Sonu’s Story: Beyond the Statistics

buildOn’s Vice President of International Programs, Rosann Jager, runs buildOn’s global school building programs. She recently traveled to Nepal where she captured this heartbreaking but hopeful story that gives an authentic face to the hard-to-grasp statistics of global illiteracy. This International Women’s Day and throughout March, buildOn is sharing stories like this one that demonstrate the importance of educating and empowering women.

The numbers are staggering – 31 million girls of primary school age are not in school. Of those girls, 17 million are expected to never enter a school. The consequences of this are huge and they are not limited to girls and women.

However shocking these number may be, they also run the risk of failing to connect us to the problem. It would probably take you half a year to even count to 31 million. How could you really understand the gravity of this many girls who are deprived the basic human right of primary education if you can’t even really comprehend the number? Instead of numbers, I would like to connect you to just one woman whose lack of education has left her extremely vulnerable.

Last month I met a young woman in the Far Western region of Nepal named Sonu Sarki. Sonu is unsure of her own age but I estimate her to be around 18 years old. She is a Dalit, which is the untouchable caste in Nepal. She has never been to school. Instead she worked as a child laborer doing domestic work at the age of 9. When speaking to her, it became clear that she hasn’t mastered one language completely. Instead, she mixes Nepali, Hindi, and another language used in the hilly areas to communicate. In just the last six months, Sonu has almost lost her life twice. The reason? She is extremely vulnerable due to her complete lack of education. Last year, a man tricked her into agreeing to marry him and she left with him for India for the ceremony. Along the way, an organization specializing in human trafficking intercepted them at the border and the man’s intentions of selling her as a sex slave surfaced. Sonu herself understands, “If I was educated, no one would be able to cheat me.” You see, without any education Sonu was not able to critically evaluate the man’s intentions. She trusted him blindly.

After being intercepted at the border, Sonu had nowhere to go but to the home of the trafficker who promised to marry her. Without education, she is dependent on men (either a father, brother, or a husband) to provide for her. First, her lack of education left her vulnerable to believing the trafficker’s lies. Next, it forced her to stay with his family since she had no way to support herself. It was at his family’s house that she almost lost her life again. The trafficker beat her regularly and then one day he tied her arms and legs and was about to drown her in a nearby river when his brother stopped him. After the rescue, Sonu continued to suffer both physical and mental abuse. She overheard the trafficker’s family making plans again to sell her in India and she finally ran away to the village of Shanti Katan in the Far Western Region of Nepal.

This is where I met Sonu. I was there to break ground on buildOn’s 744th school worldwide. Sonu and thousands of women, who have been deprived of education are partnering with buildOn in seven different countries to build schools in their villages. The women are full partners in the projects. They, alongside the men in the community, sign a covenant agreeing to send their girls to school. They serve on Project Leadership Committees to drive the school construction projects. They break gender barriers by doing “men’s job” like mixing cement to help build the schools for both their sons and daughters. In buildOn adult literacy programs they are not only learning to read and write, they are starting small businesses and gaining independence. They are beginning to control their own lives and are a driving force in the development of their villages. They are decreasing their dependency on men and they are educating their daughters so that they are never in this situation. With the help of buildOn, Sonu is now one of these women who is being empowered to change her own life, the lives of her children, and her village.

Pictured Below: Sonu and a buildOn student from New York City work together to construct the new school in Shanti Katan, Nepal. Access to education will help ensure none of the village’s girls have to endure what Sonu did.