Forced to flee war, Nepali women cycle out of poverty

Birendranagar (Nepal) (AFP) - At the break of dawn each day, dozens of women forced to flee their homes during Nepal's decade-long civil war load their bicycles with vegetables and head to market.

The bikes, donated by a foreign charity, have given these women in the Surkhet Valley independence and a livelihood, lifting many out of poverty.

Nandukala Basnet, who escaped her village at the height of the war, said her bike transformed her life.

"Life is very nice with the bicycle. If my bike breaks, I feel like my life is broken," the 33-year-old said.

The conflict between government forces and Maoist insurgents displaced thousands, mostly in the midwest where the violence was at its worst.

Basnet's village was in a Maoist stronghold but her husband was a soldier in the Nepali army, fostering suspicions about her allegiances.

When an insurgent camp was bombarded by a military helicopter, rumours spread that Basnet had revealed its location, sending rebels out after her.

Neighbours urged her to flee. She packed up her meagre belongings and left for Birendranagar, the main town in the Surkhet Valley.

"I struggled a lot after I moved here," she said.

"I had no property. I mined sand from the river for money and even hammered stones for a day."

She started selling vegetables but struggled to haul the 30 kilogram (66 pound) baskets to market. Some days she'd take less than 100 rupees ($0.90) home.

With the bicycle, her business has flourished. Basnet can now carry up to 100 kilograms of vegetables as well as sesame seeds and lentils, and can venture to markets further afield.

"This has become my permanent business," she said, counting out her day's earnings -- about 600 rupees -- and stashing it carefully inside her cardigan pocket.

The sight of women on bicycles has drawn mutters of disapproval in some conservative quarters of Nepal's deeply superstitious and patriarchal society.

Khagisara Regmi, who was widowed and left alone to raise her four children, said villagers hurled insults as she tried to master the bike.

"When I finally did, they said, 'Why is she learning to ride a bicycle, shouldn't she be ashamed?'" the 40-year-old told AFP.

Widows often face abuse and exclusion in Nepal, where they are believed to bring bad luck.

But with the help of her bicycle, Regmi has earned enough to put her children through school and replace the straw roof on her house with a sturdy tin one.

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