Sabita and Sima (A Story From Nepal)

By Adrienne Henck

When you first meet Sabita and Sima, you might think they are twins, living parallel lives, acting out the same story. Both sport the same boy haircuts typical for young Nepali girls, and both invariably giggle between every sentence. Sima, 11, likes to eat oranges and study social studies, while Sabita, 10, likes mangoes and English. They both like to play volleyball.

Sima lived out the classic child labor narrative. Following her father’s death, her mother, unable to support four children, sent Sima, then 9 years old, to the city with the expectations that she could earn some money and attend school. These were false expectations, however, for Sima never visited a classroom. Instead, at the mercy of a house owner, Sima spent 12-13 hours a day performing domestic labor. She cleaned the house, washed dishes, did laundry, cooked meals, tended to the kitchen garden, and collected cow dung for use as fertilizer. Sima was always exhausted by night and attending school was an elusive dream.

At the same time, less than 25 kilometers away, a rich lawyer had purchased Sabita as an 8-year-old, although he later claimed he did not purchase her. A law student tenant with a different story may or may not have played a role in the transaction. Regardless of how she came to be in the lawyer’s home, Sabita’s story of what happened after arriving there was clear. As a pawn in a web of shady transactions, she also was living out her own child labor narrative:

“I used to clean the TV room, sitting room, and kitchen and corridor, and my room too. I used to wash Uncle and Auntie’s clothes. Sometimes there weren’t many dishes so I would do them alone. When there were guests, there were too many dishes so the aunt would wash with me. They used to scold me when I made a mistake. If I didn’t clean the dishes properly they’d say, ‘Look how dirty these dishes are. If you don’t clean properly, we’ll get diseases!’ I stayed there for many days. One day, Uncle and Aunt went somewhere for a few days. Then I was just staying alone and I was so hungry.”

Enter Backward Society Education (BASE, www.nepalbase.org). In the spring of 2009, BASE conducted a series of child labor raid and rescue missions that, in conjunction with other anti-child labor initiatives, rescued more than 1,000 children in a two-year period. Sabita’s and Sima’s parallel lives converged when they were both rescued and taken to a BASE rehabilitation center, where they received initial care and support. While Sabita was later taken back to her home, her father had since died, her mother had run away with another man, and her brother was burdened with financial problems. Sabita decided to return to BASE’s care. Both girls ultimately embraced their newfound freedom by demanding the rights of all children as participants in the BASE-organized Nepal March for Education, part of the Global March Against Child Labor.

Sabita and Sima now live at the Children’s Peace Home, a charitable initiative providing care to underprivileged children, and ride a school bus every day to the local Hindu Vidyapeeth School, a prestigious boarding school. With their lives now interwoven, they share many things—a penchant for studying, compassion for their friends, and the joy of youth. Above all, they share the same strength and resilience; hopefully, because of BASE’s intervention, they will also share the same bright future.

The story above was compiled from two interviews with Sabita and Sima, one at the Hindu Vidyapeeth School and the other at the Children’s Peace Home, as well as the documentary, The Price of Childhood, by Kan Yan, 2009 Advocacy Project Peace Fellow with BASE.

First posted on The Advocacy Project, 2010