Child labor and sex trafficking are realities for some girls in Nepal. But the Rukmini Foundation in Pittsburgh is providing 10 girls in a village south of Kathmandu with an out: education.
"People know all about the negative things, but the culprit is really a lack of education," said Bibhuti Aryal, the foundation's president. "If we can educate them in the most important time in their life, we can head off some of these problems."
The fledgling foundation, inspired by the Aryal family's matriarch, Rukmini, recently celebrated its inaugural year and the first 10 girls for whom it will finance their last three years of school -- from books and uniforms to tuition.
Based in Pharping, Nepal, the foundation used connections with local community leaders and teachers to identify 13- and 14-year-old girls with the greatest need, said Mr. Aryal, 32, of Dormont, adding that the alternative for many would have been working or getting married.
"If we can keep them from being married by the time they are 18 that is a huge success in Nepal," he said. The foundation's website elaborates: More than 56 percent of Nepali girls are married before their American counterparts can vote.
But convincing the girls' families wasn't always easy, he said. Some took offense to the offer.
"When someone is making a suggestion on how you should raise your child, no parent is going to say, 'That's a great idea,' " Mr. Aryal explained.
Some of the girls' mothers had only ever known the life of a housewife or laborer.
"When we suggest their daughters can go on to be nurses or doctors, it's a radical thing," he said. "There was excitement, but there was hesitation."
With the help of those community leaders and teachers, 10 girls with dreams ranging from being a doctor to a social worker to an English teacher joined the foundation's inaugural class.
The foundation also aims to provide the girls with medical checkups and a support system of mentors -- older girls in the community who are students or have gone onto nontraditional occupations, such as teaching, nursing or other professional positions, according to its website.
Mr. Aryal's brother and fellow co-founder Nabin works on the project in Nepal and said by email, "We want people to understand that it is not merely sponsoring underprivileged girls, but it is a commitment to holistic development of the girls through quality education, health awareness and mentoring programs."
While it's hard to determine the program's impact in such a short amount of time, he said, "I think [the girls] are more vocal now and are more willing to learn things other than what the textbooks offer."
He told of one scholar's growth:
"Sarathi has a hearing difficulty, which has caused her to be discriminated against by students and as a result [she] is a very shy person. She had a huge fear of public speaking, but ever since we started our mentoring program, she has been much more vocal and active in group events," Nabin, 39, said.
Sarathi is 13 and without the foundation's support would have been expected to stay home to help care for her younger brother and the family's livestock.
"I would like to be a social worker in the future because I have a dream of helping poor boys and girls who are in the same situation as me," she said, according to the foundation's website.
Nepal's troubles weigh on the shoulders of the Aryal family.
The brothers' great-grandmother, Rukmini, had been married to a man in his 40s when she was only 8, Bibhuti Aryal said, adding she was "essentially given away to bear children."
But by 20, she had a son and was widowed. In a culture where a woman on her own hardly stood a chance, Rukmini successfully fought to keep her young family together.
"She instilled in my grandfather that education is important because no one can ever take that away from you," he said.
The importance of education trickled through Rukmini's family; Bibhuti and his three brothers all secured post-graduate degrees.
Bibhuti immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1989 and attended school in the region through his post-graduate work at Carnegie Mellon University.
"For our entire family there's a duty to do something. We are capable people living in the U.S. and had the great fortune to grow up here and have a fairly comfortable life," he said. "But we cannot rest on that. I have too many people there that I can help."
After securing residency in the U.S., he traveled back to Nepal for the first time in 2011, eliciting a "roller coaster of emotions."
His trip meant reuniting with family for the first time in 22 years. It also meant coming face-to-face with 6-year-old laborers and a thriving sex trafficking industry.
"Seeing those things in the first person really drove it home that I had to do something to help," he said.
The Rukmini Foundation is run by volunteers and supported by donations.
Typical donations are monetary and come from friends and families of people working for the foundation, although recently someone donated a Kindle.
This was a game-changer for the Nepali school, which lacked a library. The e-reader was loaded with hundreds of books and presented to the girls during the foundation's one-year celebration.
Bibhuti yearns to connect the Rukmini Foundation with other like-minded local foundations and to seek grants to meet the organization's needs as it grows.
The foundation's vice president Dennis Kremer of Gibsonia knows this class of girls is just the beginning -- but it's also a great success.
"For me, personally, helping 10 girls in and of itself is a success," he said. "Will I ever say we're done? No."
India, China, Africa and even the United States, could benefit from similar efforts, Bibhuti said.
"It's applicable anywhere [someone is] being discriminated against because of something you cannot control," he said. "When a child is born they cannot control their gender, and that shouldn't be the reason they can't go to school or achieve their goals."
Lexi Belculfine: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1316. Twitter: @LexiBelc.