The woman who gives a new lease of life to children of the incarceratedIn the last two decades, Indira Ranamagar’s organisation PA Nepal has provided more than 2,000 children of incarcerated parents with a safe environment to grow up in.
It’s 8:45 in the morning and Prisoner’s Assistance Nepal’s head office in Kathmandu’s Nayabazar is bustling with activity. In the office building, which also functions as a care home, young children are running up and down the stairs and getting ready for school. Outside, Indira Ranamagar, whom the children call Ama [mother], is trying to convince three-year-old Anamalika Rana to get ready for school.
Seeing Ranamagar focused on Rana upsets 17-month-old Yam Bahadur Tamang, who breaks into short spells of cries every now and then to get Ranamagar’s attention.
Ever since Ranamagar founded PA Nepal in 2000, her mornings have started in a similar fashion. She founded the organisation to make “Nepal’s prisons more human-friendly” and provide children like Anamalika and Yam Bahadur, whose parents are currently serving jail time, with a safe space to grow up.
Nepal’s law allows incarcerated mothers to bring their children below five years old to live with them in prisons. But the deplorable living conditions in prisons often mean the children are forced to grow up in an environment that is not child-friendly.
Since its establishment, PA Nepal has taken in more than 2,000 children of prisoners. Currently, there are 200 children living in 15 residential homes run by PA Nepal. The organisation also runs nutritional and personal hygiene programmes for incarcerated women, eight child daycare centres (three in prisons), two primary schools, and social reintegration programmes for women recently released from prisons, and also provides them with vocational training.
Born in a small village in Jhapa, Ranamagar, the youngest of eight children, grew up in poverty. Her parents, who were landless labourers, scraped a living by farming agricultural lands owned by landlords.
“We lived in a small hut with a leaking roof,” says Ranamagar. “Growing up, we didn’t have much, but that never stopped my parents from sharing what they had with others.”
As a result, the family’s tiny hut, says Ranamagar, would always be filled with guests—from relatives who had recently migrated to the plains from the hills to travellers passing via the village.
“It is from my parents that I learned the importance of generosity, honesty, and hard work,” says Ranamagar.
But one thing that Ranamagar didn’t agree with her parents was their disregard for educating the girls in the family. Like most uneducated parents from economically and socially marginalised communities back then, Ranamagar’s parents believed that school was only for boys. Her elder sister was married off at 13, and they wanted the same for Ranamagar. Both her elder brothers attended school.
But that didn’t dissuade Ranamagar, who longed to go to school, from learning how to read and write. She convinced her younger brother to homeschool her.
By the time Ranamagar got an opportunity to go to school out of sheer luck, she was already 10. A teacher from a nearby school had visited her home and was left impressed by her ability to read and write despite having never stepped into a classroom. He convinced Ranamagar’s parents to send her to school. Since Ranamagar could already read and write, the school allowed her to start from grade five.
“I was so happy to have finally gotten an opportunity to go to school,” says Ranamagar.
It didn’t matter to her that she then had to wake up early in the morning and finish all her household chores before leaving for school.
In her first year at school, Ranamagar, who took some time to get used to classroom etiquette, was ridiculed and made fun of by her classmates. Some villagers and teachers even objected to the school’s decision to allow Ranamagar to start schooling from grade five. When Ranamagar topped the class in her first year, she silenced her critics for good.
Ranamagar’s hard work, grit, and determination impressed many of her teachers.
One teacher who took a particular fondness for Ranamagar was Ganga Joshi, who would go on to play an important role in shaping Ranamagar into the woman she is today.
When Ranamagar reached grade 10, Joshi, who lived near the school, let Ranamagar live with her for a year so that she could focus on her grade 10 final exam.
“I never asked Joshi Miss to let me stay with her. She understood my family’s circumstances and voluntarily helped me,” says Ranamagar. “That kindness and empathy meant a lot to me back then, and it continues to dictate everything I do in life.”
Joshi Miss, says Ranamagar, was also someone who instilled in her the importance of leaving a positive impact on people’s lives.
After graduating from school, Ranamagar moved to Kathmandu for her higher studies in 1990. She was 19. For the first few months in the city, Ranamagar lived in a small, dingy and windowless room at Kumaripati in Lalitpur. To pay the bills, she took menial jobs and often went to bed hungry. When Ranamagar turned 20, she started teaching in what was then known as Amrit Primary School (currently Amrit Secondary Boarding School), at Mhepi, which was run by Sukanya Waiba, the younger sister of renowned writer and activist Parijat (Bishnu Kumari Waiba).
