organization that aims to develop women’s health and economic opportunities in Nepal and to end child labor there.
The Spokane office is home to six volunteers, including DuPey. The organization was founded by Yontan Gonpo, a Buddhist Lama who has lived in Spokane since 1988 running a Buddhist Dharma Center and teaching about his faith. He took a yearlong sabbatical to Nepal in 1996 to study Buddhism and saw firsthand the plight of the country’s women and children. He founded his organization in December 1996, three months after his return to Spokane.
Nepal is the second poorest country in the world, says Gonpo, despite receiving about $400 million a year in foreign aid. “The government is quite corrupt,” says Gonpo. There are 14,850 people for each doctor in Nepal, and what health care is available is concentrated in three cities, leaving people in rural areas without access to medical care. Life is hard, particularly for single mothers.
Assuming they are able to find a job, women in Nepal earn about $20 a month, while men earn about $50. Since $20 isn’t enough to support a family, children are often forced to work as well. Women often are left to provide for their children alone, since the divorce rate is high in a place where a man can divorce a woman simply by saying that the marriage is over, says DuPey.
Shushma is married and has a young daughter, but after she has a few more children, Shushma’s husband probably will leave her.
“It would be not unlikely for him to leave her in a few years for a younger woman,” says DuPey. “Polygamy was practiced widely in Nepal. Now it is outlawed, but the men still have this idea that they should get lots of women in the course of a life.”
What can be hard for Americans to understand, says Gonpo, is that the Nepalese marriage ceremony turns a woman over to a man as property. Any children born of the union also become the man’s property.
Sometimes when men abandon their families, they choose to take the male children with them and leave the females behind to live in poverty with their mothers, says Gonpo.
In June, Ventures in Peace hopes to launch a new program called the Women in Nepal Workshop; it will employ 17 Nepalese women making clothing for export.
The women not only will have a job that will pay the equivalent of a man’s wage, but they will receive literacy training, tutoring in English, health and hygiene training, and information on family planning. The women will also receive free health care and free meals.
Ventures in Peace is working to raise the $70,000 needed for start-up costs and the salaries of the women for six months. The organization already has more than $15,000 on hand.
Other programs currently in place include a Health Education Program that teaches women about basic hygiene and nutrition. Such training is sorely needed in Nepal, where sights like people washing dishes in filthy water and urinating in the streets are common.
“A lot of the problems with diseases and health problems are directly related to poor hygiene,” says DuPey.
Ventures in Peace also runs a child sponsorship program. DuPey brought information on 14 children back from her recent trip to Nepal and has found sponsors for 11 of them.
Sponsors agree to pay for the child to receive an education. Books, uniforms and tuition for one year of school is $100, an unimaginable luxury to women struggling to support a family on a wage of about $20 a month. In addition to getting an education, the child also receives one meal a day.
Sponsors are asked for a two-year commitment, during which the money is sent directly to the school. In return, they will receive a photo of the child they sponsor, academic reports and, once the child learns to write in English, possibly letters from the child. They are still working on program particulars, says DuPey, since the postal system in Nepal is erratic at best.
Gonpo and his wife, Lama Inge Sandvoss, left for Nepal on Monday to collect information on more children to sponsor, deliver children’s clothing purchased with donations, and to lay the groundwork for future programs.
Gonpo has ideas for more programs, but putting them into effect will take more resources and funds than the developing organization can currently provide. He hopes to be able to implement those ideas in the future, however.
“If we’re totally successful, we’ll only scratch the surface,” says Gonpo. “There’s such a tremendous need.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHERE TO CALL OR WRITE For more information on Ventures for Peace, call 747-1559, send e-mail to email@example.com or visit its Web site at www.worldpeacenet.com/vip.