by Tracy Ross
To get to Her Farm, begin your trek on a cracked road in the belly of a vast Nepali valley, where the dirt is the richest treasure for miles. After debarking the public bus two hours north of Kathmandu, your path threads along raised beds of potatoes, cabbage, and rice. Then it tilts to a 30-degree pitch. Depending on the weight of your pack, you’ll feel your knees for another hour before the climb slackens to a two-track road heading north. Continue walking until you hear women laughing.
Her Farm is the low-roofed house overlooking the lush green valley before you. The women, some 20 or so, include the abused, untouchable, and banished, who now live, work, and take refuge in the only women-run farm of its kind in the country.
Sitting amid them, laughing as she shucks corn, is the 38-year-old cofounder of Her Farm, Sunita Sharma MacLennan. Born into a Hindu family, Sunita’s father shunned her for the crime of being female. In Sunita’s childhood there was little comfort, food, or joy. In puberty, she was shipped away in a prearranged marriage. Her husband abused her. Sunita gave birth to two kids, and nearly succumbed to the number one cause of death among childbearing women in Nepal, suicide. According to The Borgen Project, a nonprofit that studies hunger and poverty in developing countries, 86 percent of Nepali women are unsafe where they reside, suffering from domestic violence, beatings, and, “even more common,” acid burning. Based on the same report, a startling 91 percent of women killed in Nepal were murdered by someone familiar to them.
Refusing to take her own life, in 2007, Sunita took her two kids and divorced her husband. Soon after, she found work as an actress traveling the countryside educating villagers about the government. That’s how an American, Scott MacLennan, a real estate agent from Albuquerque who was running several medical camps in Nepal, first saw her. “It was love at first sight,” he says.
“Not for her, though. She was done with men,” he says. Eventually, though, they fell in love and married. While driving through the hill country one day, Sunita told Scott that she wanted to start a farm for women who’d suffered domestic violence. That would sound attainable in the U.S., but in Nepal it’s unthinkable that a woman could ever own land. Undeterred, in 2012, Sunita purchased 15 acres atop that punishing 1,500-vertical-foot climb.
Some of the young women came to her from referrals; others arrived from a Kathmandu mental health hospital that serves victims of domestic violence. Some came alone, others with children. The women cook, keep house, farm, construct new buildings, and teach in a new schoolhouse that serves 40 local children. More recently, Scott and Sunita have embarked on an ambitious project meant to empower more Nepali women. They’re calling the venture Her Farm Films, and in it women are learning photography, videography, and editing by interviewing other Nepali women.
“Nepali culture doesn’t provide many paths for a woman to express herself as an individual,” says Scott. “Self expression isn’t encouraged, and art certainly isn’t typically available. But many of our women come from physical abuse and sexual abuse, both of which can lead to PTSD.” The idea is that artistic expression helps.
And on a broader cultural level he adds: “You and I come from a world of photographs. I bet you had school photos, yearbook photos, and photos of family gatherings to make yourself feel rooted. Here in Nepal, people have nothing but their memories. There’s no way to convey the joy that they’ve created. And a lot of Nepali women need a lot more joy in their lives.”
From our Gallery 2016 issue.