Nepali Times
Escape to education


THEY CALL ME AMA: Indira Rana Magar spends time with some of the younger children at PA Nepal's home in Naya Bajar.

When Putul Devi Srivastava was sentenced to 15 years in jail for possessing illegal drugs, her biggest worry was not the horror of prison, but the fear of what would happen to her 18-month-old son, Krishna.

Police in the eastern town of Itahari arrested her and a travelling companion eight years ago, after finding a large amount of injectable drugs. Krishna lived for a time with his mother in the grim confines of Birganj prison. Thinking his life would be better elsewhere, his mother sent him to the Nepal Children's Organisation, Bal Mandir, in Naxal, where he soon began to misbehave.

Srivastava, originally from Bihar, was later moved to the women's prison at the central jail in Sundhara, and Krishna came to stay with her briefly after the orphanage complained of his disruptive behaviour and other children's homes refused to take him.

But by now he was nearly six years old, the age at which children can no longer stay in prison with their mothers.

"I did not know what to do and feared that my son would have to live on the streets," Srivastava said. Fortunately for her, a woman named Indira Rana Magar visited the jail one day to check on the prisoners' welfare.

In 2000, Magar had set up Prisoners Assistance Nepal (PA Nepal), to help care for children whose parents were in prison. She agreed to take Krishna.

Today PA Nepal runs two childen's homes, one in Naya Bajar and another at Sankhu, which together look after more than 80 children, who call Magar 'ama' or mother. She provides a home for 12 more children in Pokhara, and more than 60 in her home district of Jhapa, where she has opened a school and library. In 2005 Ashoka, the global association of social entrepreneurs with innovative solutions for most urgent social problems, recognising Magar's work with prisoners in Nepal, elected her as a fellow.

More than 500 children have passed through PA Nepal's homes and returned to live with their relatives, and Magar's newest project, the Junkiri school, opened in 2005.

"The vision for Junkiri is different," she says. "At Junkiri we believe in learning by doing, and apart from academic subjects, children are encouraged to read a lot and take up extracurricular activities like art and cooking."

From Junkiri, the children can graduate to nearby government schools, although they continue to live, play, eat and grow up together.

PA Nepal has also helped to establish income-generating activities for prisoners, like bee-keeping at Nakhu Jail, knitting and sowing activities, and literacy classes at the women's prison in Sundhara.

In 2001, PA Nepal linked up with six other organisations working with prisoners' children to create the Network on Children, Prisoners, and Dependants, which shares resources to monitor prison activities and lobby for change. Magar says the biggest challenge is to end discrimination against these children.

"Parents commit crimes, but it does not mean that the children should also be punished," she says. "Who will speak up for them? Who will fight for their rights?"
There is no government funding to ensure children of prisoners receive care, especially beyond the age of six.

"We understand that the government cannot be everywhere, so why not give responsibility to those organisations already working in prisoner assistance and support them instead," Magar says.

"If they have nowhere to go, they usually end up on the streets," says Hari Maya Bhujel, whose son Shekhar lives at the PA Nepal home in Sankhu.

Back at the women's prison in Sundhara, mothers are sitting together, eager to tell their stories. Srivastava starts crying as she tells how her husband in Kolkata has abandoned her and Krishna.

By the time she gets out of prison in seven years time, Krishna will be a young man.

"I used to spend every waking hour worrying about my son," she says. "I will not be able to see him grow up, but at least I know his ama will provide for him and make sure he has a good life."

Mallika Aryal

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)