Pat Orvis

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–Pabitra Bhandari has to be up by 5 a.m. every day, in the Kathmandu suburb of Nepal, where she keeps house for a young professional couple.

She cleans, does the wash, walks the dog and babysits.

Sure, the 5-year-old hits Bhandari and pinches her. But the job is better than some for domestic servants in Nepal’s capital city.

One big privilege: 12-year-old Bhandari gets three hours a day to attend a special school for children like herself, who’ve been farmed out to help support poor families back in the villages.

Bhandari is just one of untold millions of female domestic workers. Some 90 percent of them are females between 12 and 17 years old, a major reason, according to The United Nations Children’s Fund, that women are not getting education and represent 70 percent of the world’s poorest.

The situation galls some high-school and middle-school students from in the U.S. northeast, who have formed a nonprofit organization called Girls Learn International, Inc. Late last month the group met in Manhattan to launch a student campaign for universal girls’ education.

Young women such as Bhandari desperately need Girls Learn and more efforts like it.

Under-Age Servants Growing

In many countries, including Nepal, the number of under-age servants is growing every day because instability caused by civil conflict–added to chronic poverty in many villages–is giving parents additional reasons for sending their children into servitude.

According to Human Rights Watch, Communist insurgents have for nine years “challenged the Nepali government,” whose security forces in turn have become one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced ‘disappearances.’ Throughout the country, says Stella Tamang, a member of one of Nepal’s several indigenous populations, schools have been turned into barracks and thousands of children have been kidnapped by the insurgents to become child soldiers.

Their parents have no idea where they are, or if they will ever see these children again, says Tamang, who was just in New York to help facilitate the fourth annual U.N. conference on indigenous issues.

If all that Tamang says is true, Bhandari may be lucky not to attend one of the regular schools in Nepal. She attends an informal “children’s education class,” from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. six days a week, together with 14 others sent to the city by their parents to work as domestics. One quarter of them are boys.

Bhandari’s program is one of 17 such centers run for 700 children in Kathmandu alone by a nongovernmental organization there called Children, Women in Social Service and Human Rights, which, through UNICEF, recently arranged for an Internet chat between Bhandari and me.

Keyboarding the Answers

As UNICEF’s assistant communications officer for Nepal, Rupa Joshi, helped translate and provide the English keyboarding for her, Bhandari received questions from me.

For her it was 10 a.m. one morning in downtown Kathmandu. For me it was 10 p.m. in Manhattan. Her answers left me once again with that stunned awareness of just how connected far-flung worlds can be via Internet.

Not all children forced to work also get to study, Bhandari said. “There are many children working in homes who are not allowed to study even three hours.”

And some others who don’t work as hard as Bhandari, she would mention later in passing. “When I compare my work with those of my friends, I feel I have a tougher job.”

For example, “They do not have to wipe the floor like I do. My employers cannot stand a grain of sand in the passageway.”

And, does she tell them what their daughter does to her?

“I tell them sometimes, but not often, because they sometimes scold me that I was not able to play with her properly.”

And do her brothers work, back in the village?

“My brothers only do a little bit of housework. Like fetching fodder for the cattle. They do not go to work.”

And if, at 12, she can work and take care of herself in a stranger’s household, could she not take care of her folks?

“When I become a teacher and work, I feel I can support my parents.”

“Others have to understand,” came an outpouring of Bhandari’s feelings across my computer screen as Joshi did her best with the keyboarding to keep up, “that all children need to be educated.”

Girls, especially, must be educated “in order to improve the lives of the women and children.”

Once girls are allowed to study, the letters exploded on my computer screen, “They have the opportunity to become someone great.”

Looking Forward to Going Home

“I feel very sad about this,” Bhandari finally confided in me, after a number of opening exchanges. “I remember my family very much, and am looking forward to the day when I can go home and be with them.”

At one point I complimented the poem she had written for the best friend she was missing back in the village.

“You can be that friend too,” Bhandari replied at once. “I can write poems for you, too.”

And she did start one for me before our hour-long chat ended:

“Please don’t break and throw away the wood that has been cut in the forest. Please don’t tear and throw away the letter my friend, that I have written to you.” (Pabitra, to new friend in New York)

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has guaranteed that all children are entitled to the same rights, regardless of any differences, including gender.

Far more than my friendship, Bhandari and girls and young women around the world need those rights enforced.

Pat Orvis is a U.N. correspondent who has traveled on assignment in all the world’s developing regions and written extensively about global issues.

For more information:

Educational Goals for Girls Remain Unmet:

Girls Learn International, Inc.:

United Nations Development Fund for Women:

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