After years of abandonment, a child-headed household finds a ray of hope a year after Nepal earthquake

May 09, 2016

By Mallika Aryal

Ramechhap, Nepal— A week after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit central Nepal on 25 April 2015 Kabita Shrestha, a social worker in Manthali, the district headquarters of Ramechhap was out in the field in the surrounding villages following up with families that she had been checking up on  for some time.

“I had to do something,” said Shrestha. “I knew that there must be more families that were made vulnerable by the earthquake.”

As someone who knew her working area well, Shrestha was picked up by Community Development Society, a local NGO working closely with UNICEF, as a social worker to document vulnerable families.

After a one-day training on documentation and evaluation that provided her with skills to identify vulnerable children and families and document their cases correctly, Shrestha and her team were off to the field right away.

There she met earthquake survivors, families and individuals who needed relief and assistance. On the sixth day, she came to learn about a household in Puranagaun village on top of a hill across from the Tama Koshi River from Manthali where the parents were missing and the head of household was a17-year-old.

“I knew that the family must be in dire need of help so I made them my top priority,” said Kabita. What she didn’t know at that time was that the 17-year-old had quit school and was taking care of her six siblings. “There were seven of them, their house was damaged, they were scared and alone,” said Shrestha.

Shrestha has made several trips to Puranagaun since she first met the family of 17-year-old Geeta Thapa Magar, which includes five younger sisters and a brother. The youngest sister and the brother are twins.

On a sunny spring day, when Shrestha made another trip, a 7-hour-walk, up from Manthali to meet with Geeta and her siblings, the front yard in front of Geeta’s house was empty.

Little faces peered at Shrestha from under the wooden ladder of the house, which had cracks caused by the earthquake, and little eyes could be seen between the bamboo slats of a temporary shelter near the damaged home. Following some whispers and giggles, Geeta, came out from behind her damaged house. Despite the warm weather, her head, face and chest were bundled up in a thick woollen shawl. She looked warmly at Shrestha and pulled chairs for everyone to sit.

A few minutes later, Rita, her 15-year-old sister also joined the conversation. Ganga Thapa Magar, the children’s 38- year-old maternal aunt came close to listen. Geeta’s answers were short and curt. What she did, or could not explain, her aunt jumped in to help.

Geeta’s father had left to work as a migrant labourer six years ago. He left behind Geeta’s mother and their seven children with a promise to call.

“It was one of the many promises he didn’t keep,” said Geeta, covering her mouth with her shawl. He didn’t call or return until about two years ago, when he came to sell off some cattle and Geeta’s mother’s gold. “He told us he worked in a storage facility in Iraq,” said Geeta, showing Shrestha the number on her cell phone from which he calls.

Less than a year after her husband left, Geeta’s mother also left home. A few days before she left, their mother had asked Rita for her gold jewellery. “She said she would make me bigger, nicer pair of earrings for me, but she never did,” said Rita.  “She probably sold off the gold to run away.”

Her children, their aunt and the village suspect that she eloped with a local man, but no one has been able to verify. They didn’t hear from her for years until early this year, when she called. “We didn’t know if she was dead or alive, until she called us a few weeks ago and said she was working in Malaysia,” said Geeta. It has been four months since that call, their mother hasn’t called after that.

When their mother left them, the youngest siblings, the twins were just 18 months old, and Geeta was living in her maternal uncle’s home studying in a good school. Her aunt Ganga went to fetch Geeta, then 12, so that she could help in rearing her young ones.  That was five years ago.

Since then Geeta and her sister Rita have been running the household by themselves.  Their maternal aunt and uncle live next door. “But they are not our parents, they have three children of their own, problems of their own. How can they take care of us?” questioned Geeta.

When her mother went away, Geeta was appearing for the final high school exams. “I could not concentrate, and I flunked in five subjects,” she said.

Rita dropped out of school three years ago.

“When our mother left us, the twins were so small that most of our time was spent cleaning up their poo. And they made so much noise my head hurt with all the yelling!” said Rita. “I didn’t have time to study.  I could not concentrate. Both didi (elder sister) and I used to come first or second in class. And now I think I have even forgotten how to study.”

Both the sisters miss going to school. Geeta had dreamt of becoming a nurse. Her sister Rita wants to be back with her friends, but says it is not possible to go back now. “Who will take care of my brothers and sisters? Who will look after the cattle?  Who will fetch the water, wash the clothes? Who will feed these children, see that they go to school?” asked Rita. 

Following the earthquake, and with their home damaged and unsafe to live in, the children all took refuge under a shed made of branches and leaves for some time.  When the social worker Shrestha identified Geeta and her siblings as being vulnerable, they received some assistance from UNICEF as a part of the Family Preservation Support provided to vulnerable households. The Magar siblings received NRs 17,500 (approximately US$170), which they used to buy necessary items for their house, notebooks and clothes for the siblings and used some amount to build a better shelter for themselves. This past festival season in October, their father also sent some money home. “He didn’t call or send message after the quake, he didn’t care if we were dead or alive,” rued Rita.

The Magar siblings have an uncertain future, as they live hand to mouth. Geeta’s dream of becoming a nurse is becoming bleaker, even though she would still like to finish her high school exam and get a step closer to it.  It is a tough call. She currently works as a day labourer, whenever there is need for one in the village, but the jobs are not regular.

“If I could get some skills training, I could stay at home, make some money, tend the cattle and also take care of my sisters and brother,” Geeta said.

A month since her last visit, Shrestha was back again with the family in early April. Shrestha has been trying to help the family, and has been contacting local organizations that may be able to help. “I have been talking to some organizations who want to train and employ Geeta on a part-time basis as a social mobilizer, and pay for her and Rita’s education,” said Shrestha on the phone from Puranagaun village. She said both the sisters were excited about the plan.

UNICEF’s partner for education in Ramechhap has also been trying to figure out a solution for educating older children like Geeta and Rita who have dropped out of school.

Shrestha too says that if the children find work, or go back to school, there will be an issue of who will do the chores at home, who will tend their cattle, cook for the family or take are of their little siblings. Their aunt and uncle have promised to stick by them. “It will be tough for the aunt and uncle. It is challenging, but with a little support the plan should work,” she said.  “The children can’t rely on their parents to return and take care of them. So if this alternative plan works out, they will no longer have to live in poverty and can plan for their future.”

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