A 20-something year-old with resolute determination, Nasreen Sheikh does not know her birthdate or exact age. In her native southern India border with Nepal village, girls’ births are not officially recorded. Girls are the unacknowledged. From the moment of her birth, The society tells the rural girl child that her existence is insignificant. If one’s own birth does not matter, then the conditions in which she lives, works, strives, suffers, and dies also do not matter. At an early age, Nasreen came to believe “As girls, we are simply commodities that are bought and traded as such. We are not human beings.”
Growing up, Nasreen witnessed unconscionable atrocities against children and women. By age 9 or 10, her life seemed destined for the same oppressive path. She was working 12-15 hours per day in a Nepali sweatshop as a child laborer, receiving less than $2 per grueling shift — only if she completed the hundreds of garments demanded of her. Nasreen ate, slept, and toiled in a sweatshop workstation thesize of a prison cell. She recalls often picking sewing threads out of her food and being too afraid to look out of the window. Like all girls in her village, Nasreen was not allowed to go to school. By about age 21, Nasreen’s family had arranged a forced marriage for her. But through a serendipitous encounter with a kind stranger, who provided the only education she ever received — starting with how to read and write — Nasreen was able to seize her own destiny by escaping the sweatshop and forced marriage. She is the first, and only, girl from her village to refuse to be force-married. Around the age of 16, determined to empower disadvantaged women, Nasreen managed to secure a loan and founded Local Women’s Handicrafts (LWH), a Fair Trade sewing collective in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, the city in which she worked as a child laborer.
LWH is a social enterprise that empowers and educates disadvantaged women by providing a paid training program in design, sewing, weaving, embroidery, knitting, jewelry-making, pattern work, and quality control. To date, LWH has trained over 100 Nepali women — many of whom have escaped forced and abusive marriages and all of whom are determined to escape poverty. Nasreen’s seamstresses and artisans sew beautiful handicrafts each day and, in the process, sew pieces of themselves back together, too. Nasreen has also launched a powerful public health initiative. She and the LWH women have made and given away hundreds of biodegradable, antibacterial sanitary pads to rural women and girls who cannot afford basic hygienic supplies. Additionally, Nasreen has led body image and women’s health workshops in cramped rural schools and villages for those who often suffer in both silence and stigma.
Three other initiatives are also currently in operation through LWH. Her employees make backpacks out of hemp they grow themselves, then fill them with pencils, books, and art supplies and distribute them to children in rural villages. They also make reusable shopping bags that are distributed to stores, which in turn offer them to their customers as an alternative to plastic bags. And finally, LWH is known for its relief efforts in times of natural disasters. The LWH women are on the front lines distributing blankets, water, and other life-saving supplies to those whose homes and lives have been devastated. All of these materials — sanitary pads, backpacks, shopping bags, and relief supplies — are made possible through donations.
In 2015, Nasreen visited the US and founded the Empowerment Collective, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that envisions a world where women are leaders in their communities — in control of their own lives, their own rights, and their own decisions. The Empowerment Collective’s goal is to build 20 Women’s Empowerment Centers in 20 years. Resilient Her: Turning Trauma into Power is Nasreen’s brand that connects all of her core beliefs, initiatives, and goals under one umbrella. Although only 10 years ago she could barely read or write, Nasreen is now giving talks around the world about her work, the plight of child laborers, and survivors of forced marriage at large international conferences such as the Foreign Trade Association, World Vision, and Google.
Her work has been featured in Forbes, Cosmo, the Huffington Post, and Amnesty International. She’s also spoken at several women’s conferences and universities in multiple countries, and recently gave a TEDx Talk in Vail, Colorado. Nasreen’s petite stature belies her unstoppable drive and determination. She is the essence of “small but mighty,” firmly believing “We live in a globally connected world where every action affects others.” Millions of people have now heard Nasreen’s message, but millions more deserve, and need, to hear it: Oppressed women, and the men who love and support them as equals, need to speak out. To help spread that message worldwide, Nasreen is currently writing a book and a documentary about her life story is in production.