Top: Rabendra Raj Pandey works with a child at the Kathmandu School for the Deaf. Bottom: Jamuna Subedi's achievements changed that attitudes of villagers toward disabilities. Photos by Robert Rose/TRIFC.org
W hen she was seven years old, Jamuna Subedi lost her legs, the right one below the knee and the left one above it.
“My neighbor used to tease my father, saying he must have committed lots of sins in his previous life and so he got me as a curse,” she says. Family and friends told him that sending her to school was a waste of money, that nobody would marry her, that she’d be a burden for life.
But here’s where Subedi’s fortunes turn: Her father didn’t listen. He fought for her education, and a decade later, she scored the highest marks of any female student on her high school’s exit exam. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and complete an internship with the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal, then moved to Japan, where she attends a prestigious leadership training program. “I gave them a lesson,” she says. “According to one of my aunts, nowadays whenever a villager wants to see their children have a bright future, they tell my story of struggle. I think my achievement led them to change their attitude toward disability.”
Subedi grew up about 140 miles west of Kathmandu Valley. While Nepal may be synonymous with the precipitous peaks of the Himalayas, her village of 15,000 people lies in the swampy tropical lowlands – called the Terai – on the border with India. The region is prone to flooding, as rivers plunge down from the mountaintops. It’s also in the part of the country where Buddha was born.
Today, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs intermingle in Nepal. Both religions hold that the deeds of past lives – good and bad – shape future ones. But in rural areas, where shamans perform rituals dating back to the Stone Age and access to modern health care is limited, villagers believe that disabilities are a fixed destiny. Because of that fatalistic view, parents hide disabled children at home or force them to beg on the streets.
Changing that perception is the goal of an initiative funded by Rotary districts 3292 (Nepal) and 5030 (Washington, USA), and a US$300,000 Health, Hunger and Humanity (3-H) Grant from The Rotary Foundation. The Rotarians launched an ambitious marketing campaign to spread the message that no one should condemn people with disabilities to a subhuman existence. “So many things have changed. In today’s world, there is help available, there are opportunities available,” says Rabendra Raj “R.R.” Pandey, past president of the Rotary Club of Patan, Nepal. “We are giving the opportunity to turn bad karma into good karma.”
"My mother had a tough time raising us, but she never lost hope. Now we have proved that we are not damaged goods." --Nirmala Gyawali
Ads feature the phone number of a help line that Rotarians launched as part of the 3-H project, staffed by people with disabilities such as Subedi, who worked there before heading to Japan. Thirteen club projects worth $120,000 are also addressing the needs of the disabled, with plans for more.
“You can imagine how society treats you when your very existence is tied to a curse or past-life sin,” says Rob Rose, a member of the Rotary Club of Bellevue, Wash., who came up with the idea for the project. “It’s the lowest of the low, below the lowest caste. You don’t deserve an opportunity; you don’t deserve an education.”
For many, the biggest coup of the marketing campaign was landing superstar Rajesh Hamal as spokesman. Hamal – the equivalent of Brad Pitt for Kathmandu’s “Kollywood” – appears in television and radio ads that have been broadcast across the country since June. (Find the ads, including one featuring Hamal and Subedi, at www.rotary.org/rotarian.) He has a close friend who is a paraplegic and a brother who started a center that provides free computer training for people with disabilities. When Rotarians pitched the idea, Hamal was sold on donating his time. “He was such a great find,” Rose says.
JWT, an international ad agency powerhouse, is orchestrating the campaign and has donated $50,000 in services. As part of the effort, Rotaractors will perform street theater, and a comic strip – starring disabled characters who defy stereotypes – will appear in notebooks distributed to all public schoolchildren in Nepal. Four print ads, which highlight a doctor, a grandfather, a student, and a professional woman with disabilities, are running in newspapers and are planned for billboards.
Nirmala Gyawali, a cultural orientation trainer, radio journalist, and disability advocate, is the career woman featured in the campaign. She and two of her siblings were born blind; her sister was the first blind woman in Nepal to earn a master’s degree. “My mother had a tough time raising us, but she never lost hope,” Gyawali says. The Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation, a nonprofit based in Sausalito, Calif., paid her public school fees, and she earned bachelor’s degrees in sociology at Campion College in Nepal and at Colorado State University, on a Fulbright scholarship.
In 2004, she was the first athlete from Nepal in the Paralympic Games, held in Athens, competing in the shot put and the 100- and 200-meter races. Like Subedi, she says her achievements have changed perceptions in her village toward people with disabilities. “Now we have proved we are not damaged goods,” Gyawali explains.
Rose, a second-generation owner of a family photography business, met Gyawali in 1997, when he volunteered as a photographer for the Nepalese youth foundation. As a Rotary Youth Exchange student in the 1970s, he’d lived in Kolkata, India, and had returned with a fascination for the region. He’d lived with a middle-class family in a three-bedroom flat and had taken the bus to school every day, hanging onto the outside rail instead of crowding inside. “The desperately poor were almost everywhere you looked,” he says. “I think that experience made me realize that I had an obligation as a human being to give back to those less fortunate.”
Later, on one of his trips back to Nepal to work on Rotary club-sponsored projects, Rose met R.R. Pandey. The founder of one of the country’s largest travel agencies, Pandey quickly became a key partner and now serves on the board of the Rose International Fund for Children, established in 2006 to help young people with disabilities in Nepal.
Years of hearing stories from Gyawali persuaded Rose, a Rotarian since 1986, to launch the grassroots awareness campaign. Pandey had his own reasons for signing on: His father had a bone disease in one of his legs and had to walk several miles each day on crutches, and his mother was hard of hearing. “I can still recall the smile on her face when she got her first hearing aid – ‘I can hear!’” Pandey says.
The marketing initiative now reaches 15 percent of the country. James Hebert, a Bellevue club member and president of a market research company, trained Rotaractors in Nepal to conduct surveys in the target area, measuring changes in attitude toward people with disabilities. When they are armed with enough credible research, the Rotarians plan to extend the project across the country. To Pandey, this effort is different from many other 3-H projects because it isn’t about bringing equipment or materials. “We are trying to change the mindset of a society,” he says.