Beni and Beni Handicrafts
‘The girl from Tipling.’
Beni Rani Ghale was born in the isolated mountain village of Tipling, situated between Langtang and Manaslu. As a child she only attended school for five days, as she had to look after her two small sisters, plus the cows and goats. She remembers, ‘Both my parents had to work, sometime they were away for day’s even weeks. At about 5 years of age, I used to carry my baby sister on my back, while working. I had to chew cooked corn/maize into a milky paste so she could eat something – a substitute for mother’s milk.’
Beni, like many in her village, was married early, at the age of 10. A deposit of 40 liters of alcohol had been given, followed by a further $20. Should she not consent to marry her suitor, then the double of this would have to be repaid. Marriage was not to her liking, so she ran away into the surrounding hillsides. When her new husband left the village, she returned. From then on she lived with her family, and studied privately at night. She got a job at Tipling Health Post, where she cleaned and functioned as translator for Nepali doctors with Tamang speaking patients. At 14 she went to Kathmandu to study English, and returned to work in the Clinic.
Dr Beni’ as she was called, at 16.
At the age of 15, with help from Dr. Kathy Antalak, a visiting Doctor, and with forged documents, showing her to be 18, she completed a six-month Health Worker Course (Maternal Child Health Care). With this qualification, she became the Midwife/Health Visitor in her home district, covering nine remote mountain villages, with over 500 households. After five years, serving the medical needs of over 3500 people, Beni moved to Kathmandu. She bought herself out of the marriage, re-married and started a small shop in the back streets of Thamel, selling products made from recycled waste materials. She provided handicraft training to prisoners in Kathmandu Central Prison. She delivered waste materials that the prisoners turned into functional products. This work contributed important income to the prisoners’ families.
Profits from this private micro-business, after her living needs were covered, were used to establish her social help model, which was helping people to help themselves through education or training them with work skills. Various projects evolved, including the establishment of her own school for older (uneducated) women where she offered basic education at low or no cost. She also established a Tailoring Training Centre. Both entities aimed to enable previously unskilled women to find income-generating employment. Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough, her women produced more products than she could sell, and she was continually in debt. A helping friend, Marji Greehunt, put her in touch with David Durkan, Founder of Mountain People. MP is a voluntary organization based in Norway, who also, ‘help people to help themselves.’ David, a mixture of mountaineer and businessman, felt the poor woman syndrome was outdated. He saw the value in the Beni herself. Her history, what she had achieved, and what she stood for. Within ten days, he had created a simple logo, explanatory hang tags, a brochure, and replaced her old shop with two new (one free, the other low cost).
Providing basic formal education for those who have never attended school.
The new guiding by-line was, ‘Beni Handicrafts: Giving Kathmandu’s rubbish a second life.’ Products received names, identities, quality improved and within a year Beni was out of debt. This ‘freedom’ allowed her to both train and employ more people, make new and better products, and to start a number of far reaching social projects.
Her long time social work evolved, taking shape, with emphasis on Education, Hygiene and Health – step by step. Personally believing that training led to income-generating work helped women more than anything else Beni initiated Steps Foundation Nepal. A registered NGO, with the aim to secure women’s rights and needs. Goals that would contribute to a better society.
In 2015 the earthquake hit Nepal, causing widespread devastation. David within 5 days established Mountain Peoples own voluntary ‘Earthquake Centre’ at Hotel Moonlight, collecting and distributing food and materials. For Beni the earthquake resulted in the loss of her factory and two shops, and the whole or partial destruction of 500 houses in her home district. The first year, she, her family, friends from near and far and Mountain People, devoted their time and resources to helping her home village (Tipling) to recover. Eight immediate helicopter deliveries of emergency supplies (tents, sleeping bags, medicine etc.), and food. Followed by the delivery of 600 quality quilts before the first winter set in – one to each household. Zinc roofing sheets were delivered to most of the village houses, as well as the building and restoration of schools.
Parallel to immediate aid Beni and David revived Beni Handicrafts, to meet the autumn tourist season. They established a new shop and a small factory. As to be expected, tourism was greatly reduced that autumn, with sales down 50%. Luckily, Beni found, or they found her, Dr.Jennifer Pitzer (via Kay Standing) and Dr. Rose Mathieson (via Sian and Bob) more or less at the same time. Together they develope Freedom Kit Bags (washable sanitary pads) in her new (smaller) factory. This kept the factory going, kept the workers paid, and the pads were distributed free of charge to Jenni’s and Rose’s separate projects, then by Steps Foundation Nepal, Mountain People and others to schools in remove mountain villages. Beni Handicrafts had a new product, and as such, was able to continue to employ people in meaningful and paid work.
