I continue to worry about Laxmi. We’ve started math classes at the women’s center and she appears to have trouble even with rudimentary arithmetic. This may have something to do with her unfamiliarity with western-style numerals, but I fear that the problem is deeper. It would seem that she has had very little schooling of any kind. This concerns me because at 50 she is old by Nepali standards and will certainly be discriminated against as she looks for a job. I brought her to the attention of the director of VSN, who wanted to do something for her. I had hoped that we would be able to give her a temporary bed at the Women’s Center and a job as a house cleaner and caretaker. But Shreezanna, whom Tej has wisely made manager of the center, did not want to bring her in for fear that she would never leave.
Tej and Shreezanna offered to help her to learn a new skill so that she could go into business for herself. She could take sewing lessons at the center and work as a seamstress. Or she could borrow some money in order to set up a small shop selling vegetables. Neither of these options particularly appeal to her, not because she is lazy but rather because she knows that she lacks the bookkeeping, personality and time-management skills to go into business for herself.
Twenty-three years ago her husband abandoned her after seven months of marriage for another woman. She continued to live with her husband’s family for a few years, but they pushed her out.
Nepal still operates under the medieval cultural assumption that a woman who has had sex but is not living with her husband is little more than a whore. Therefore, traditional Nepalis regard a jilted or divorced woman as unclean, worthless, and untouchable. The double standard permits men to sleep with whomever they please, as often as they please, without losing any status. The fundamental assumption underlying this hypocrisy is that women belong to men as a kind of chattel and constitute lesser human beings. Men enjoy greater political, economical, and social privileges than women do solely because they are not female. What is the most pernicious effect of this misogynist worldview? The damage it does to women’s self-esteem. A woman who has been treated as a lesser being, a servant, a breeder, or a status symbol all of her life generally regards herself in those terms, even if she still has the sense in some forgotten region of her body and mind, that she is worthy, beautiful, and that she has the same right to a dignity and respect as any other person.
Laxmi has a strong sense of her own dignity but few options. After her in-laws excluded her, she went to live with her brother. He was kind to her but his wife looked down on her as a ruined woman and abused her. Laxmi held out for nine or ten years, and then went to live with a niece. I do not know why she did not stay with her niece’s family. Laxmi then went to live with her sister in Pepsi-Cola. Years passed, and the sister and her family decided to move back to their village in Solu Khumbu, the region around Sagarmatha, which westerners call Mt. Everest. Laxmi did not want to join them because the villages would treat her roughly and rudely on account of her status.
She came to the attention of Sugandha, who wanted to help her but did not have much to offer. She has been working long hours in his house for two meals a day and 500 rupees (about $8) per month. He also convinced his sister, , but this situation became unbearable for one or both and ended soon. Laxmi is now living with a friend. Sugandha intended to assist Laxmi for only a short time, to give her shelter and food until she found a way to support herself.
I could have pushed Tej and Shreezanna harder and even, perhaps, have forced them to give Laxmi a room at the women’s center. My donation, after all, made it possible for VSN to rent the flat, and it still has an unused room. What difference does it make if she comes and never leaves? Is the women’s center not supposed to help women just like Laxmi, women who have no husband, no family, no source of support, no or few skills, and no money? Yes. It is. But the women’s center also needs to keep on going after I am gone.
Here is my still-evolving philosophy: It is wrong to force well-intentioned yet potentially unrealistic and inappropriate Western attitudes and ways of doing things onto a culture that I still imperfectly understand. I believe that all human beings have the right to flourish and to meaningful work and to live their lives with dignity. But I don’t know the best way for Nepali people to flourish with meaning and dignity. I am a visitor here and aim to tread lightly. Even if I did try to impose my way of doing things, the Nepalis would only go along with it for a short time and then return to what makes sense to them, what they know works. So I think the thing to do is to aid people who are already working to improve the lives of their countryfolk in ways that make sense to me
I think it can be very hard to know whom to trust, but I trust Tej and Shreesannah. I will defer to them in most cases. But I will also do what I can to make the lives of the people whom they are helping happier, healthier, and more dignified. I want to enable and empower women and children to make their own decisions about their lives, to have a measure of freedom that they would probably not have without VSN.
So, what will happen to Laxmi? I don’t know. I was not able to raise very much money on her behalf. What I received went to her. People tend to prefer to help children and young people. There is no social security system in place in Nepal. She may end up going to her sister and her village, where she will be excluded from the hearth, the family circle, the fellowship that sustains emotional well-being and good humor. I don’t know for sure that this will happen to her. I only know what people tell me, and that is this: a woman who has been abandoned by her husband leads a very terrible and hard life. I don’t think Tej will let her fall into the streets, but I also do not know what he can or will do for her. She cannot depend on him or on me or anyone else to take care of her. I don’t know enough about her story to do it, or her, credit.