Response: January 2017 Issue

Changing Times for Nepal’s Women

Before and after Nepal’s earthquake, United Methodist Women supports empowerment of girls and women.

Changing Times for Nepal’s Women
Draupati Rokaya (center) talks with Soni Lama at the young woman's home in Chandragiri, Nepal, as Lama's mother looks on.

Ashmita Lama was in her home studying when the earthquake struck. The floor of her family’s simple home buckled, and as the roof started to cave in, the 19-year-old ran outside. “I looked for my mother, who was in the field working, and when I could manage to run to her we embraced, crying, staring at our collapsed house,” she said.

The April 2015 earthquake ravaged thousands of Nepal’s mountainous villages, leaving 9,000 people dead, 22,000 injured and 650,000 families homeless, Lama’s family among them. Along with their neighbors in the village of Chandragiri, they pushed some broken sheets of tin roofing together to create a makeshift shelter. After several days, a unique Nepalese women’s organization provided a tent, and three months later the United Methodist Committee on Relief provided new sheets of tin roofing so the family could begin to construct a transitional house on a nearby hillside.

In those difficult months that followed the quake, Lama returned to her studies, leaving home at 4:30 a.m. to catch a bus into the nearby capital, Kathmandu. She’s the first young woman from her village to pass the difficult 10th grade examination, and she’s motivated to continue her studies.

“I want to build my community into a better place and inspire other girls to study,” she said. “If things are going to get better here, it will happen because we young women get an education.” In the wake of the quake, many families still living in tents or temporary shelters face hard choices about where to spend their reduced income. Education for girls is often one of the first things to be cut, and many Nepali girls are being pushed into early marriages today because their families can no longer afford to keep them in school.

The women’s organization that provided Lama’s family with a tent is Nepal Mahila Bishwasi Sangh (NMBS), the Nepali Women Believers Association, a part of the international Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). With financial support from United Methodist Women, it is helping to ensure that women and girls—especially those whose families face post-quake hardship—get a chance to succeed. It provides a scholarship to Lama, who is studying hotel management.

Another young woman in the village, 18-year-old Soni Lama (no relation to Ashmita), also receives a scholarship from NMBS. She leaves her family’s quake-cracked home in the predawn darkness every morning to walk an hour and a half to then catch a bus into the capital, where she’s studying to be a physician. She wants to become a cardiologist and return to her mountain village, which currently has no doctor.

“I want to serve the people and my community, and becoming a doctor is a good way to do that,” she said. “This area has been neglected by the government, and anyone with health needs has to travel a long distance to get help. I want to open a health center here so people can get attention quickly when they need it.”

Women taken seriously

Draupati Rokaya was one of the Nepali women who founded the NMBS in 1993 in response to widespread domestic violence and the need for leadership development among women. They joined the international YWCA two years later but kept their more generic name, given that Nepal was officially a Hindu nation with a government that frowned on overtly Christian groups. “We could change our name now, but we’d have to spend money on lots of paperwork and changing the logo and all, and we’d rather spend what little money we have on programs. So we have kept our name, which is how everyone knows us. People know we are Christian but that we’re committed to interfaith work,” said Rokaya, an educator who is now the group’s general secretary.

The organization’s initial focus was on saving lives. It established a hostel where girls and women fleeing situations of violence could take refuge. The same setting provided a safe place for women and girls coming to the capital for study or work.

But it’s education that remains the passion of the group’s leaders. “Education is the entry point into changing lives,” Rokaya said. “Many women have never had opportunities to go to school. So we started nonformal education classes at the beginning then later added classes on parenting and leadership skills, on language and eventually on computer skills. There was none of that available before.”

With classes today on everything from sewing to shoemaking to small business management, education remains the key to making change. “Women who aren’t economically empowered aren’t listened to. But once they start earning a little money, because we’ve given them job training, then people start taking them seriously,” said Rokaya.

Ishwari Shrestha is the program administrator for NMBS and told response about one woman from a mountain village whom she convinced to take a literacy class. She was a quiet and timid woman, but she got excited about learning more, despite the time limitations of raising four children. She said she’d really like to learn sewing, but she had no money to buy the basic materials needed to take a class. The only time she had money in her hands, she explained to Shrestha, was when her husband gave her cash to buy food in the market. When she returned from the market, she had to give her husband all the change.

“I encouraged her to retain a few rupees from each market trip and hide it away without telling her husband,” Shrestha said. “After a few months, she came back to me to tell me she had saved a little bit of money.”

It was enough to buy the materials, and Shrestha convinced a master tailor to take the woman on as a student at no charge. Within a few months, the woman returned to tell Shrestha that she was sewing clothes and selling them to her neighbors.

“Then one day her husband saw money in her hand, a lot of money. He asked her how she got it. She explained to him what had happened and that it was money she had earned from her work. The husband was surprised and at first couldn’t believe that she had learned how to do this. But she explained to him that if she had a sewing machine she could earn even more money,” Shrestha said. “So her husband bought her a sewing machine and she made so much money that he quit his job to join her in making clothes. The woman and her husband now both belong to a savings group, and she’s the one who goes to collect the money from the other women. She has changed a lot. Her personality is different. If people get a chance they can change.”

