In conversation with… Bonneau, who left everything to empower Nepali women

Michelle Bonneau

Michelle Bonneau, a retired teacher and nun, has spent the last 13 years working with impoverished women and children in Nepal. In 2005, she founded the Inter-cultural Women’s Education Network (IWEN), now called Her International, which works to provide education and career opportunities to women and girls in Nepal. Bonneau recently stepped back from the organization. She shared her experience with the Daily Courier about the impression the Nepalese people made on her life, the work of Her International and being awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, the highest service award offered to civilians in Canada.

Bonneau shared that it was the spiritual calling that brought to her Nepal, and Nepal has left her in one of absolute bewilderment.

“I went as a tourist in 2001 and in 2004 it was an inner spiritual calling. The impression Nepal leaves on me is one of absolute bewilderment. The Nepalese are ingenious, tolerant, hard working and have all the graces and faults of most humans, but live in organized chaos. When you interact with them you feel hope-filled and most welcomed. It is a country where paradoxes meet and co-exist together,” she said.

In order to finance this trip and her stay in Nepal, she sold her home and most of her belongings, packed a suitcase, and left Canada without much prior knowledge of what she would do and how to achieve the goal of helping the education of Nepali females. In late October 2005, Michelle arrived in Nepal at the height of the Maoist insurgency.  Despite the political and social chaos that prevailed, Michelle managed to begin IWEN’s work in Nepal with some of the most disadvantaged women; bonded girls and mentally challenged women.

She said, ”Within me I have a knowing that a choice or decision is the direction I should go, then I follow that gut direction. All the major decisions and changes in my life have come from this inner calling which I call my God, and I am never disappointed, despite the fear that sometimes accompanies those changes.”

For over twelve years Michelle travelled back and forth from Nepal to Canada doing her best to support both the fledging IWEN society run completely by a working volunteer board and its counter-part Nepali partner Creating Possibilities-Nepal.  Michelle often said, “It is easy to start something, but a different story to keep it going.” According to her she started the Inter-cultural Women’s Education Network/Her International with an aim to empower the females through education and livelihood opportunities.

She said, “I am an educator and I was so touched by the horrid situation of female education I witnessed in 2001 that I wanted to do something about it upon my return to Kelowna in 2002. In rural Nepal and in poor families, males are given the chance for education first. The drop-out rate for females is higher than males and usually most females leave school around Grade 5, as soon as they start their menstrual cycle, because during this time they are considered impure. Girls are the workers of the family, taking on so many of their household chores, while males are often not so required. Girls in poor families are often married off early because a female goes to the husband’s family, so often daughters do not have the family support they need because their ability to help their family ends with their marriage.”

“Empowerment of females through education and livelihood opportunities, which in the end develops their village communities. The focus is holistic with the families and not project- based. Her International programs are long-term, working on the goal of self-reliance of all our beneficiaries in Canada and in Nepal”

“We have educational scholarships for girls in grades 1 to 12, and the mothers then join a support group where they learn life skills and are involved in micro-credit groups. Mothers come together and each brings a certain amount of rupees to each meeting. They decide amongst themselves who they will loan the money to and then that woman pays the group back. These groups have been paramount to a lot of women being able to start little businesses. We focus on problem solving with all the women.”

She says that the main issue the people in Nepal are facing is poverty.

“The Tharu ethnicity has historically faced discrimination due to government policies and lack of education. This group was enslaved within the Kamaiya system of bonded labor which was outlawed in 2000,” said said.

In 2017, Michelle was chosen as the recipient of the highest service award in Canada that is offered to civilians: The Meritorious Service Medal.

“This means to me that Her International has proven that a tiny society totally run by volunteers since 2005 can have a huge impact if the society is trustworthy and hard working. To me this award belongs to every volunteer that ever helped Inter-cultural Women’s Education Network/Her International in the past.”

She also recently launched a book entitled, ‘Her: The Tharu Women’s Journey to Freedom.’ The book is the story of the Tharu people – their culture and pride in who they are, their freedom from bonded labour and the success of the Tharu women who have been tremendously courageous in going from a life of slavery to becoming self-reliant.

She further said that she shall always be a support and mentor to Her International, if needed. “But I believe that a founder needs to step out of the way if a foundation is to grow and thrive. So the goal/mission is the empowerment of women through education and livelihood /community development, but where all Her International beneficiaries give back to Her International in some way. Her International works hard at not promoting dependency on the society,” she added.