Providing help for women without roofs

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As Anna Townsend looked at the hungry little boy sitting on the floor, her mind turned to her own children.

When she moved to Nepal her son was just six months old and her daughter was conceived there.

But the lives her children can expect to lead have little in common with those that the kids from Nepalese families will experience. And as she’s met more of those children that’s really hit home.

As well as the boy who was so malnourished but wouldn’t eat, there was the young girl with the haunted look in her eyes and many others who’ve grown up calling a one-room house their home.

‘They reminded me of my own children and it was heartbreaking to see them in such miserable conditions,’ says Anna. ‘I sometimes think about my daughter because she was made in Nepal but it’s just the luck of her being ours and living here.’

While it’s Mount Everest and the great trekking opportunities in the Himalayas that usually take tourists to Nepal, it was an army posting that saw Anna, husband Simon and baby son Zach pack up and move 4,500 miles to the country’s capital city, Kathmandu.

As far as army postings go it was an amazing opportunity and a fantastic experience for them all.

And it’s the links she’s made with the women who live there – a lot of them mothers struggling to do the best they can for their children – that still bridges the gap between her and those she now helps.

Anna set up and still oversees Women Without Roofs – Nepal, a charity for single women. From the front room of her new home in Old Portsmouth she keeps in regular contact with the assistants who work on behalf of the charity there and also learns the personal stories of the 43 women it helps.

The 33-year-old is passionate about the work they do and spends a lot of her time talking about Women Without Roofs in order to encourage more sponsors to pledge their support.

But when the family moved to Kathmandu in 2004, she had no idea of where the journey would take her.

Simon was working with the British Gurkhas at the time and they joined a community of about 25 other personnel who had been posted there.

‘There were some families, some were single people and others had children,’ remembers Anna. ‘There was quite a mix of people.

‘There’s essentially a civil war going on and it was quite difficult. My son was only six months old. There were protests going on and strikes preventing transport. Although it was a fantastic posting it was really tough. We realised how people have to live there. There’s still no real stability which I don’t think we realised at the time. But it was fine for us. We were very spoilt and had people looking after us.’

She adds: ‘Kathmandu is pretty dirty but we were very lucky. We had five bedrooms, a garden, even a temple outside. It was amazing.

‘But we hated the fact that we were living like that and people outside in the streets had so little. The children are in rags and they’re right outside your gate.’

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a troubled history and a shaky political background.

In 2008 it became a republic but the years before – and after – have been blighted by civil unrest and upheaval.

When the Townsends moved there it was impossible not to see how difficult life was for the ordinary people who live in Nepal. And during their two years in the country, Anna got to see the conditions people lived in first-hand for herself.

‘It’s normal to live in just one room,’ explains Anna. ‘Our ladies have often got children so we try to find them two rooms but up until then they are usually sharing a double bed. It’s really crowded.

‘We also provide them with equipment that they might need because they are usually cooking on the floor.

‘One of our ladies was seven months pregnant when her husband died. We only come in when they are on their own. There’s no social security. In this country you get social housing but over there they get nothing.

‘That’s why we’re called Women Without Roofs. Some of the men have run off or died. Often they will leave if the woman gets leprosy because they think it is bad luck. It’s pretty awful.’

The charity pays the women’s rent, which is usually about £15 a month, plus the cost of medical help they might need. Operations can typically cost £150 and sponsors in this country give around £10 a month.

Anna found out about the women from a missionary called Eileen who was 80 when they met and had been supporting 10 women on her own. Those 10 women became the first to be taken under the charity’s wing – and it’s continued to grow since then.

‘Eileen was worried about the women if she died and she asked me to get involved,’ adds Anna. ‘We’re both Christians and initially I met the 10 women and I gradually found sponsors for them.

‘Eileen had an assistant who has now become my assistant and we expanded.

‘I’ve gradually found more sponsors and we’ve taken on these sewing and literacy courses and now opened a shop.

‘Initially we were paying their rent and medical costs and we’ve got over 40 women now and probably over 100 children.

‘It’s been steady growth, I think I would have been frightened if I knew how big it was going to get but we’ve done it at a pace that we can handle.’

Their aim is to get these women back on their feet. On one of the courses they learn how to use a sewing machine so they can make Nepalese dresses, kurtas. They make things the family can use at home, or things to sell, and it’s a skill for life.

‘We have a huge waiting list for the courses,’ says Anna. ‘Now we’ve got the shop and it gives them an outlet. The women are so grateful.’

Women don’t have to be Christians to receive help but are usually referred by pastors who have seen that they are in need.

Anna and Simon left in 2006 – expecting daughter Bethany. ‘You have to leave before you’re 28 weeks pregnant and I became pregnant,’ she adds. ‘The medical care isn’t up to scratch, we didn’t want to risk anything but the Nepalese have to put up with it.’

Women Without Roofs – Nepal was registered as a charity in 2006 and Zach, now seven, and Bethany, four, take an interest in what their mum does. Anna was able to go back on her own in May after a four-year gap.

‘When I left in 2006 Women Without Roofs had been up and running for a year but it wasn’t registered as a charity,’ she says.

‘I felt like I was going back as the person who runs the charity. I arrived in the middle of a strike and the transport was cut off from the airport.

‘The strike had been running for about a week and the ATMs had all run out of money. I managed to get on a bus taking tourists and got off in a place I knew and walked the last two miles carrying my bags.

‘When we lived there we weren’t allowed to walk in the hills. If we wanted to leave Kathmandu we had to fly. There’s a lot of unrest in the mountains.

‘I’ve always been interested in Asia, the cultures and that kind of thing. I’d been over to India when I was a student. I was happy to help, it was almost a relief. It’s fuelled the passion.’

She hopes to return with her family at some point this year. ‘I do feel quite passionate about what we do,’ she adds. ‘We are helping people. We do have things to share – not to make people feel bad about it – but it’s just about making people aware.

‘There’s a huge lack of awareness about how other people live. I think people don’t realise what challenges people there have.’

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