Though the community of Bhatigacha is less than twenty kilometers from Biratnagar, Nepal’s second-largest city, it feels like another world. Rutted lanes lead through fields bright green and yellow with harvest; cattle, goats, and poultry graze and wander around the farmyards; and in ponds and irrigation ditches, beautiful purple waterlilies bloom. It’s here, in a pretty pink house on a green lawn dotted with palm trees, that the Brethren in Community Welfare Society has its field office.
BICWS is the service agency of the Nepal Brethren in Christ church denomination. The field office in Bhatigacha is one of the locations of BICWS’s vocational training program for local young people. With funding from Mennonite Central Committee’s Global Family program, BICWS provides scholarships to unemployed young people who can then access training in areas that suit their interests and abilities.
Some of the most popular programs are pharmacy, tailoring, driving, community medicine/midwifery, and motorcycle and mobile phone repair. Currently, 70 students in 2 communities are receiving scholarships.
For young people in this area, a skilled trade can mean the difference between a life of uncertainty and poverty on the one hand, and a life of purpose and relative prosperity on the other. An unskilled agricultural labourer usually makes at most 300 rupees ($3) for a hard day’s work in a landlord’s field, and is subject to the seasonal and unpredictable nature of agriculture. This wage often isn’t sufficient to sustain one person, let alone a family. In comparison, a plumber can make 800 rupees ($8) a day throughout the year.
But the vocational training BICWS is funding doesn’t just give young people an economic advantage. For many students, it also improves their sense of self and gives them greater ambitions. Because of vocational training, “I discovered that I have skills and I can do this type of work,” said Poonam Thakur, a student of the tailoring program BICWS runs in Bhatigacha. “I’m confident now that I can have my own job rather than just working at home.”
One of the main goals of the program is to enable young people to make a good living in their own community. Underemployed Nepalis face the constant temptation to migrate to other countries, especially India, for work, and are often met with exploitation and unfair wages.
The mass migration of unskilled labourers takes a heavy toll on the communities they leave behind. Since it’s usually men who go, families are left without their husbands, fathers, and sons for many months at a time. Often, families have to take out loans to pay for a labourer’s passage to India, and in many cases the low wages that the labourer brings back are not enough to cover the debt. While the migrant labourers invest all their hard work in foreign communities, their own communities suffer from a lack of development and economic growth.
Initiatives like BICWS’ Vocational Training program help individuals and communities to escape this cycle. When people are able to do skilled work in their own communities, they not only avoid debt and exploitation, but also help to build up the future of their own country.
So far over 150 students have graduated from the vocational training program, and it’s becoming extremely popular among local youth – this year there were 100 applicants for only 40 scholarships. BICWS hopes to expand the program next year to include more youth. While not everyone will be able to receive a scholarship, those who do are expected to share their knowledge and motivation with others. As Poonam says, “The other students and I have always lived near each other, but we never knew each other before. Now we have learned what it means to live in community and help each other.”