Home alone in Dasain

Lalu and her neighbours collectively harvest fodder grass in Udaypur. With menfolk away, women have formed savings and loans cooperatives to help each other become self-reliant and augment family income.

Nepal has long relied on foreign remittances to keep its economy afloat. These remittances, sent back by men who work in Malaysia, the Gulf states and other Asian countries, account for about 25% of Nepal’s GDP.

Living alone while the husband and other male relartives are abroad can be difficult. There are the emotional elements, and even the remittance money they sent home may have dried up in the past six months because of the Covid-19 crisis.

Although the husbands send remittance money and at least there is a regular cash flow, women are overburdened with household chores -- taking care of children and elderly, working in the fields, attending to livestock and more.

To cope, many women in rural Nepal have learnt to cope, and even thrive while their men are away. They combine remittance money with loans from savings and credit groups which are  self-managed, community-based groups in which participants contribute small amounts each month.

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They borrow at nominal interest rates while also learning basic accounting skills. In some countries savings and credit groups have developed into formal bank cooperatives, but in many of Nepal’s villages, loans are used to invest in vegetable farming, livestock raising, and other small businesses. Some are also used to pay childrens’ school fees.

The result: a path out of poverty and increased participation in local leadership.

Lalu Maya in Udayapur district is an example of a woman who has augmented her income, and become self-reliant despite the fact that her husband left for an overseas job.

At 19, Lalu found herself in an arranged marriage. This ended her dream of getting a high school education. Her husband was the single wage earner, and Lalu had to do the house chores, tending the family’s paddy and corn patch, and take care of the goats.

To obtain fodder for the goats, Lalu had to walk hours to and from a jungle. Even as she worked from dawn to dusk, the couple had barely enough to live on. With the arrival of two daughters, their economic situation declined further.

Lalu’s husband felt he had no option but to leave for an overseas job, like nearly 3.5 million other Nepalis, 10% of the country’s population. This left Lalu at home, two children and a small farm on which the family depended, while her husband first paid back the loans he took to pay the recruiter with the first six months of his salary.

Then Lalu heard about monthly meetings held by HANDS Nepal, a local non-profit supported by my organisation, World Neighbors. She was intrigued by the first training she attended about kitchen gardens, vegetable patches using sustainable techniques.

The gardens provide a variety of vegetables and fruit that enhances nutrition. When families apply other techniques, including water storage ponds and tunnel greenhouses, kitchen gardens can scale to a commercial level. The surplus is harvested nearly year-round and sold in local markets.

Lalu started a kitchen garden, involving her daughters in the work. She next learned how to produce organic fertiliser and natural pesticides, including a traditional liquid made from livestock urine. Using these inputs increased the output of both her kitchen garden and her small corn and rice fields.

She also attended agroforestry trainings where she learned how to grow grass and trees that can be used as animal fodder. After three years, Lalu’s fodder farm has grown, and she no longer spends hours walking to and from a jungle to collect feed for her goats. Lalu obtained the capital to expand her fodder farm through participation in a local savings and credit group.

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A plastic pond that Lalu uses for her kitchen garden, improving nutrition for her family and adding income.

As important as the time she gains with her children and for more productive farm tasks, the fodder she produces near her home has enabled Lalu to increase her goat herd from 11 to 22.  She now sells them, 4 to 5 goats at a time, producing income of Rs45,000 rupees.

Lalu is investing the profit in improving the shed to hold more goats. She and her husband, who recently returned from working overseas, have decided to start a commercial goat farm which would allow Lalu’s husband to end the expat life and remain at home with his family. It even has the chance to further raise the family’s standard of living.

Lalu is now not only thriving financially, she is also a respected leader in her village.

The need to migrate overseas to help support one’s family is a sign of the deep imbalances of the global economy.

Yet necessary sacrifices can also open the door to real opportunities for positive change, as Lalu’s case has shown. In many Nepali villages, women like her have combined remittances with their own hard work and drive to build better lives for themselves and their families.

Now, with new challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis, it is more important than ever to look to people like Lalu as models of resilience and sustainable development.

Srijana Karki is World Neighbors South Asia Regional Director.

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