Editor’s note: In order to protect the identity of the Nepalese woman featured in this story, her name has been changed.
Last year, while traveling to source handmade goods in Nepal, Roger Ramsaur and his business partner, River Jensen, met a young woman who had built a small sewing collective in Nepal for women looking to build a new life of independence.
Shirisha Sharma, 23, came from a conservative border town between India and Nepal and was featured in a prominent national magazine last year as an up-and-coming inspiring woman in Nepal.
“The majority of the women in her collective come from dire circumstances and would otherwise be destitute in their culture. Shirisha takes these women in, teaches them the skills they need and gives them a way to be independent and support themselves,” said Ramsaur.
Ramsaur is the co-owner, along with Jensen and founder Indra Rizler, of Offerings, a grass roots wholesale distribution company with ties to Nevada County. Every six months, he and Jensen travel to countries like Indonesia, India and Nepal sourcing authentic cultural handicrafts and original designs for their business of 15 years.
These cottage industry goods are then sold all over the Western U.S. to small businesses like boutiques, natural food stores, yoga studios and bead shops. Retailers in Nevada County include Serendipity, Tribal Weaver and BriarPatch in Grass Valley and Asylum Down, Yoboba and Being Green in Nevada City.
Working with Kodi Fujji of Hold Your Color Clothing, the owners of Offerings have launched a campaign to raise awareness about women’s rights. In October, Sharma sought help from Offerings after she learned that her mother had arranged a marriage for her to take place in June.
“In the Muslim culture of her town, women are looked at as no more than objects of slavery and child rearing. To deny this type of arrangement brings shame to her entire family and sisters below her,” said Ramsaur.
Violence against women and girls is common in Nepal, where mental and physical abuse, kidnapping, rape, acid attacks and even murder are not unheard of, Ramsaur said.
“In reality nobody helps us, and we are scared to complain anymore, and we just become slaves,” Sharma said.
In January, after severe examples of gender violence caught the attention of international media, the United Nations released a statement on violence against women and girls in Nepal.
“Ending violence against women and girls deserves high political prioritization and sufficient public spending,” the UN statement read.
Through Offerings’ “People 2 People” program, Fujji and Sharma are working on a new line of clothing and bags.
Nearly $4,000 has been raised through a crowd-funding campaign to support Sharma. Many of those donations have come from Nevada County. After meeting numerous dead ends in efforts to help, the owners of Offerings and Hold Your Color Clothing say they are fundraising for a safe haven where Sharma can manage her business from afar until it is safe to return to Nepal.
“Because of the extensive and potential danger to (Sharma), we cannot say anything else about this plan, other than she is supported to leave and will be safe and untraceable by the network of Bihari Muslims that will most certainly try and find her once she is gone,” Ramsaur said.
Sharma first left home at age 12, to live with her brother in the city with the hopes she would not be forced to marry young, like the other girls in her small village. She pleaded with her brother to teach her embroidery and sewing so she would have skills needed to earn an income. Over time, the siblings purchased more machines and hired employees. Women began coming to Sharma looking for work and help.
Sharma learned English from a Westerner, who introduced her to computers and the Internet. She attempted to seek asylum from the U.S. Embassy, the Swedish Embassy and the United Kingdom Embassy, but was unsuccessful.
Ramsaur says a documentary following her story is in the works, with plans for a submission to the Nevada City Film Festival.
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“In reality nobody helps us and we are scared to complain anymore and we just become slaves.”