My taxi pulls up outside some rusty wrought iron gates. Inside is one of Nepal’s philanthropic success stories: a tiny business that’s slowly changing the lives of local women.
It’s called Seven Women, and it began in 2006 as a grassroots project to help (literally) seven women who were suffering discrimination as a result of their disabilities. Nine years later, the project has expanded, with two centers in Kathmandu and four more in outlying villages.
The gate opens. The courtyard is boiling in the late October sun, but inside it’s quiet and cool. About 15 women in sarees sit behind black Singer machines, feeding fabric through flashing needles with their fingers. The sewing machines are all old, classic models, powered by a foot peddle, and they fill the room with a soft mechanical jingling. One of the project managers, Padam, bounds over and shakes our hand.
Seven Women is a small operation by international NGO standards, but its achievements are substantial. Since its inception it has employed and trained over 900 women, many of them disabled, and their handicrafts are sold online and overseas.
The women who work here are usually single and over 45, members of poor rural communities in the lowlands around Kathmandu. They might be divorced, or suffer from some disability such as glaucoma, blindness or polio — the ones who fall through the cracks, who may have lost their husbands, whose families won’t support them, who have no experience of the workforce. Here they can work, earn a wage and learn transferable skills. Padam says most go back to their villages and start their own small businesses. It’s charity in its most sustainable form: an initial investment that repays itself a hundredfold.
Seven Women is part of a broader movement in Nepal, one in which women’s rights (and working conditions) are gradually improving. Traditionally women haven’t had many opportunities here. The society is pretty linear and entrenched: girls receive basic schooling and are then forced into arranged marriages within a particular caste or family group.
Or at least that used to be the norm. Today’s younger generation are starting to mix things up. There are now more women in industry and government than ever before. In fact, Padam says, girls are leading the way in medicine, engineering and law, with more women than men now going on to secondary education. It’s not a perfect system yet by any means, but the signs are good. Nepal is changing for the better.