No gender bias in technology

NMBS is also helping girls and women move beyond sewing into economic sectors where they traditionally weren’t welcome, such as information, communication and technology (ICT).

“This sector has traditionally been focused on boys and men, but we have worked to empower women to participate,” said Nirmala Gurung, the organization’s ICT director.

“We start young and encourage girls to choose ICT as their career field. We help sponsor celebrations of International Girls in ICT Day every April. We’ve done training of trainers in fields like website design and mobile phone repair. It’s a safe sector for women to work in because you don’t have to travel from one place to another. You can often do it in your home, working online, buying and selling things.”

Gurung, who still lives in a tent after her family’s house collapsed in the quake, admits there is lingering resistance to opening up the field to all. “A lot of people say that technology is only for men, but we believe that technology doesn’t have a bias toward one gender or another,” she said.

Yet she recognizes how far women have come.

“At times when I listen to my mother talk about how things were when she was a girl. I ask, ‘Were things really that awful? Was that on another planet?’ I can’t imagine that today, but then I go to a different part of the country, the more remote areas, and I see those things happening right now. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” she said.

Shikha Ghimire, a 17-year-old student from a mountain village who gets a scholarship from NMBS to study social work in Kathmandu, also recounts her grandmother’s stories.

“When she was little she was not allowed to read, and she couldn’t go outside and talk with anyone. She had to stay inside and do household work, then go cut the grass and feed the cows and buffaloes. She had to marry a man older than her, and she tells me how hard life was at home. She had to do a lot of work in her husband’s home and go to the field to work. She has taught me that more important than doing work at home is to go out and work and earn money,” she said. “At the same time I am teaching her how to write her name and our names, and slowly, slowly, slowly she is improving her writing and her ability to read. She is happy learning, and I’m happy to teach her,” she said.

Barrier of early marriage

NMBS has also taken a leading role in Nepal in educating young women about sexual and reproductive health.

“Girls have not been free to talk about these issues in front of others. If they did, it was treated as a crime. But after taking our training they are more willing to talk about the issues, and they are returning to their communities to give classes in a youth-friendly way,” said Sushila Shrestha, coordinator of the organization’s sexual and reproductive rights program.

The trainings often start from zero. “Most of the participants don’t even know about their sexual organs. They are confused. They don’t know what’s going on in their bodies. But after taking our training they are ready to go and teach the youth in their communities about what their organs look like, what the menstruation cycle is about, how women get pregnant. We talk about all this in a very practical way, not just in theory,” she said.

“Part of this awareness is a discussion about what’s the appropriate age to get married and how women have the right to choose when and at what age they have a baby,” she said.

Early marriage is a big problem in Nepal, where a law requiring a minimum age of 20 is widely ignored. According to Human Rights Watch, 10 percent of girls marry before they’re 15, while 37 percent marry before they are 18. Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of early marriage, and several reports indicate a spike in child marriages in the wake of the 2015 earthquake.

“Girls have a right to stay in school and be educated. With more education, they can be more aware of their rights and less susceptible to becoming victims of domestic violence,” Shrestha said.

Yet girls and women who still remain homeless in the wake of the earthquake are at greater risk of violence and discrimination of all forms, and Shrestha says the training looks at ways to stay safer and maximize hygiene in the tent camps.

“For years we have been training girls how to make their own reusable sanitary pads, and this helped them stay in school. But in the camps they don’t always have the ability to wash them, so we’ve been distributing disposable pads to those families,” she said.

Changing role of women

According to Bishnu Rai, a nurse who helped found NMBS, women’s place in Nepal is far from what it was when she was born 71 years ago.

“I have seen a lot of changes in the role of women in Nepal. Previously they were afraid to speak, they were afraid to go out into society and participate in training or public meetings, they were too shy. They were not bold enough to speak out even with their husband or their children. And when they went out they always needed company,” said Rai, who is principal of a nursing school today.

“Parents didn’t send girls to school, only boys. Why should girls go to school, they would ask, if one day they were going to get married and leave home? Parents gave education to the boys because when they got old it was the boys who would look after them.

“But things are different now. Today women are police officers and doctors and pilots, and the government is giving equal opportunities to women. Education is what brought about this change, along with women’s empowerment. That’s what we do with our training. We are educating and empowering women, helping them know they have value in this world, focusing on their roles and responsibilities in Nepal today. And now families are sending their girls to school with no discrimination. Maybe things haven’t changed 100 percent, but training and education continue to move us forward.”

According to Rokaya, NMBS remains committed to continuing that change. “We’re small, but we add our drops of solidarity to the ocean,” she said. “We’re a team, and working with the government and others in civil society, we’re constructing a new Nepal, with justice and equality but without violence, where people won’t have to spend all their time just struggling to meet their basic needs.”


Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He blogs at kairosphotos.com.

Posted or updated: 1/12/2017 12:00:00 AM
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