Reversal of fortune: From child soldier to entrepreneurFeb 15, 2017
Although being a minor disqualified her from taking up the options available to other Maoist fighters following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Bindu’s return to a normal life and livelihood was paved with help from UNDP
When Bindu first joined the war, she was just 15. It had been at the height of the conflict in 2005 that she and several of her peers had left school to enter the ranks of Maoist rebels. Born into a poor Tharu family in a remote village in Bardiya, the decision had seemed natural to her at the time, even inevitable, given her serious lack of prospects.
The conflict would not last too long, though. Following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in November 2006, the peace process was formally initiated and the war became a thing of the past.
The transition, of course, brought its share of complexities for Bindu and thousands of her fellow-combatants: they were put under UN-monitored cantonments as part of the peace deal, and offered a choice between taking up a rehabilitation package worth up to $10,200 or being directly integrated into the national army. Out of a total 19,604 combatants registered by the UN, 1,460 opted to be integrated, and most of the rest elected to go home with the package. As a minor, however, Bindu was disqualified from either option.
“Being rejected was hard,” Bindu recalls today, shifting in the chair she is sitting in. “I felt left out.”
She wasn’t alone, however. There were over 4,000 other ex-fighters who were discharged from the cantonment in early 2010 after being verified as “minors” or “late recruits” (namely, those recruited after the ceasefire) by the UN team, and compelled to return to lives and communities that they had left behind years ago, with little to show for their time away except for deep-cutting memories of war and violence.
Adjusting to things back home was not easy for Bindu. “I kept thinking that I had given up my education, my family, my entire life, really, just to come back to this,” she says. “Those first few months were very difficult.”
Sometime later, there was a glimmer of hope. Bindu had kept an information sheet that had been given to her during her discharge, and one day, on a whim, she decided to call the number on the paper. “I just wanted to find out what they could do for us,” she says. The call connected her to the UN Interagency (UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF and ILO) Rehabilitation Programme (UNIRP) which was dedicated to supporting the transition of discharged minors and late recruits back to civilian life by providing them career counselling, training and education to access employment and livelihood opportunities.
“Me and a few other friends, we had to go to Nepalgunj for registration, and we decided to join one of the trainings,” Bindu says. The training she chose was on micro-enterprise development, followed by an advanced skills beautician’s training.
Things progressed swiftly thereafter. Bindu invested the initial Rs. 30,000 grant she had received after the training in setting up a shop in the town of Lalibazaar, and it quickly gained in popularity among locals, who came there to have their hair cut, their eyebrows trimmed and to avail of the various other services on offer.
To this day, traffic is steady at the shop—five to 10 people still come in per day—bringing Bindu an average income of Rs. 30,000 a month, enough, she says, to get by comfortably. “It covers all my daily expenses, my son’s schooling and there’s usually even some left over for savings,” she says. Presently married to a fellow ex-Maoist combatant she had met during the war, Bindu adds that she is also blessed to have a husband and in-laws who couldn’t have been more supportive.
Bindu has now started training other women at the shop, and hopes that the skills they gain will help them stand on their own feet, the way she herself learned to. “The last decade has brought such good things to my life, and I’m very grateful for it all,” she says.
UNIRP closed in 2013 after having successfully provided rehabilitation and livelihood support to over 3,000 ex-combatants like Bindu