It’s no secret that many of us fear getting older; the idea of retirement often conjures up negative connotations – people become fearful and worry about things such as ill health or being alone.
What if we turned that on its head and saw it as a chunk of free time where you could do something brilliant and inspiring; perhaps an opportunity to really change the world and make it a better place than it was before you came along? The satisfaction of a life well-lived must be one of the most wonderful and comforting feelings imaginable.
Olga Murray is a 90 year-old Californian who saw retiring from her job as a lawyer as a positive time.
Indeed, she has gone on to save 20,000 girls in Nepal from slavery and, educate and empower them to help others facing the same plight. Over the past thirty years Olga has educated over 40,000 Nepalese children and encouraged them to go on to have careers, rather than marry young and become teenage brides who can’t read or write.
Incredibly, she did all this with the gift of a piglet.
“I was almost sixty and trekking in Nepal,” Olga tells Lumity. “I was thinking about what I wanted to do after retirement. I knew I wanted to help children in some way; I was a lawyer and thought perhaps I would advocate for juveniles, something like that. I trekked up a hill and at the top in a hut I saw three little girls sitting on a dirt floor, using a wooden board as a desk. They were doing schoolwork and I could tell that they really wanted to learn. They had next to nothing, no money or belongings, but they were so joyful and happy. You see children in the West with so much more when it comes to owning material things and yet these kids were just delighted that they had the opportunity to learn.
“I spoke to their father and he was so proud that his children were getting an education. They were getting up and trekking for two hours every day up to this hut to learn. I went back to my tent and once I was in my sleeping bag that night I knew what I wanted to do. It was an idea which hit me like a strike of lightning; I would help these children in Nepal and educate them.”
After having this flash of inspiration, Olga started the non-profit Nepal Youth Foundation in 1990 and partnered with carefully chosen local people who knew the problems and where any money raised would be best invested. One of these was Murray’s Nepalese partner, Mr. Paneru, who went to villages and told fathers, “We want to educate your children, and we’ll make it worth your while.”
Olga explains: “We found out that girls, some as young as six or eight, were being sold by their fathers to go and work as slaves – it was a practice known as ‘bonding’ and, once bonded, these girls would have to leave home and live with and work for strangers.
“It was a real problem because they were being sent to families that were very far away from their homes and the villages they had grown up in and they were sleeping under the stairs or in a corner of the house they were working in – somewhere cramped.
“Often they were beaten and sexually abused. When they were sixteen or seventeen they were sent back home to their families in their villages. It was a real problem. They didn’t know their families by then and had become strangers; plus they’d suddenly be a financial burden – another mouth to feed and support. They were uneducated and of course then it was hard for them to get work. Often they were married off in hastily arranged marriages so they’d end up not only uneducated but trapped in often loveless marriages with several children while they were still in their teens.”
Olga and her partners in Nepal discovered that this was a practice of bonding young girls that had been going on for at least three generations and was widespread:
Olga explains: “We went to the fathers and said, ‘Why did you do this?’. Many of them thought there was nothing wrong with it, because everyone else was doing it so it was not seen as a big deal. They were getting roughly 50 american dollars per year in exchange for their daughters working as bonds. So we said, ‘what if we gave you a gift of a piglet? You could raise it yourself and sell it at the end of the year and get more than you were getting for your daughter and we will educate your daughter if you let her stay here’. They agreed that they’d be happy with that so that’s what we did.
“Out in far-flung villages a lot of the farmers had VHF radios back then. So we got girls who had been freed from their bonds to go on local radio and tell their horrific stories of abuse.
“Every year there’s a festival and all the bonded girls are allowed to go home on that one day. So that was when we’d get their fathers to agree to not let them go back, in exchange for the piglet. With their daughters properly educated, they’ve been able to go on and get decent careers and provide for their families so it has really made a difference to their lives.
“The girls themselves became active and fierce opponents of this practice and once freed, it empowered them and they got together and formed their own NGO,” says Olga. “We brought them to Kathmandu and they took part in street plays, marches and awareness campaigns.
“Another thing that was happening was young girls were being married off very young, so they wouldn’t be a financial burden on their families. We did an anti young marriage campaign and showed people that education and having a career were the more attractive option. The girls do literacy and number programmes as well as vocational training.
“It’s wonderful because they have really taken this idea and ran.”
Over fourteen years Olga and her team freed between 18-20,000 local children from slavery – almost eradicating the practice entirely – and enabled them to stay and be raised with their families. In 2009, the Nepalese Parliament provided $1.6 million for the education of girls liberated from bonded labour. And, following a petition filed by Mr. Paneru with the Supreme Court of Nepal; the government agreed that it’s a practice which is illegal. But they need donations to continue the fantastic legacy which Olga started.
Olga continues: “I live in California but go out to Nepal every year. I am going in September. If you have been touched by this story there are ways you can help. What I would say to people is that in Nepal just a few dollars goes a very long way. For the price of a meal in London or New York you could make a big difference to the lives of children in Nepal.
“There’s still work to do; we think there’s another 2000 girls left who are bonded that we haven’t been able to find. I’ve written a book which you can buy, or you can donate through the website.”
Olga has never taken a salary and is the only non-Nepalese working with NYF in Nepal. NYF’s nutrition programs have brought 10,000 mothers and malnourished children to be restored to health and then educated. (NYF also provides advocacy, management, and legal training.)
The older girls have started lending programs, co-operatives, and their own businesses through their NGO, so Olga has been a real agent for change over the past thirty years since she first met those children in the hut whilst out trekking. She has won numerous awards and accolades – all of which are richly deserved.
For more information and to visit the Nepal Youth Foundation website click here and to buy Olga’s book and be inspired by her incredible story, click here.
Watch Olga’s brilliantly inspiring TED talk below.