Mai Mukaida, 32, believes that emotional change often comes with the help of others who encourage one to notice the beauty that lies within.
In Nepal, where she helps women in dire situations get their troubled lives back on track, Mukaida noticed that for many women, dressing up or applying makeup enabled them to not only enhance their beauty, but also mend their shattered hearts.
Citing statistics from nongovernmental organizations, Mukaida said 5,000 to 20,000 girls and women are believed to be sold to India and neighboring countries every year, mostly to serve as sex slaves.
Most of the victims eventually suffer from trauma that erodes their confidence, she added.
In 2009, Mukaida started the Coffret Project, the name for which derives from the French word for “beauty box.”
The project’s aim is to provide mental health care by teaching girls and women to build their confidence through the use of makeup and beauty products.
The cosmetics Mukaida used to start the project were initially collected from friends or donated by women who attended events where she sought help and cooperation, as well as from cosmetics companies.
For the past six years, Mukaida has been organizing Coffret Project sessions three times a month for women living in shelters in Katmandu. She recently started holding workshops in Dhangadhi, on India’s border with western Nepal, where girls are sold as domestic servants. Even though the system was abolished in 2002, it was not acknowledged locally and continued until recent years.
Since the project was launched, more than 1,500 girls have participated in the workshops.
Mukaida learned about the situation in Nepal at the age of 15 when she attended a lecture by Ryohei Takatsu, who, at that time, ran a nongovernmental organization that provided aid for improving literacy in Nepal. Today, the country’s literacy rate is said to hover at around 20 percent, she said.
Inspired by his speech, as a 17-year-old high school student she visited Nepal to help Takatsu conduct various literacy programs by volunteering at hospitals or helping to translate children’s books into English, she recalled.
During fieldwork she later conducted in Turkey and other countries in the region while enrolled in Keio University, she noticed that victims of human trafficking who were subjected to sexual exploitation needed much more than humanitarian aid.
“When asked what were they dreaming of, many responded that they wanted to dress up or put on makeup,” she said, recalling her six-month stay in Turkey.
When the massive offshore earthquake rocked Tohoku in March 2011, where she grew up, Mukaida organized workshops similar to those in Nepal for about six months and provided help and care to people in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, and in Fukushima.
Her grandmother’s house in Miyagi Prefecture was in an area that took severe damage from the subsequent tsunami, and Mukaida helped the victims while assisting her family at the same time.
Along with the Coffret Project, Mukaida launched another program to help women gain basic skills in cosmetology, using textbooks provided by a Japanese beauty school. The textbooks have been translated into English and Nepali.
After a training period of six months, Mukaida tried to help a group of 15 Nepalese living in a shelter find jobs at beauty parlors in Katmandu.
But since kinship and other social connections are decisive in accessing jobs in Nepal, she said, “for girls who are sold by their families (and) thus are separated from their parents, finding a job was nearly impossible.
“Although they had superior skills compared with other Nepalese women and were familiar with various aspects regarding the Japanese approach to makeup and beauty techniques, it will always be an uphill battle for them as connections are more powerful.”
That was what led Mukaida to seek ways to provide Nepalese women with an opportunity to utilize their skills “so that they could earn money by themselves.”
In May 2013, after about two years of research and study, Mukaida established a cosmetics company called Lalitpur.
In Sanskrit, Lalitpur means “city of beauty.”
The cosmetics are made from various local natural resources: Himalayan salt, a variety of herbs, and sea buckthorn berries found growing in the Himalayas.
“I thought it would be a more realistic form of support,” she said.
The skin-care lineup of nine items — which includes soap made from yak milk — shampoo bars and other products for both men and women, is produced by a local company specializing in organic skin-care cosmetics.
There are seven women working at the manufacturing company.
The cosmetics are prepared for shipment by 25 young women who work part time and who wrap or decorate the packages with a decorative yarn, inspired by Nepalese traditional art and design.
Young women residing in one of Katmandu’s shelters work at the cosmetics company’s partner firm part time after spending half a day at school or participating in various learning programs or workshops, including those aimed at providing them with mental health care.
She said the company is still struggling to secure a stable supply of products because of interference from weather conditions that often affect the harvesting or gathering of certain ingredients, and which also cause mudslides, which in turn disrupts transportation.
Despite that, the company, which since its establishment has seen its profits grow, plans to offer employment to some of the Nepalese women who are living in the shelters to help with production, which is currently overseen by a staff of three Japanese.
“Every time I visit Nepal, we check the results and discuss over lunch or dinner what should be improved,” Mukaida said.
At the moment, Lalitpur cosmetics are being sold at a number of select stores in Tokyo, Osaka and Ishikawa Prefecture — and starting from this year the lineup will also appear on store shelves in New York.
“I don’t want people to buy these products because they are driven by compassion to help poor Nepalese,” she said.
She added that she wants people to notice what Nepal, which has the world’s highest mountains and which is endowed with bountiful nature and other resources, has to offer.
“I want people to find the value in the natural resources the cosmetics are made from and the fact that it offers women in Nepal an employment opportunity — these are the two messages I want to get across,” Mukaida said.
She believes that through enjoying the products and appreciating their beneficial results, the image of Nepal might slowly change.
During her first visit to Nepal, she said she was surprised to see people enjoying life, which was exactly the opposite of what she expected.
“It will be enough if people realize that by buying soap they are helping Nepalese women,” she said. “Maybe it will encourage some of our customers to visit the country.”
Mukaida is planning to raise awareness of the situation in Nepal and introduce its culture to people in Japan through video reports and the use of other media.
“I would like to assist people through projects such as Lalitpur in other countries, too,” she said. “I also hope to engage and inspire others who are willing to contribute to the improvement of lives of people in Nepal and other areas, and make a difference.”
Key events in Mukaida’s life
1997 — Inspired by lecture given by NGO leader Ryohei Takatsu in Nepal.
1999 — Goes to Nepal to assist Takatsu’s efforts to improve literacy.
2005 — Enters Keio University.
2008 — Goes to Turkey to conduct six months of fieldwork.
2009 — Launches Coffret Project.
2012 — Named Avon Woman of the Year for efforts to improve the lives of people in Nepal.
2012 — Awarded Lohas Design Award from Development Associations for Youth leaders.
2013 — Establishes a line of organic cosmetics made from herbs and other resources derived from Nepal’s Himalayas under the Lalitpur brand name.
“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org .