Helen Eager is well past retirement age and could be forgiven for putting her feet up and enjoying her retirement years in Australia. Yet this remarkable woman has, for more than three decades, been fighting for a better life for society’s most vulnerable in India, Nepal and Bangladesh—children like Yuvraj, who “Mummy Eager” affectionately refers to as “my small boy”.
Yuvraj was only 15 months old when he and his infant brother, Sitesh*, were locked up in a Nepalese prison with their 24-year-old mother. She was charged with the murder of her mother-in-law and given a 20-year sentence.
Yuvraj had already spent one year of his young life in prison when he came to Helen’s attention. His mother was trying to breastfeed her malnourished sons but due to an inadequate diet and lack of medication was rapidly deteriorating in health. Yuvraj was a mischievous child who loved to wear Helen’s sandals and receive her hugs when she visited.
By agreement with his young mother and the prison authorities, Helen placed Yuvraj in one of the 3 Angels Nepal (3AN) children’s homes where he quickly settled down and made friends with the other children.
A high percentage of female prisoners in Nepal are incarcerated on the Rule of Garbhabat (destruction of life). This rule includes infanticide, stillbirth, natural or induced abortion, or abandonment in an attempt to bring about death. The offence inevitably incurs a 20-year prison term. There are only two options for incarcerated women in Nepal—take their children into prison or leave them to try and survive on the streets.
Life for Nepali women can be difficult even under normal day-to-day situations. Nepalese culture tends to favour males. This, linked to an active caste system and high illiteracy, often results in the underprivileged being incarcerated without legal aid or early trial.
And prison is no place for a child. Not only harsh and demeaning, it's dangerous to mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. While conditions vary across prisons in Nepal, they are not luxurious by any stretch. Freezing temperatures in winter and stifling heat in summer are climactic norms. Some Nepalese prisons provide only one cold water source—used for drinking water, cooking, personal washing and laundering. In summer, water supplies may be limited due to increased demand as tourists flock to the cities and towns. Fetid toilets drain into open sewers. Food is limited to a daily ration of 250 grams of rice per adult plus 10 rupees for whatever else the prisoner requires. Even the rice is of second-grade quality and contains extraneous material, which must be removed to make it useable. Soap is a luxury few prisoners can afford and so they live with scabies, lice and fleas. Sewer-bred rats share their facilities and mosquitoes suck their blood.
No bedding or clothing is provided to a prisoner for the first 18 months with the exception of a jute mat on which to sleep. If children accompany the parent into prison, that mat becomes a family sleeping item. Prisoners are locked up in overcrowded cells each night—cells which often have either no toilet or just one open hole in the concrete floor. No running water is available during the night hours, making it hard for mothers whose children may have soiled themselves.
When Helen Eager moved to Pokhara in 2011 and began working with 3AN—headed by Rajendra Gautam and his wife, Sarah—she quickly identified the problems in Nepal’s prisons. At first it seemed to be an impossible task but Helen persisted, devoting her personal means and energy into opening up the prisons to the Gospel. Now, having gained access to 21 of the 73 Nepalese prisons, Helen leads out in this ministry, taking soap, blankets, Bibles, Christian literature and fresh fruit to the prisoners. Having won the confidence of the mothers, Helen is able, with their agreement, to take children like Yuvraj and place them in 3AN children’s homes where they are lovingly cared for, educated and happily listen to the Gospel.*
Yet, in the midst of this happiness, disaster struck. One day Yuvraj, being an adventurous child, while peering over the first-floor balcony, slipped and landed on his head on the concrete below. He was rushed to hospital with the expectation he would not survive.
Yuvraj in hospital after his accident
Frantically, Helen pled with 3AN’s prayer partners around the world to pray for “her little boy”. God was gracious and Yuvraj has made an amazing recovery.
He’s still a little unsteady on his feet when he runs, but surrounded by love and encouraged by many hugs, he thrives in his life outside the prison.
He was particularly delighted when Janisha, a playmate from the prison, was later also brought to the children’s homes. The two children were like brother and sister but it took a few moments for Janisha to recognise Yuvraj due to a haircut, a general clean-up and the wholesome food he’d been eating. Now they are inseparable at school and Sabbath School.
But best of all, Yuvraj has learned to love Jesus. He loves to sing songs he has learned in Sabbath School and also to lead out in worships. Yuvraj’s mother, while in prison, has also learned to love Jesus. She enjoys contact with her son from time to time and receives photographs showing his growth and happiness.
Yuvraj is one of an increasing number of children being rescued from Nepalese prisons by 3AN and placed into children’s homes where they are lovingly cared for and educated for this life and taught of a life to come. It's a ministry that gives much joy and satisfaction to “Mummy Eager”.
Helen Eager with some of the children
3 Angels Nepal is a partner organisation of Asian Aid. They are one of a number of non-government organisations involved in rescuing children from Nepalese prisons.
*Names of the other children in this story have been changed to protect their identity.
Ross Goldstone is a retired pastor and sessional lecturer at Avondale College, who writes from Cooranbong, NSW. He's currently working on a book about Helen Eager and Asian Aid.