Kathryn shares her eye-opening volunteering experience in Nepal

Kathryn's host family pictured on Host Day included are Kathryn, host mum Suja and fellow team members
Kathryn's host family pictured on Host Day included are Kathryn, host mum Suja and fellow team members

A young Dromara resident, who spent 12 weeks working on a project fighting poverty in Nepal, is now calling on other young people to take the plunge and consider volunteering overseas.

Kathryn Cowan, 22, travelled to Nepal in February 2019 with international development organisation Raleigh International, as part of the UK government funded International Citizen Service (ICS) programme, where she worked alongside young volunteers from Nepal and the UK.

Kathryn and her team

Kathryn and her team

She lived with a local host family so that she was fully immersed into the community and could gain a better understanding of the challenges people there face.

ICS volunteers, aged 18-25, work on long-term projects that seek to end poverty in some of the poorest countries in the world. The scheme offers young people the chance to gain valuable new skills while working on projects that make a genuine difference to the people and communities they are supporting. Those aged 23-35 can apply to be ICS team leaders.

Kathryn said: “After some time settling in, the main challenge that my team became aware of was that the rural community members were unable to grow off-season crops, thereby limiting their income opportunities at certain times of the year. Additionally, we encountered was that of the aging population in villages, which was largely due to most youths not believing they can make a decent wage at home, and therefore seeking work in the capital city, Kathmandu, or abroad. This results in damaging repercussions for Nepal’s economy.

“One of our beneficiaries, Samsher Bahadur Thapa, described the problem to us: “Job opportunities, especially for young people, are scarce in this community. Although some youth were able to find work immediately after the earthquake, reconstructing and renovating houses that were damaged, now that all the construction work is finished, they face the same problem of limited job opportunities again.

Kathryn pictured on International Women's Day with a friend

Kathryn pictured on International Women's Day with a friend

“Unemployment is also a problem for young people who are educated. They work hard for their success but get nowhere once they have left school. They are doing everything but getting nothing back.

“To rectify this issue, Raleigh tasked us with facilitating the building of polytunnels - 12m x 5m x 3m bamboo structures with plastic roofing - used to grow off-season crops such as tomatoes. Once built, the polytunnel beneficiary needs to nurture their tomatoes so that they are good enough to sell. The off-season crops, alongside seasonal crops, give a good source of income all year round so the farmers won’t have to rely on their children or family, sending money home from afar.

“The best parts about my placement were being completely immersed in Nepali life. I lived with my loving host family in a two room house, where every day we woke at sunrise to a view of the Himalayas and hearty dal bhat breakfast, a traditional meal consisting of steamed rice and cooked lentil soup. Furthermore, I am very grateful for the lasting friendships I made with my Nepali team members.

“Even though we have been raised on completely different traditions and values we were so similar and united in our goal to create a positive and lasting change. One of my favourite memories from collaborating with our community was celebrating International Women’s Day. The event was a rousing success with almost all the village women in attendance, enthused and impassioned about womanhood and equality. The events proceeded with a rally around the village with banners supporting equality and chanting empowering messages with the women from the village proudly wearing their local costume. This was followed by singing, dancing and the reading of speeches and poetry especially written for the event. It was a really beautiful day that inspired volunteers to see the change and motivation that they could bring to the community and brought everyone involved closer together. “

Upon their return to the UK, all ICS volunteers undertake an ‘Action At Home’ project, ensuring that their new skills also benefit their local communities. More than 15,000 young people from the UK have participated on the programme since 2011.

Kathryn explained: “While in the community my team would weekly set aside time to discuss Active Global Citizenship, covering issues such as democracy, deforestation, and poverty.

“One week the topic was Human Rights which led to a discussion on the work still needed to implement these globally. My team was shocked to learn that because I resided in Northern Ireland under law women, transgender and non-binary people weren’t entitled to access Abortion healthcare in almost every circumstance unlike the rest of the UK and Nepal. This inspired me on my return home to lobby my local MLA, Health Minister and the Prime Minister demanding that the Northern Ireland Abortion Laws be reformed. Since then Abortion has been decriminalized in Northern Ireland and regulations are being put in place to deliver treatment across the country from Spring 2020. Despite it remaining a controversial issue in Northern Ireland, I am proud to think that this small act alongside thousands of other tireless campaigners helped to make these Human Rights a reality.

“Through ICS I gained more transferable skills, incredible memories as well as a greater understanding and passion for sustainable development. My placement has since inspired me to return next year to an overseas placement, this time as an ICS team leader and I’d highly encourage anyone reading who falls into the 18 – 35 age bracket to set aside time to take on this experience or something similar. When asked how the project had affected his life over the past three months.” Nirdeshan Bahadur Thapa, a prominent youth in our Nepali community added: “Before Raleigh came to Sayemure, I was planning to go to the Middle East to try and find work there. However, the project has shown me that if I work hard here and invest my energy into off-season farming, then I can earn a decent living and be successful. This example clearly illustrates how Raleigh’s work in Nepal is creating meaningful and lasting change.”

ICS is funded by UK aid, so young people don’t need cash, qualifications or work experience to take part, just the desire to make a difference to the lives of some of the world’s poorest communities. Before she left for Nepal, Kathryn raised £800 for Raleigh International, which will ensure that communities in developing countries can continue to benefit from the work of volunteers.

Felicity Morgan, Director of ICS at VSO, said: “It’s really inspiring to hear about the fantastic work Kathryn did on placement. We’re incredibly proud that UK aid is supporting young Brits to bring about positive change in some of the world’s poorest communities. As an organisation working on the frontline against poverty, VSO sees how people across Britain play an important role in delivering UK aid. From the NHS and Army helping end the Ebola crisis, to the millions who generously donate, and the contribution we all make through taxes, together we are all making the world a fairer, safer place.”

To find out more about ICS or to apply, visit www.volunteerics.org.