Sumitra Tharu: On Being a Girl and Realizing the Value of Education

Adrienne Henck

When attending a gender equity training in Nepal, led by Backward Society Education (BASE), I learned much about the lives of the Tharu men and women who participated. The Tharu people are an ethnic group indigenous to the southern foothills of the Himalayas. In particular, I learned that Tharu women work hard. As the women listed out their daily tasks, from domestic chores to back-breaking labor, it was clear to everyone in that concrete classroom that women share a disproportionate burden of the workload. In addition, they are severely under-valued and lack basic rights and decision-making powers. Despite the significant strides toward achieving gender equity that were made at the training, there is still a long way to go.

Within this context, I present the story of Sumitra, a young BASE staff member and shining star, who has overcome many of the challenges of being . . . a girl.

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Sumitra’s Story in Her Own Words:

My parents know the value of education. My father always encouraged me to go to school. In my village, my family was the first to send a daughter to school. Despite being very interested in studying, my cousin only made it through the 3rd grade. She married at age 21. Next, my elder sister was enrolled. She made it through secondary school before being married at age 19. That’s what girls did. They got married and took care of their new families.

Finally, it was my turn. While most girls didn’t want to go to school because the classes were full of boys and parents didn’t see the value of investing in education for girls, I was able to complete secondary school. I wanted to continue studying, but my family wasn’t ready to invest. They didn’t want to spend money on me for higher education, because I was a girl. I cried a lot to my father and uncles. I begged them over and over to let me go to college. Finally, my father agreed, though he couldn’t convince my uncles.

First, I got an intermediate degree at a local college. Then, I went to a university in the city of Nepalganj for my bachelor’s degree. During my second year, I was hired to participate in on-the-job training with BASE. Due to the hours and location of the office, I was no longer able to attend class. However, with my earnings, I could afford to purchase the books and course materials and study independently. For three years I did this, only going to the university campus to complete the exams. My friends said that I was doing really hard work. It was challenging, since I couldn’t attend the lectures, but I always preferred to study and so I didn’t mind. At work, I encouraged my colleagues to attend college, although they felt it was impossible to manage their time between work and school. From 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., I worked at the office. In the evenings, I studied.

Once I got my bachelor’s degree, I felt I had to leave BASE and go for a higher degree in Kathmandu. At that time, Dilli Chaudhary, the President of BASE, encouraged me to apply for a scholarship though the Nepal Embassy, offered by the Rai Foundation. With BASE’s recommendation, I was awarded the scholarship and went to Delhi, India, for my MBA. Now I am working for BASE as a Program Coordinator of the Youth Action Fund and simultaneously completing a second master’s degree in Public Administration. 

Being Tharu

In my Village Development Committee (a collection of about 10 villages), I am the only Tharu girl who has earned a master’s degree. In total, there are only six people from my village who have received a master’s. Of the other five, all boys, only two are Tharu.

Everyone says that the Tharu community is backward. I think we are not backward, but that we are made backward by other castes. Many years ago, the Tharu used to produce crops, but they didn’t get proper wages or benefits for their labor. As a result, they didn’t have sufficient funds to send their children to school. Money is important for education. The Tharu had land, but they didn’t have the knowledge that they were required to legally register their land with the government. Other castes took advantage of their ignorance and seized ownership of the land. You see, Tharus lost their land due to their lack of education.

Tharu are very hard-working people. You will never see a Tharu sitting idle. They just don’t earn enough, and they don’t know how to modernize their agricultural practices so they are stuck in poverty. As a result, the Tharu don’t have access to the government and lack political representation. I think we have to get to the top. Education is the way to get to there. 

The Value of Education

My father suffered a lot of problems due to lack of education. When he was in the 3rd grade, his father died. After that, he had to manage all the family affairs: provide the income and do everything necessary for the survival of his mother and siblings. He was only 12 years old. His education ended at that point, so that’s why he has always felt that he should encourage his own children to go to school.

Most Tharu girls get married at age 16, but I am still studying. Because of my achievements, many people use me as an example. They say, “Look at Sumitra, she is studying; maybe we can be like her.” I feel so proud.

Education is important for everybody, but especially for Tharus. If we are educated, we can get good jobs in the government or NGO sector. Then we can make real change. But if we are not educated, how can we expect change?

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I am not sure what I will do next. I would like to get a Master of Philosophy (doctorate) degree and work in finance. Whatever I do, I know that the power of education will help me to succeed. Hopefully, others will follow in my path. Even my uncles now realize the value of education!

Originally posted on The Advocacy Project, 2010

Since the writing of this article in 2010, Sumitra has completed a second master’s degree in Public Administration from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. She has also worked with Save the Children, UNDP/MEDEP (Micro-Enterprise Development Programme), Lutheran World Education, and World Education. Sumitra recently began a new position with Mercy Corps Nepal as Deputy Program Manager for the STEM (Supporting the Education of Marginalized Girls) project in Kailali District.