How One Young Woman Overcame Great Odds to Receive a Life-Changing Education

By Genevieve Ernst | October 6, 2020

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Today, we’re sharing a conversation with Suma, a young Nepalese woman who was introduced to the world in the 2013 film Girl Rising. Suma overcome great odds to escape slavery and receive a life-changing education. Now, her story is part of a curriculum created by the Girl Rising non-profit, which we support through The Power of Good Fund.

In classrooms around the world, middle school students are prompted:

Do you believe slavery still exists in the world?

What strategies do you use to get through difficult times in your life?

Then the screen goes on, the lights go down and these big ideas become real when they meet a real girl, now a young woman, who was a slave just a few years ago.

Her name is Suma, and her story is taught as part of the Girl Rising curriculum, which grew out of the 2013 film of the same name. While ultimately triumphant — Suma was freed thanks to the advocacy of formerly enslaved women — the sadness of her upbringing is tangible when she tells her story.

“I write songs to remind myself that my memories are real,” Suma explains in Girl Rising, which features 9 girls from around the world, each deprived of education for a different reason, but all, ultimately, because girls’ education isn’t valued. In the year it was filmed, 33 million fewer girls attended primary school than boys, which meant they were subject to more hunger, more violence and more disease. It has been well documented that this year has exacerbated all of those injustices.

Suma’s memories seem incomprehensible, even to her, as she was sold into slavery at 6 years old in her native Bardiya, Nepal. Her parents, once slaves themselves, could not afford to feed two children. So they kept her brother, who went to school. Suma was bonded to a miller, and she woke at 4:00 AM to fetch firewood from the forest, clean the house, and take care of the goats and the children. “Thoughtless were my mother and father; they gave birth to a daughter,” she sings.

Education played no part in Suma’s young life, until she met a lodger with her third “master” who was a teacher. At 11 years old, she learned to read and write and began speaking to other enslaved “Kamlari,” realizing for the first time that her bonded labor was, in fact, slavery.

By 2019, when Girl Rising released a short update on the girls from the first film, Suma was free. But her life has not been without difficulty; floods had wiped out her village the prior 2 years, leading to widespread hunger and homelessness, and she had tried in vain to pass her high school exams numerous times — only 6% of former Kamlari ever pass. But the sadness was fading from her face. She’d trained to be a community health worker and opened a small school supply shop. “People in my village are proud of my achievements,” Suma shared at the time. They say, “‘She’s done well!’”

With the help of Girl Rising, we were able to reach Suma. Here, she speaks about her growth into leadership roles, the situation for girls in Nepal today, and her pride in being a woman.

Can you tell us how you’re doing, and what you’re working on now?  

I am now at the end of my high school education, in grade 12. I am pursuing an Education tract, with a focus on health, in my secondary school and all that remains now is the final exam, which has been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Just one month before my exams, the government mandated a country-wide lockdown. The situation in Nepal is getting worse and we are now in the second nationwide lockdown.

I am currently at home with my family, and spending time studying on my own to prepare for the pending examination and trying to remain focused on my studies despite the crisis. During the lockdown, with so many things canceled, I was happy to join my family in the field, planting rice during the monsoon as well as helping around the home. I am also enjoying weaving colorful baskets and writing poetry.

With support from Girl Rising, I had also opened a bookstore in my village. I run the store with the help of my brother. The business was good, and we were able to expand the store to sell more items. The income from the store helped to provide me and my family with the much-needed money for our livelihood. However, I have now temporarily closed the store due to the lockdown. 

I am also a trained Community Medical Assistant, and after I complete my high school, I hope to work with organizations working on health and education for marginalized and vulnerable children.  

Tell us about your ongoing involvement with Girl Rising’s global programs to promote girls’ education and empowerment.

I was involved with Girl Rising’s global programs for Girls Education; and even now in Nepal it is a cause I continue to work for. I am involved with Freed Kamlaris Development Forum, which is an organization established and run by girls like me who have been freed from slavery. I am one of its elected leaders and I spend time outside of school advocating for girls’ rights and education as part of the Freed Kamlaris Development Forum’s work. The training and education that Girl Rising sponsored, and is still sponsoring, has helped me to gain confidence and advocate for justice and empowerment my community.

Imagine if, when you were a little girl, you’d heard your own story: that a girl is liberated, and works hard to get an education, and fights for other girls to have the same opportunity. What would have surprised you about the story? Would it have changed your outlook on life, knowing a girl could have such opportunities?

If I had heard my own story, I think I would have been most surprised by the fact that a girl could ever achieve so much in life! But then, the story would have aroused a desire and given me hope to be free and empowered, and seek ways to make that happen.

