Nepal captured my heart just over two years ago. It was my first time visiting the country nestled between India and China and in just three weeks, I fell in love with the land and its people. Nepal, unlike any other country I have visited, has the ability to render visitors speechless from exquisite beauty in one moment to extreme poverty the next. Perspective often dictates the experience.
The beauty throughout Nepal is unparalleled. The vast Himalayas line the northeast border and the snow capped mountains, including Mt. Everest, are far more impressive than any photo predicts. The hills of the countryside boast thousands of terraced rice paddy fields that paint the land a lush green. And finally, the spectacular gorges almost swallow rafters as boats sail through the tumbling rapids looking for sunshine. While the vistas have people longing for more, there is no moment untouched by the backdrop of destitution.
According to Wikipedia, the definition of poverty is the lack of basic human needs, such as clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter, because of the inability to afford them. In Nepal, many families, mothers, must walk several miles to draw water from a community tap. According to the U.N., almost half of Nepalese children under five are chronically malnourished. This figure is within the top five in the world. Research studies have shown a significant correlation between low maternal literacy and poor nutrition status of children. Lack of proper maternal care and sanitation, absence of dietary information, unsuitable feeding practices, and inadequate access to food are the other key underlying drivers of malnutrition among children. Most families in rural communities lack toilets as only 41% of people have sustainable access to sanitation.
While poverty levels have dropped in Nepal from 42% in 1996 to 25% in 2010, one quarter of the population still lives below the national poverty line of $1 per day. That is 7.1 MILLION people living on less than $365 each year. According to the United Nations, Nepalese have the lowest life expectancy in Asia, the largest share of undernourished children, and most importantly, development has been significantly unequal across social groups. According to Girls Discovered, the gross primary school graduation rate for girls is 64% and only 32% of young women in Nepal aged 20-24 years old have achieved at least a secondary education. The statistics are powerful but visiting a rural community in a developing country is a far leap from the page.
In November 2010, we were interviewing girls in the Everest region of Nepal for our first short film. We spoke with a fourteen year-old girl named Nimdita about the value of education. Nimdita’s parents were uneducated and could not afford to raise her or educate her. At five years old, she was sent to live with a family friend she calls her “sister.” For the last nine years, Nimdita has lived away from her parents so that she can pursue an education. When asked what she will do in the future, she responded that she would like to be a social worker to help educate others to develop rural Nepal. We could not detect a trace of resentment for the choices made by her parents. It is simply her life.
Nimdita’s story is all too common in Nepal. We spoke with many girls who are perfectly willing to sacrifice their basic needs so that they can have an education. Many girls farm their family’s land before and after classes so that they can attend school. We talked to girls who told us that they skip meals so they can have money for rent. We heard from girls who are living four people to a small rented room without beds or furniture just for the hope to be something other than a housewife. These are the women who will push Nepal forward.
My experiences in Nepal have been transformative. Now, I seek a world in which no fourteen year-old is forced to choose between her family and an education. I have created a nonprofit called Edge of Seven to improve the lives of girls throughout the developing world through education, health, and financial initiatives. In addition, we connect volunteers with service projects in the field because we are true believers in the philosophy that getting out and seeing the world will help people become more effective at changing it. If you are looking for your next big adventure, the trip that rocks your world, I dare you to visit Nepal. You’ll never be the same.