by Reeti Sharma Reporter, Thursday - January 6, 2011
KATHMANDU, NEPAL –Kopila Yadav, now 26, was just 14 when her family arranged for her to be married in the Sarlahi district of Nepal, nearly 250 miles from Kathmandu.
In traditional custom, the bride was presented to her new husband and his family with a dowry. In Yadav’s case, a portion of the dowry – money, jewelry, and commodities like sugar and grain – were given at the time of the wedding. The bride’s family promised that the remainder of the dowry they owed would follow shortly.
But after four years, her husband’s family gave up waiting and Yadav and her two children were kicked out of the home for providing an insufficient dowry.
Yadav made the long journey to Kathmandu with her two young children, determined to earn a living on her own. She searched for jobs in nearly every sector. She met with people from her hometown, interviewed with officials and storekeepers. But with few skills and no professional experience, she was not able to find work.
Soon, the little money she had ran out. With two young children to feed, Yadav says it wasn’t long before she resorted to begging.
Today, Yadav is one of the nearly 1,500 female beggars panhandling and seeking shelter at the famous Hindu temple and tourist attraction Pashupatinath.
Although some of the women here live with their husbands and children, many are alone and share a similar story of eviction, desperation and poverty.
Janaki Devi, a thin woman who says she does not know her age, came to Pashupatinath from her home near the Nepali-Indian border years ago.
"I am not here in the pursuit of leisure,” Devi says. “I was forced to flee my village Motihari," Devi says. “At least a dozen women from my village are living here today," Devi says. While Devi fled to escape a violent domestic situation, many others say they were forced out after their dowry payments fell through.
Aside from insufficient dowries and domestic abuse, the decade long civil war in Nepal, which formally ended in 2006, also forced many women and families from their rural homes on account of armed conflict, looting and kidnapping.
"These people came here because of social insecurity, domestic violence, [poor] financial conditions and [the] age-old patriarchal system," says Dr. Buddhi Man Shrestha, founder of the Kantipur Dental College and Teaching Hospital. Buddhi distributes food to beggars in Pashupati every Saturday.
Today, hundreds of women, like Yadav and Devi, have resorted to a life of begging at the high-profile Pashupatinath temple. While many of the women say it is better than the lives they escaped from, the realities of life on the streets here are stark. Women are particularly vulnerable to abuse, discrimination and police raids. Several local NGOs say they are tired of waiting for the government to take action are beginning to start programs of their own.
"My in-laws and husband started scolding me soon after my marriage,” Devi says. “My parents did not give them [the] dowry they had sought, so they began beating me.”
Devi says torture in the name of her dowry continued for months, during which time she did not protest.
"At that time I had no other option than to put up with their torture,” Devi says. “I could not return to my maternal home nor could I dare to fight against their treatment.”
Wiping the tears from her eyes with a worn out handkerchief, Devi says after nearly a year of torture she made the decision to escape to Kathmandu in search of a better life with her daughter who was just a year old.
But things did not go as she had planned. She was not able to find work and her daughter came down with pneumonia just a month after they arrived in the capital city. “My daughter died three months after I came to Kathmandu,” Devi says, beginning to sob. “She was my only hope.”
In the years since her daughter died, Devi says she has accepted her fate and plans to remain a beggar.
Yadav says she too has come to terms with her life as a beggar. “It is better to beg here than live with them. I think living a life of [a] beggar is my fate,” she says.
While many of the women here say they too have “accepted their fate” as beggars, the realities of life on the street here are harsh.
Yadav built herself a small, makeshift hut out of plastic in the slum near Pashupati. But the government owns the land and police often raid the area, demolishing any dwellings they see. While on busy roads and in tourists areas near Pashupati, security officers routinely force the beggars to disperse and occasionally resort to violence.
"Police chase [us away from] the begging spots,” Yadav says. “In the evening, I return to my hut with fear police might have torn it apart.”
Though she begs throughout the day, the money she earns is only enough to feed her family one small each day.
“On normal days, I earn around 50 to 100 rupees, (less than $1.40 USD),” Yadav says. “But during festivals my earning increases up to 200 rupees. "This amount is not enough to feed myself and my children amid rising prices,” she says.
In addition to food insecurity, the beggars at Pashupati say in these winter months they also struggle to find warm clothes.
“One winter I had no warm clothes to wear,” Devi says. “I spent nights at the crematorium where dead bodies of Hindus are burned, which usually remains warm all the time. That was the worst winter I ever had.”
While Pashupati was once a lucrative place for beggars, today many say that is not that case.
"Though we are living in this holy place, our life is not secured,” says Devi, showing the bruises on her back. “Policemen don’t allow us to beg. They hit us [with] their sticks and chase us.”
Raj Kumar Wagle, who volunteers at the Pashupati Elderly Home, says people here are not as generous with beggars as they used to be. "More than 1,000 devotees visit the Pashupati Temple daily to worship, but hardly 20 among them give food and clothes or money to them," he says.
The Pashupati Area Development Trust, PADT, is the government body responsible for the management and development of the Pashupati area. In addition to the holy temple there are more than 200 youth clubs and social organizations working within the Pashupati development area.
maintenance and upkeep of the area. The Bagmati River that flows through the Pashupati area stinks and is littered with trash. The ancient Hindu temples and monuments have long awaited repair. While many complain about the number of beggars that flock to the Pashupatinath area, PADT leadership says they have no plans to remedy that situation either.
“We have no plans for the beggars, but we do have a place for old-aged people,” says Prabesh Ram Bhandari, a PADT officer. While he admits there is nothing in the works to relocate or provide work projects for the beggars, he does say that the beggars cause problems in the PADT area. “The beggars have to earn their own living, but these people are creating disturbances here.”
Social activists and local NGOs say they are lobbing the government to direct PADT to address the beggars' problems and find solutions.
"But the Ministry of Women and Social Welfare has not worked for the proper management of these beggars," says Wagle, the volunteer. "The ministry funds the elderly home, which is also situated inside the Pashupati area, but it has turned blind to the women and their kids who have to beg from others for survival."
The Ministry for Women and Social Welfare declined to be interviewed for this article.
One local NGO, Janakpur Handicraft Center, is creating new programs out of a frustration with waiting for government action. Their new project, called "No Beggars" began last year. The group distributes food and provides medical attention to the homeless beggars who live in the PADT area.
Christa Drigalla is a nurse at Shanti Sewa Griha, a leprosy clinic located in the Pashupati area. She provides treatment to sick beggars, as well as free health services and counseling. But Drigalla says their efforts are still not enough.
"This is total injustice,” agrees Shrestha, the dentist. Shrestha recently started a fund for two children of local beggars to send them to school.
“We own cars, go to offices, live in concrete houses and are educating our children. But look at the situation of these beggars. They have nothing, even though they are our fellow human beings and should have equal rights," Shrestha says.