Pushpa Basnet from Nepal was awarded the 2012 CNN Hero of the Year title – an award given for outstanding charitable works. Basnet is the founder and president of the Early Childhood Development Center and the Butterfly Home, two non-profit organisations based in Kathmandu that care for children facing imprisonment when one or both parents are incarcerated. She spoke to Kristen Zipperer just before she left for the awards ceremony in the US.
Please tell us a little about your background.
In college, I went for my Bachelor’s in social work, because then I wouldn’t have to study maths, and we just had to be in the classroom three days a week, with two days of fieldwork. I had no idea what I would do with it. My parents wanted me to graduate, get my certificate and everything, and they assumed that I would get into their business. My dad and my mom are in the industrial business. I had always thought I would do business because I had seen my parents doing business, and I thought that you don’t have to do much of anything, just sit around the office and travel. But things change.
Can you describe the first time that you went into a jail? What was that first day like?
Originally, I knew in the prison there were children. I did my School Leaving Certificate from Kathmandu, but I failed, so I had a one year gap at that time. I did volunteer work in the Bal Mandir orphanage. It was at this time that I began to encounter myself, to consider what is life? It was this experience that conditioned me for the jail. The first time when I went to the jail I knew that it was a different community, and somewhere down deep in my heart I was really scared. What people in our society think is that people who are in jail are not good people. That’s how our parents brought us up. They say, ‘If you do bad, you go to jail!’ But when I went for the first time to the prison, it seemed like a nice community. There were people walking around, combing each other’s hair. My friends and I were with the police guard walking around. Then I saw a woman who was washing her clothes, and next to her there was a small baby playing. Here in our culture, if you see anyone’s child, you just go and grab it. So I took the baby. One of the security men said, ‘Don’t hold her,’ and I said, ‘Why, what is the reason?’ And he responded that the woman had killed her husband and she was really crazy. I gave the baby back. But, when I put the baby down, the baby tugged on my shawl, and I thought, she’s calling me. I felt that I should do something. And she gave me a big smile.
What happened next?
After that I went back to my family and told them that I wanted to do something for the children in prison, and my parents said no. They said I couldn’t do anything because I was 20 years old and I had to focus on taking care of myself. Yet my parents knew that from the time I was small, I was a very stubborn person. So after a week, I went back to the prison to see the baby. The mother had just killed her husband, and she was really depressed. I went to talk to the jailer and I told him that I wanted to do something for the baby. He said, ‘Pushpa, if you want to do something, you should come up with something new. You going inside the prison, there’s nothing new about it.’ He encouraged me to come up with a different idea, like a programme to get children out of the prison. The jailor was trying to [get rid of] me, but actually he was showing me the way. But I didn’t know how to start an organisation, so I got a couple of friends together and we collected around NPR 70,000 from family and friends. Within a month, I had finished registering the organisation.
What was the registration process like?
Well, I would go to the registration office and people would ask, ‘Who is the president of the organisation?’ And I would come from the back of crowd, raising my hand saying, ‘I’m the president!’ They used to make fun of us. They told me to my face that the organisation wouldn’t even last a year. But now when I go there they say, ‘I knew you were going to do something!’
We found a small flat with three rooms, and we made it very colourful – we made a beautiful place to bring the children. I went back to the jailer, and I said, ‘Sir, the place is ready, can you come and see?’ And when he came to see our place, he was so impressed, he said, ‘I would have never imagined that you would do this. Now it’s my responsibility to convince the mothers from the prison to let their children go to your place.’ In the end, the jailer had played a very important role to convince the mother to give me that first child.
Why are the children living there with the mothers in the first place? Why do they not go and live with their extended family?
In part, it’s because of the economy. Even if they have their grandparents, but the grandparents aren’t well off, they will say, ‘I can’t look after myself, how can I look after another child?’ If the family has money, the mother will never take the child into the prison. She will put them into a boarding school. I’ve also found that if a woman is in prison for the long-term, for twenty years, the father will not look after the children. He tries to avoid them.
Have you ever turned down a child? Has there been a child in a prison, and you don’t feel like you have the resources to take it?
Until now, I have always taken the children. In my eight years, there’s only been one time when I wasn’t able to rescue a child, and that was when the jailer of the prison couldn’t understand the work I was doing. He asked, ‘Why should I give the child to her? If anything happens, what’s going to happen to me?’ And I said, ‘You dumbhead, you should understand what I am trying to say.’ He didn’t understand child rights. You know, some people, it’s very difficult for them to understand.
Do the children maintain a fairly close relationship with their parents?
Yes, they do. Sometimes it hurts me because I always want to have them, but in reality, they have their parents, no matter how bad or how good they are. The relationship between the child and the parents has to be strong. That’s also the reason that we send the children back to the prisons on holidays, to keep the parents up-to-date as to what’s happening.
Do they see you as a mother? And how do they relate to their real mothers?
I think that in reality their mother has given birth to them, but I’m the person raising them, and I think they see me as a very strong woman. But they don’t know how weak I am in terms of the issue. I would not be able to bear all those problems that they have seen in their lives. When I was younger, if I would see my mother and father fighting, I would say, ‘What parents I have!’ I would always complain, and I’m sad about that.
Why do mothers bring their children to the prison?
For the women who have become depressed and who have killed their husbands, they don’t like to leave the children behind in the village. They are afraid that society and [their families] will no longer treat the child properly.
What are your goals and plans for the future?
Within ten years, I would like you to take an interview with not me, but my children. I want them to realise how the organisation has changed their lives, and then have the urge to change other people’s lives. Unlike me, they can really feel what it’s like to be the child of parents in prison.
Where do the women go when they are released from prison?
It depends on the case. With drug-dealing and smuggling cases, it’s not difficult for them to go back to their families. For those who have killed someone, it’s difficult. Most probably they stay in the city [Kathmandu]. If they are lucky, in prison they are hooked up with contacts, and they are able to find work that way.
After all the recent publicity, have you received a lot of attention?
I do get attention these days. The hardest part is people calling me at all hours of the night wanting to talk to me. But even with the publicity, I never try to act differently. Because mostly what happens out here, you know, I’ve seen people who, once they go up, they forgot where they come from. And I should never forget where I have come from.
Did you know that you had been nominated for this CNN award?
They sent me an email saying that they wanted to do a media interview, but when they said that you have been nominated for CNN, I was like, ‘Is this what’s happening?!’ When they told me, I think I was already in bed. CNN called and said, ‘Pushpa, you are a CNN Hero nominee.’ I think it was 3am, and I could not scream because it was in the middle of the night and people would think that I was crying. The next day I got up and told everyone. These days, I’m really getting nervous for the awards ceremony in Los Angeles. I can’t sleep at night. I keep on thinking, ‘Oh my god, what will you do on the stage, you won’t stand’! I’m so nervous!
~ Kristen Zipperer is an Editorial Assistant at Himal Southasian.