Freedom Kit Bags
When women and girls have their monthly menstruation in Nepal they are often regarded as being ‘unclean’. This inhumane stigma results in their being isolated, to where in some districts they are forced to spend their period days in a special hut (Chhaupadi). Where they fear being bitten by snakes, or being raped. Others live with the animals during this period. They are not allowed to cook or share food, nor to look at family members in the eye, nor look at the sun or moon, nor allowed to pass a temple etc.
For schoolgirls this means missing school, for working women a loss of income. Both are subjected to deep rooted and unfair stigma, inhuman conditions and isolation from family and society – month after month. Destructive humiliation to one’s own picture of self-worth. A heavy burden guaranteed to affect personal and social development.
The deep shame associated with menstruation, nature’s most wonderful cycle, is a crime against humanity. Added to that, many girls marry too young, deliver their first child before their bodies are fully matured, have poor nutrition, work virtually to childbirth and soon after. In addition they have numerous and successive births. In the light of this, it is understandable that over 900,000 women suffer from uterus prolapse.
Poor medical care is the norm in Nepal, even after 40 years of massive (criminally misplaced) foreign aid. The shame associated with reproduction means that when a women experiences vaginal or other infections or complications in the reproductive organs she suffers in silence. Alone and in desperate uncertainty.
Uterus Prolapse phase one, can usually be easily remedied, by a local health aid worker. If not treated, it progresses to phase two and eventually phase three. Often resulting with the uterus hanging between the woman’s knees. All phases cause difficulty and pain in sexual relationships, can lead to various infections, and to serious problems in birthing. Uterus prolapse, fear of sex and birthing, poverty and depression are contributing cause to female suicide – often registered as natural deaths.
Beni Handicrafts and Mountain People believe the way forward is education and openness. One move is reproductive education and the availability for sanitary pads. Plus a clear stand to stop the isolation and exclusion when menstruating. The two organisations joined forces, and became active in the production of washable sanitary pads in outlying villages before the earthquake. They, financed by Linda of The Umbrella Foundation (Australia) delivered sewing machines and materials. Beni held the ‘work shops’, covering health and reproductive issues as well as teaching women how to make their own washable sanitary pads.
After the earthquake, Mountain People felt ‘village production’ far from the city, while worthwhile in providing local involvement and some employment, was a difficult model to ensure quality control without a large investment. ‘It looks good, but is difficult to sustain. Basically a poor business model for high mountain and isolated areas,’ was his standpoint. Beni agreed, and almost by chance, two independent projects, headed by Dr. Jennifer Pitzer and Dr. Rose Mathieson, came on the scene. They too were doing voluntary work, and helped develop Freedom Kit Bags as a concept and they were the first Freedom Kit Bag ‘customers’.
Since then Freedom Kit Bags have developed into a comprehensive series of pads, 2- and 3-sets, Standard and Plus, that are comfortable, functional and long-lasting, with each delivery being supported by a ‘Beni’ or Steps Freedom Kit Bag workshop.
Freedom Kit Bag – Wear with Pride
A Standard Freedom Kit Bag contains:
- One Wear with Pride bag, made from re-cycled sari silk.
- Two Sanitary Pad Carriers, in two layer quality cotton, with a mid-layer of waterproof material, and hygienic plastic press studs to hold it in place.
- Six Day Pads, with 6 layers of soft cotton for normal absorption.
- Two Night Pads, with nine layers of soft cotton for heavy bleeding.
- Two pairs of panties (difficult to find in the villages).
- Three purses. One Day Purse to hold a set if the girl thinks she will start her period. One Wet Purse to place a wet pad in. One Soap Purse with soap.
- A nylon line and two pegs, plus an information flyer.
The Standard set is ideal for schoolgirls and Nepali standard size/height women.
The following options are available:
- A Three-pad set.
As for Standard, plus 1 Pad Carrier, 3 Day Pads, 1 Night Pad, 1 panty, plus 2 pegs.
- Plus Set.
Pad Carrier and Pads are longer, for larger women, or those who work in the fields, as the Standard may slip.
- ‘Revika – it happens in this age’
A color illustrated publication covering menstruation and health.