Pushpa Basnet runs a residential facility, Butterfly Home, for children of prisoners in Nepal

“When my children tell me ‘Mamu we want shoes’, I say ‘okay’ and go and get them. In childhood they should have everything,” says Pushpa Basnet of her ‘children’. Only that Pushpa’s ‘children’ are not her biological children, the parents of these children are incarcerated in various prisons in Nepal.

The Nepalese social activist is the founder of Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC) and the Butterfly Home. She won last year’s CNN Hero of the Year award for her work. “The award helped a lot. Especially in getting the money to buy land where I can build a larger home for my children,” she says. An INK Fellow, Pushpa was in Kochi to speak at INK 2013.

By chance

Suspended from college for a year, as an under graduate for bunking, where she was pursuing a degree in social work, Pushpa says starting a day care for prisoner’s children was not something she had planned.

A chance visit to a jail where she saw children with their parents set her thinking about creating a different atmosphere for them, away from the confines of the jails. She hired a tiny apartment, decked it up with balloons, filled it up with toys and everything else that would be needed for children in a day care. There were the bureaucratic hassles till a visit by the jail warden changed everything.

She laughs, smiles, chuckles…she conveys a sense of happiness. “The first day all these children came, they were excited with everything that they saw. I was also happy and then they started crying wanting to go back. That was the one time when I felt ‘why did I get into this?’” she says with a laugh. But that was a long time ago.

Today her pet project, Butterfly Home, is a residential facility with 45 children, while the kindergarten has eight children. She provides for these children as a parent would. Pushpa stays with the children and has around 10-12 people assisting her.

She focuses on jails which are in the suburbs of Kathmandu and but not from Kathmandu. “There are many people doing this there and I want to stay away from the whole NGO thing happening there.”

Donations are an aspect of her work. Hefty donations are not hard to come by, but Pushpa has no such needs. Money and donations are important, she agrees, but not at the cost of giving up her say. She has a sponsor, the Glasswater Foundation, which trusts her and provides unconditional support.

“Also if there is too much money in the bank, the brain will not work. This way I keep thinking of ways and means to generate funds.” Butterfly Handicrafts and farmer’s markets are all part of this exercise in thinking and being creative in generating funds.

She is driven by the belief that genes don’t matter; what matters is how each child is nurtured. “People told me that their blood is bad and they will be bad. Nothing. It is all about the environment, how they are nurtured. They are like caterpillars who when nourished will turn into beautiful butterflies.”

The Butterfly Home is a temporary stop for these children. When the parents or the mother are released they would, naturally, want to take their child or children away. It is a painful, but an unavoidable fact. “I wish that the children wouldn’t go because they are used to a particular lifestyle here. After spending a few years with us, they are going back to a very different situation,” she says. She has even made provisions for women fresh out of prison, at their most vulnerable, to stay with her.

At 30, she has been able to change many lives but her one regret is that she doesn’t spend enough time with her parents. “My parents and sister have been very supportive, even when I was suspended. My father wanted me to go back and complete my education which I haven’t. But it is ok, I know they are proud of me. Though I wouldn’t recommend getting suspended to anybody.”