Sony Tamang really liked school. But at the age of 9, when she was in the fourth grade, she had to drop out. "We could not pay for her exam fee, admission fees, and school supplies," says her father, Jaman Singh Tamang, who had five other children to support. Instead, Sony was sent to the jungle with other women and girls of her village to collect firewood and cut grass to feed the cattle.
"She cried a lot over not having the chance to go to school," Jaman Singh says, "but she understood the poor financial situation of the family, so she did not complain."
The Tamangs live in Pokharichaur, a small village about 100 miles east of Kathmandu in the mountains of central Nepal. The people are very poor, and until recently, efforts at increasing literacy were not very successful. The demands of subsistence took precedence over the schoolroom.
After dropping out, Sony applied herself to helping her family survive.
"I was so fast at collecting grasses to feed the cattle," she says, "that I would always be ahead of the other women and girls. They used to say, 'We cannot compete with Sony.' Every day I used to collect four full-load grass bundles and then go to the labor works" (the notorious sweatshops that employ underage children throughout Asia). "I thought, ‘This is what my whole life is now.’"
By 2009 when TPRF inaugurated its second Food For People (FFP) program in Tasarpu, a neighboring village, Sony had been out of school for six years. Shubharda, the village's social mobilizer—a local official whose role is to help underprivileged families access basic services and opportunities—visited the Tamang family to explain the benefits of FFP. Sony remembers her encouraging words very well. "It's not too late for you," Shubharda said. "Go and get admitted to the school, and I will pay the admission fee for you."
Today, Sony, now 20, is studying to take the exam for her School Leaving Certificate (SLC). "If I pass," she says, "I want to continue my studies further and do some sort of social work or service-oriented work."
A 15-year-old brother and 10-year-old sister also attend school. Shyam Maya, Sony's mother, says she never realized how important it was for her children to be educated.
Her husband adds that since FFP began feeding his children, "my economic condition has improved a lot. When the children can have meals at FFP, that food is saved, and so we don't have to worry about having enough for the evening meal. And when we don't have to prepare meals for them in the morning, we can use that time to do other work and earn something. It has been a great help for us."
"Look at the faces of my children," Shyam Maya says. "They have become so healthy. When they used to eat at home, they did not get enough in quantity or variety, but now they always get rice, cereals and vegetables. Since they started eating at FFP, they have never been sick. It is so good."
"Had not FFP been there," Sony says, "I would have spent the rest of my life collecting grasses like my mother. I am so grateful to them!"