FOCUS Pushpa Basnet, a CNN Hero of the Year 2012 nominee, on her dedication to rehabilitating children of incarcerated parents, and the challenges therein BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA
True to St. Augustine’s dictum, Pushpa Basnet works as though everything depends on her. As the founder of the Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC), she is at the forefront of a movement to shelter children of incarcerated parents in Nepal. For her efforts, she has been nominated, along with nine other persons, for the 2012 edition of “CNN Hero of the Year”, an annual award that celebrates selflessness.
Founded in 2005, ECDC has assisted more than 100 children of imprisoned parents. At present, it runs a day care centre for children under six, and a residential centre where older children receive education, food, medical care and other amenities.
“I see myself and see how fortunate I am to have received a good education and a proper upbringing. But they aren’t,” she says, referring to the children who are often forced to accompany their parents to prison when guardians are either absent or unwilling to take them on. The other option is a life on the streets where the threat of sexual trafficking lurks dangerously.
“It’s not fair for these children to get punished for crimes that their parents have committed. My mission is to make sure no child grows up behind prison walls,” she adds.
Having worked only in Kathmandu, on the fringes of the Sundhara Jail, Pushpa would now like to reach the more remote areas of Nepal. “There are more than 75 children still in prisons all over Nepal,” she says. The prisons in these areas are characterised by a dearth of facilities, overcrowding, and a generally hostile environment, especially in the female prisons.
Alert to the gendered nature of the problem, Pushpa pays special attention to the girl child. “The problem is more severe for girl children, since guardians consider girls a burden.” The composition of the residential centre, where girls heavily outnumber boys, is both a reflection of this bias and an attempt to address it.
While identifying these children and bringing them to the ECDC homes is a major challenge, the real struggle begins afterwards. Things in the homes are usually far from idyllic, Pushpa confesses. “The initial period is the most difficult. The children are too small to be separated from their parents, and I feel bad that I am the one to separate them.” The children frequently abuse and fight with each other, but, having grown up in a boarding school herself, Pushpa is aware that these are rites of passage.
The initial period was the toughest for Pushpa too. “People thought I was crazy. They thought if parents are not good, even children will not be good. My parents were also really scared because I was dealing with criminals. But now everyone is very supportive,” she says.