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Environment

In Nepal, a new lease of life for children of prisoners

The children of prisoners in Nepal often grow up behind bars. But thanks to one woman's efforts, several such children in Kathmandu have found an alternative home - and a chance at a better future.

Children at a childcare center in Nepal with cuddly toys

Growing up in freedom - children at the center in Kathmandu

On a crisp Sunday morning, the courtyard of a childcare center in the Nepali capital is bustling with activity. Pushpa Basnet strides around with a toy megaphone and urges the children to line up in rows.

"From six in the morning till ten at night you can see me screaming and jumping around from here to there. I never feel tired," Pushpa says."My friends always come here and ask me oh you must be tired but why would I feel tired I love my work."

The indefatigable 26-year-old takes charge, telling the children to wipe their runny noses and brush their hair.

The day that changed everything

In the front row is Sanaji, the girl that changed Puspha's life. Pushpa remembers how Sanaji, still a baby back then, clung to her the first time she visited a Nepali prison. The experience moved her profoundly.

Pushpa Bushnet with two children at the center in Kathmandu

Smiles all around - Pushpa, center, with two of 'her' children

"I went back home and told my parents that I saw a baby in the jail and my parents said 'Puspha forget it you see so many kids in the street there are so many orphans it doesn't matter, just one, two three days and you will forget about it," Pushpa remembers. "But I couldn't forget it."

That's when Pushpa decided she had to do something to change the plight of children in Nepal whose parents are sent to prison. The children are often forced to join them behind bars because there's no one else to look after them.

With financial help from her parents, Pushpa rented a two-storey building in Kathmandu for the childcare center. She was 20 years old at the time.

Pushpa's father, Purna Bahadur, a wealthy businessman, says his daughter often took furniture from home to equip the center.

"She used to convince her mother to buy new fridges, tables, chairs saying that they were old. And then she would take the old ones to the child care center for the children. She only thinks about the children," Purna Bahadur says.

"Sometimes I feel I even didn't give that much love to her compared to what she gives those children."

Winning the trust of parents and children

But setting up the center wasn't a cakewalk. Puspha says she first had to persuade the prison guards to let the children out. She then had to win the confidence of the mothers and finally, get the children to trust her.

"It was a really difficult time when I first took the children out of the jail because two of them were born in the jail," Pushpa remembers. "They were really scared, they were separated from their parents."

The parents too were initially skeptical about the project. Sanjaji's mother Hina Krishna, who is now out of jail and stays at the centre, says she hid her daughter when Puspha came to visit.

"I didn't know what she would do with my daughter and I was scared she would be taken away. I didn't know what I know now," Hina Krishna says.

Children say their prayers at the childcare center in Kathmandu

Lost in prayer - children at the center busy wtih their morning routine

Now life in the childcare center has opened up new opportunities for Sanaji. She's one among 40 children in the home. Puspha's team takes care of them and provides them with housing, food, clothes, education, medicines and other necessities. Hina Krishna is overwhelmed by the help.

"I only gave birth to my daughter but all the other things have been done by Puspha," Hina Krishna says.

Tough life for female convicts

Hina Krishna says her husband died of an accident. He was a drunk and used to beat her. During one of their routine fights, she says, he fell and hit his head and died. Hina was sentenced to five years in prison for murdering him.

Being in prison with a toddler wasn't easy.

"It was very hard in the prison for my baby Sanaji, she was hungry most of the time and cried a lot because of it," Hina remembers.

Hina's story is not unlike those of other women serving time in Nepal's prisons.

Buddhi Gurung's five-year-old daughter Jasmine also lives at the center. Buddhi Gurung was recently released from jail but she's unable to support her daughter on her own. Her husband left her and she sells local wine to survive.

She's asked Puspha if her daughter can continue living at the centre even though she is a free woman.

"Whenever I see my daughter and Mother Puspha, I cannot stop crying. She is giving my daughter a better life. If my daughter studies here, I hope she (my daughter) will take care of me in the future," Buddhi Gurung says.

Education the way out

But it's not just the former convicts who are relieved that their children have the chance at freedom and a better life.

With Puspha's help, 13- year-old Laxmi Tamang left Kathmandu's Central Jail four years ago. Her mother is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence and she has no contact with her father.

Laxmi has traumatic memories of her time in prison as a young girl.

"Being in prison was the worst time I have ever spent in my life," she says. Laxmi says her mother's friends in prison used to smoke, use foul language and occasionally get into fights.

"I always ran here and there to save myself because I was so afraid at that time. Jail is a really dirty place," Laxmi remembers. "The only thing I like about jail is being close to my mum."

The childcare center in Kathmandu has proven a lifeline for many children and their mothers who otherwise would have been forced to bring up their offspring behind bars.

Pushpa however is clear that education, above all, is the only way to break the cycle of poverty and crime blighting parts of Nepali society and help young people get on the right path.

"If I give the children a good education, tomorrow there will be less crime. They won't be facing the same thing that their parents are facing," Pushpa says.

"These children have opportunities because they are educated."

Author: Rebecca Henschke (sp)
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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