A mother cradles her newborn in her arms, her voice gently trailing off the last lines of lullaby as she carefully places her sleeping child into a Butterfly Baby Box. It’s stuffed to the brim with various care items for both mother and child – ranging from warm clothes, bedding, mustard oil used for postnatal massages, nutritious food to a board programmed to shower the mother with congratulatory wishes.
This is no ordinary box, however. It is gifted to incarcerated mothers in jail, who have little to no way of providing these basic needs to nurture their children behind bars.
Under the law in Nepal, young children are allowed to reside with their mothers in prison until they reach age 5. Some mothers choose to keep their kids by their side – for fear that they may end up on the streets if relatives refuse to take them in.
Growing up in the confines of jail, these children often have little access to education, proper nutrition and medical care. It can also leave invisible psychological and emotional scars on their development – a brutal reality that is unseen and unheard to many locals.
Often, the perception is that these female inmates and their children are undeserving of a good life because of their crimes.
One Nepali woman has been fighting to change that.
For the last 16 years, Pushpa Basnet has been tirelessly running the Butterfly Home, a residential home that takes in children of incarcerated mothers, with the aim of giving them a chance to reach their potential.
Explaining the reason behind the name, Pushpa says, “Now, all the kids are like caterpillars. Nobody wants to touch them or give them things. But when they have a nice environment, they become a nice butterfly.”
“Every child is an individual who deserves respect from the people.”
A shot at a normal childhood
Pushpa was 21 years old when she visited Kalimati Women’s Prison, as part of a field trip. Back then, she was an social work undergraduate student at the prestigious St Xavier College in Kathmandu.
In the overcrowded prison, she noticed a little girl playing on the floor next to her mother. As the child tugged on the hem of Pushpa’s dress, she was struck by the overwhelming sense that she had to do something to help these innocent children living behind bars.
Together with a few friends and her sister, Pushpa raised funds to start her own non-profit organisation. In 2005, she opened the Early Childhood Development Centre to provide a day care program for the children, but realised that it was not enough.
She began to work with prison authorities in jails across urban and rural Nepal. By 2007, she created a residential home for children to live outside of prison and in her care all year round. To date, it has taken in over 220 children of incarcerated parents, providing housing, food, education, clothing and medical care.
Located on a hilltop near vast swathes of forest, away from congested Kathmandu, the Butterfly Home in Budhanilkantha is often mistaken for a resort, instead of a children’s home.
It takes in kids from as young as four months old, many with tragic and traumatic backstories. In one case, one mother tried to sell her child for organ harvesting to India, so she could use the money to purchase a mobile phone. Others grew up with alcoholic parents or their father had killed their mother.
When the children initially arrive from prison, they are restrained and quiet – some don’t even utter a word. Others arrive with lice-infested hair and gobble down the food as if they haven’t eaten for days, says Pushpa.
No matter how troubled their past, Pushpa believes in imbuing the place with tremendous empathy and warmth. The staff bathe the children, dress them in new clothes and help them with the transition. It takes a few weeks for the children to let their guard down, settle in and race around freely around the big playground – a far cry from when they could only play with mud or stone in prison.
“When they live in the Butterfly Home, they know that it’s not just their individual story, that they are the only one suffering… They know that there are other kids who have the same story as me,” says Pushpa.
Currently, about 45 children live in the Butterfly Home. Besides attending school nearby, the children pursue a wide range of extracurricular activities, from taekwondo, classical dance, guitar to art therapy. Here, the older children help care for younger ones and everyone shares the household chores.
Pushpa likens it to a large and loving family, where the children regard her as a second mother and affectionately call her “Mamu.”
Even though the children have found a new home, Pushpa makes it a point to help them continue to stay connected to their parents.
Each child has a photo of their mother hanging in the room and are encouraged to write and call their parents. They also arrange for prison visits during the school holidays, and in turn the mothers get the chance to see how their children have progressed and are thriving.
The sad reality is that there are some who can never be reconciled with their parents – those who are negligent or abusive.
Despite the stigma, Pushpa is conscious to portray these mothers – not necessarily as “bad” or “criminals” – but having ended up in prison as a result of difficult family circumstances, lack of education and choices in life.
“I’ve never told the kids that their parents are criminals… I tell them, ‘You need to respect your mother,” she explains.
Doing good for the community
Pushpa is eager to bring more support to more mothers and children still living in prison, through various prison outreach projects.
One main project involves supplying children with a balanced diet of daily meals, rice, beans and dietary supplements, especially as many tend to be malnourished. For example, the children get 1 litre of milk on a daily basis, which has been implemented in the Ilam, Jhapa, Chitwan and Salyan districts.
Another new project is a collaboration with Nepal government’s health insurance board to provide medical insurance to the children below 5 years living in prison with their mothers. Under the government scheme, the children are entitled to medical insurance of up to NRs 50,000 (US$500) a year.
Her most recent venture involves putting in place a formal vocational education system for mothers in prison, so they gain work-ready skills to help them integrate into the community after their release.
For her efforts, the social worker was awarded CNN Hero of the Year in 2012 and 2016. Using the grant money and film proceeds from the documentary ‘Waiting for Mamu’, she finally fulfilled her dream to buy land and build the Butterfly Home in a permanent location. Previously, they had been living in a rented three-storey building for a decade.
Unfortunately, just four months before construction was complete, the Butterfly Home was destroyed in the devastating 2015 Nepal earthquake, along with the temporary housing the children had been living in. They had to seek refuge in fields with makeshift tents.
Undeterred, Pushpa painstakingly raised funds to rebuild the home again. Today, the children stay at Butterfly Home until age 18 years, before going on to college for further studies.
Seeing them graduate has filled Pushpa with an extra sense of verve. Inspired by their progress, she recently took up a Masters in Technical Vocational Education Training, even squeezing in time for night classes after a long day of work. “I want to show my kids that nothing can stop you, if you chase after your dreams and go for it,” she says. In 2020, she graduated on the same day together with one of the children from Butterfly Home.
Reflecting on her incredible journey, Pushpa says, “I would like to tell people that everyone deserves to have a second chance, because they are going to come back into our society. And these kids are part of our family.”
“Looking back, it’s been 16 beautiful years and right now I feel blessed to be a mother to all these kids.”