How does it feel to know that thousands of children have learned from your experience and hundreds of thousands have seen your story? What’s the #1 thing you want people to learn from your story?

I feel incredibly happy and at the same time it also encourages me to do better in life. One thing that I want people to learn from my story is to never give up hope — even when you are trapped in the darkest of times — and to set your life’s goal and be determined to achieve it.

As a girl for whom education was not a given, what does education mean to you now?

As someone who spent her childhood in slavery, I feel nobody, no girl, ever has to go without education in her life, and when you get the opportunity, never let it go to waste. Because there are so many barriers for women, and therefore education is even more important for girls to break those barriers and live empowered lives. Education has not only helped me to gain knowledge and build a career, it has also given me the skills and confidence to advocate for my rights and the rights of girls and women in my community. I now have the confidence to approach government officials or other people for talks, and mobilize groups and the community for causes.

Given the successes you’ve had and your growth and education since that first film, how do your childhood memories look to you now? 

When I think of my childhood now, sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the sheer pain and the unimaginable hardships that I went through; so much so that I am afraid to dig too deep into those memories. Because we were so poor, my father, my brother and I were working in slavery for the landlords. I never experienced love or comfort, only grueling work through day and night, even on extreme heat and chilling cold; abuse, hatred and insults that I suffered every day from the children and adults in the family that I worked for; eating nothing but scraps and leftovers. I so much longed for a pair of decent clothes to wear, but never got to wear one. 

But I also know how important it is for me to tell my story to the world: the journey from unimaginable darkness to the bright light I am surrounded by now. Dogged perseverance was what got me through the tough times to reach where I am now. I wish nobody would have to go through what I went through in life.

Do you still write songs? How does music play a role in your life now?

Yes, I write songs and poetry even now. Music has always played an important role in my life, enabling me to express suppressed pain and emotions. It was music that made me known across the world. Singing now lightens my heart and makes me happy.

Tell us about the situation for girls in Nepal now. How has it changed since your childhood?

In my community, the situation of girls has changed drastically. During the time of my childhood, it was a cultural practice in my community to sell off a daughter into slavery. But it is so amazing to witness that the practice is no more. Girls are now in school with pens and books in their hands instead of dirty dishes like we used to have. The daughters of Kamlari girls are no more Kamlari, and that is a hugely positive change.

However, the situation of girls across Nepal is still largely challenging. Early marriage, poor access to education and health, and violence against girls and women are very common, and the current Covid-19 pandemic is making the situation worse for girls and women. For instance, the pandemic and nationwide lockdown has resulted in loss of income and food shortages for families, and girls, having the least priority in the families, are having to bear a massive brunt of the crisis. Rise in early marriage is already up according to reports and 53% girls are at high risk of not returning back to school when it resumes.

What advice do you have for girls or women who are fighting to continue their own education? 

For all the girls who are fighting against all odds to get an education, I want to say: Never let your will and commitment diminish. Education is the key to opportunities in life, so make the best use of every opportunity you have got for an education.

Who is a woman in history or in your life who inspires you?

I am greatly inspired by Shanta Chaudhary, who is a former Kamlari like me. I also know her personally. Despite so much poverty and suffering, she fought back and became active in politics. She fought for Land Rights Movement that was crucial for Tharu community that we belong to. The forceful displacement of the Tharus from their land was a historical move that led to the oppression and marginalization of Tharu people. She is now a Member of Parliament in Nepal.

I am truly inspired by her resilience and one incident that really struck me was that when she became the Member of Parliament, she was illiterate, and could not even write her name. She felt deeply embarrassed to be using a finger stamp in place of a signature. She took this to heart so much that she joined school at the age of 37 and passed secondary school. She has also published a book on her own. Her journey from an enslaved girl to a Member of Parliament is something I look up to for inspiration. 

Are there words or a song or a “motto” you live by? 

In Nepal, people talk a lot about Mother Teressa, how she helped the poorest and the most despised people with love and care. And I am truly inspired by one of her quotes “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” This is a moto for my life too; we do not have to do great things to make a difference. Even small things we do for each other, or for our communities are equally important if we do them with love and care. As someone who was desperately poor, beaten and despised throughout my childhood, I understand how love and kindness can make a difference in someone’s life. 

What does being a woman mean to you?

First of all, it is a great challenge to be born a woman in our society. Women are considered less important and less capable than men, and people assume that women’s role is only in the home. When women get to enjoy equal opportunity as men, then they can perform well in any field or discipline, and we have many examples of this. Women can make a huge difference in the lives of both men and women. I feel my life as a woman is equally valuable, and I feel proud to be a woman.             

Genevieve Ernst

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