Kamla (36 years old) lives with her husband (45 years old) and three children in Jumla District, Nepal. Her two sons (aged 14 and 11 years old) attend school and her daughter (aged five years old) attends a pre-primary school. Kamla herself is uneducated. She has had seven pregnancies but not all of her children survived infancy. The family is very poor and everyone, including the children, does some form of paid work in order to sustain themselves. Both Kamla and her husband are quite unwell and they have no money for treatment. This makes it even more difficult for Kamla to balance her care and paid work.
Kamla has a small piece of land on a hill which she bought three years ago by taking loans from one of the savings groups that she was part of. As well as farming the land, the family has recently begun to rear sheep. The family stays on top of the hill and takes turns to herd the sheep. Kamla and her sons come down to the lower slopes (about an hour’s walk from the top of the hill) according to the farming season:
We have come here [to the lower slopes] to cut the barley in June; we plant and leave. Then we come in the month of July to till the land and then we return. In August and September we stay at the top of the hill. We come in October to cut the grass, in November we cut the paddy. In December we carry the fertilizers, sow the barley and leave.
When there is no farming work to be done, Kamla sometimes sells firewood or carries sand to earn money. For this she earns around Rs 500 which enables her to meet the family’s basic food needs for a few days and to buy a packet of salt (an expensive commodity in the hills of land-locked Nepal) to have with their flatbread. Sometimes, she also works on other people’s farms to repay loans she has taken from them to buy stationery or food items. The children also work during holidays to earn some income; Kamla says, ‘the children broke a trolley of stones and bought oil with it.’ Kamla spends around six hours daily farming her own land and doing other work. The amount of time she spends on paid work varies greatly depending on the agricultural season and her health.
Kamla has been unwell for most of the last year and has only recently begun to work more, fetching firewood, etc.:
Both my sons help me. They know that their parents cannot work. I carry the manure and they do it too. They go to school in the afternoon. After returning from school one of the sons help to carry and the other makes food. And I rest near the stove. Whenever I can I make the food but when I am unwell they make it.
In addition to helping Kamla with the cooking, her eldest son, Surendra, helps with collecting water and cleaning and takes care of his younger sister; Kamla says, ‘feeding, fetching water, washing her up, and washing the dishes, putting the younger one to sleep… he takes her to school [Bal Shiksha] and brings her back safely.’ Surendra and his brother also help their mother on their land during the plantation and harvesting period, and Surendra helps with cutting a particular type of grass for the sheep when it is his turn to take care of the sheep.
Kamla’s husband generally remains on the hilltop where he helps tend the sheep. He helps Kamla with some of the ploughing, and when he is with the children he helps with childcare. However, Kamla’s eldest son does most of the household work as well as helping his mother on the farm. The family receive no support with childcare or domestic work from the community or extended family members.
Kamla is overwhelmed with her illness and her family’s economic condition:
There is nothing else besides that [farming, selling firewood or carrying sand] for us. Whenever my body allows me, I go to work and earn Rs 500 which helps me to feed my family for the next few days. But when I can’t, I have to rest and everybody eats wheat flat bread and goes to sleep.
The parent’s ill health also impacts the children’s time and studies, as Kamla explains: ‘As I have headache sitting near the stove my son cooks the food. But he complains about the impact on his studies.’ She also shares her exasperation of not being able to provide for her children’s education and the problems they face because of that:
They complain that they cannot study well... They tell me that the other boys wear better clothes than them, and ask me what they should wear… my children fear to go to school as the teacher beats them when they do not have stationery but I tell them to go [to school] nevertheless.
Last year, Kamla participated in the Karnali Employment Programme, a public works social protection programme initiated by the Government of Nepal, which although it involved walking for up to two hours to reach the worksite, enabled her to earn much needed income. Given Kamla’s poor economic status, she wishes there were more employment opportunities in Jumla:
I wish similar employment programmes were implemented here. Last year, we had such programme here, half of the people encouraged me to go due to our poor financial status and the other half cursed us for going there. Half of them said that we do not have enough food and clothes for survival… with that money we got stationery for the children.
She also wishes she did not have to fetch firewood (which involves walking for a long time to and from the forest) for cooking and instead had gas cylinders to save time and energy (there is no electricity provision and hardly any public transport even though the road is around 25 minutes’ walk away). A need was also felt for a proper health infrastructure:
My husband is ill and tomorrow we are taking a loan of Rs 5,000. We told them that we would pay it off by working; my two sons would work to pay it off even if I die… I’m not sure if they will lend us the money as we do not get any work in December to earn and return the money. It is easier in June as it is the plantation period and we earn Rs 500. We told the money lender that we would pay him with the work we get in the plantation period and he agreed to give us the money.
This debt will likely push Kamla and her family into greater economic insecurity which will further burden them all and probably push the children completely into paid work thereby hampering their studies.