“It was while Indira taught at the school that she met Parijat didi for the first time,” says Sukanya, who is now 86. “Indira was this honest, hardworking, and fearless young girl, and didi really admired those qualities in her.”
When Parijat started the Prisoners’ Assistance Mission (PAM), an organisation that advocated for the basic human rights of Nepal’s political prisoners, Ranamagar joined as a volunteer.
“Didi would send Indira to deliver letters and reading materials to political prisoners locked up inside Kathmandu’s prisons,” says Sukanya. “Didi became very fond of Indira, and the two got along very well.”
The prison visits opened Ranamagar’s eyes to a whole new reality.
Back then, the country’s law allowed incarcerated women to bring their children below the age of three to live with them in prisons. Seeing young children living with their guardians in jails shocked Ranamagar.
“I used to think I was the most underprivileged person in the whole world. But once I started visiting prisons and saw the deplorable living conditions of incarcerated women and their children, I saw my own privilege with clarity,” says Ranamagar.
Apart from the poor living conditions inside prisons, another thing that bothered Ranamagar immensely was the uncertainty that shrouded the children’s lives once they crossed the age of three and had to leave the prisons. Having faced her own set of challenges in her childhood, Ranamagar strongly felt the need to do something to ensure that the children’s futures weren’t determined by their present circumstances.
Soon, Ranamagar started spending her free time and weekends in prisons teaching incarcerated women to read and write and assisting physically and mentally challenged prisoners needing medical care.
In 1992, when Ranamagar was on one of her regular visits to Kathmandu’s Nakkhu Jail, she was approached by two women prisoners.
“Both of these women were living with their children in prison. One had a daughter, and the other had a son. They pleaded with me to take their children away from prison and look after them. I couldn’t say no,” she says.
In 1995, she started working for a non-profit organisation that worked to better the living conditions of prisoners in Nepal. Her job at the organisation took her to prisons across the country and made her realise that deplorable prison conditions was a nationwide issue. The same year, she got engaged to a musician, and the following year, she became a mother. After a year of working at the non-profit, Ranamagar quit the organisation over professional differences.
“After quitting the non-profit, I continued working with PAM, which allowed me to continue working with prisoners,” says Ranamagar.
The year 2000 proved to be challenging for Ranamagar. She and her partner decided to part ways. But not the one to let setbacks deter her, Ranamagar started PA Nepal.
“By 2000, I had nine children, all of whose guardians were serving time in jail, living with me. That year, a person who frequently donated to PAM gave me Rs 42,000 and asked me to use the money to cover my living expenses. With that money, I started PA Nepal,” says Ranamagar.
Within a year, by 2001, Ranamagar’s PA Nepal was raising 130 children of incarcerated people.
In the last two decades, PA Nepal has provided more than 2,000 children of incarcerated people a safe home to grow up in, according to Ranamagar.
“I am fortunate to have met many people who have not only believed in my work but have also offered support,” says Ranamagar.
One such early supporter of PA Nepal is Raju Shrestha, a tourism entrepreneur and the founder/owner of Nepali Ghar, a luxury boutique hotel in Thamel. Shrestha first met Ranamagar 20 years ago.
“The first time I visited her organisation, I was very impressed with how she took such good care of the children,” says Shrestha. “In these two decades, I have seen her dedication and honesty towards her work and my respect and admiration for her has only grown.”
Over the years, Ranamagar has received awards and recognitions from across the globe. In 2005, she became an Ashoka Fellow, and in 2014, she was awarded the World’s Children’s Prize Honorary Award, also widely regarded as the Children’s Nobel Prize, by the World’s Children’s Prize Foundation. In 2017, she was named by the BBC as one of the world’s 100 influential and inspirational women.
“The fame and recognition Indira has received over the years has not changed her as a person. She is still the same fearless, straightforward, and kind person she was when I first met her three decades ago,” says Sukanya.
Having worked closely with incarcerated people and their children for more decades, Ranamagar says Nepal’s citizenship laws are the biggest hurdle many of the organisation’s children face.
“There are many children here at PA Nepal whose fathers’ identity is unknown. There are also children whose guardians, after being freed from prison, have abandoned them,” says Ranamagar. “Under the country’s existing laws, these children are not eligible to get citizenship, and without citizenship, they face hurdles in almost everything they do. The government can and has to do better.”
When asked what keeps her going, Ranamagar, without even thinking, says it’s the children.
“My children make me feel loved and needed, and as a human being, isn’t that all that we look for?” says Ranamagar. “To be able to make a positive difference and to feel loved and needed.”