Women Role Models For Peace: Their Life Stories
|| Amid all the chaos, conflicts and injustices, there are some people who will give all they have to fight and stabilize the society by balancing the bad with the good. Though a daunting task, their entire lives are spent on such endeavors.
Nine such women were nominated for the N-Peace Network Role Models for Peace Awards. These wonder women have each worked to create harmony in the society torn apart by inequality, discrimination, lack of education and opportunities, and violence and conflict not just on the political front but violence that roots into domestic lives as well.
While some have chosen to become educators, others provide financial independence and some fight legal and social battles for the rights and emancipation of victims. Each of them has become motivators, inspirers and change-makers in their society.
Having founded and worked with several organizations on numerous social projects, the portfolios on what these women have done could overflow pages.
What we bring you here is their life struggles, adventures, moments of desperation and inspiration and their undying willpower to go on despite all the difficulties they faced.
You can vote for these women leaders nominated for the N-Peace Awards 2012 on their n-peace.net.
Voting closes on July 16, and the winners will be announced sometime in October 2012.
Though Radha Paudel was born in Chitwan, she’ll tell you with her full grit that her life began in Jumla where she was born for the second time.
In 2002, during the Insurgency, she was caught in a 13-hour crossfire between Maoist rebels and the army. Forty-seven people – combatants, innocent men, women, children and elderly people – died that night. She could’ve easily been the 48th. The narrow escape only made her more determined to make the most of her life.
Posted in a managerial position for the safe motherhood program at Jumla but taking on the responsibility of manager, nurse and doctor, she had been working day and night, without a word about holidays.
“The very first few days I arrived in Jumla, I watched a woman die because her placenta couldn’t be removed in time,” she recalls. “It was a three-minute procedure but without proper resources, I was helpless to do anything for her.”
She knew if she were to seriously work on safe motherhood or health services in the rural area, there had to be a blood bank. Single handedly, she met the local government officers, LDOs and CDOs.
She came up with plans to charge a minimum amount to every air passenger who came to Karnali, collected minimum donations from the community, and without relying on any international donors was able to collect Rs 750,000 to set up the first blood bank in the region.
Despite her selfless work, she faced a lot of threats and intimidation from both the army and Maoists during the conflict. “Both parties accused me of helping the other side. They pestered me and my NGO for donations; they blocked access to send medicines to health posts and left threat letters at my desk all the time,” she says. “In those days I congratulated myself for making it through the previous day and night.”
She says she has felt helpless and weak and has shed many tears. But through it all, she asked herself, Is that really a solution? Having seen cases like a six-year-old girl raped by her own relative, her bladder and uterus torn out in the torment, she knew she could not escape, could not remain ignorant, and that she had to do something.
With 17 years of experience in various organizations, working for women’s rights, safe motherhood, primary health facilities in remote areas and for the rights of the poor, Dalits and other minority groups, she has also founded her own organization, Action Works Nepal (AWON).
It works with the most vulnerable groups of people in the remote and conflict-affected regions by conducting various trainings and awareness programs about their rights as well as livelihood improvement programs such as saving credit, vocational and income generating trainings.
“Writing proposals and talking about the problems at conferences won’t solve a thing unless there’s some action to address these issues,” she says. “You have to go into the field, the remote areas, live their hard life and only once you have that attachment can you really work for them, without any excuses.”
Sangita Ghising says she biked up and down the fields of Siraha on a “gents” bicycle, clad in kurta suruwal, to train Maithili women to become leaders and proactive members of their community.
Though she was born in a poor farming family, she was fortunate to receive education. She was an average student but very active from the beginning. Friendly and fluent in Maithili language, she could build rapport with the women in the village quite easily. It was one of the reasons she got her job as social motivator with Save the Children and it was where she developed her leadership skills.
Working in a traditionally conservative society where women were mostly confined within the four walls of their homes, she struggled to bring these women out to the forefront and in public domain. She soon founded a group called “Mahila Sahoyogi Samuha” or Women’s Support Group that engaged these women in activities like making Mithila-art postcards, clothes, baby goods and other decorative items which were sold nationally and internationally in partnership with other organizations.
“To give them confidence, these women had to be economically strong and independent first,” says Ghising. “They needed to have control over their own lives.”
With other training programs related to cash crops and vegetable farming, food packaging, making jute products as well as food items, the group also engaged women in several social works such as tree plantation alongside the highway to reduce accidents. Besides, the collective of women’s groups in her district now has the finance cooperative called Buddha Sahakari Sansthan that has turnovers of millions of Rupees.
Ghising observes that some women who would not even think of going against their husband and families and endure all the abuses have come to speak up. Over the years, these women have raised their voice against polygamy, demanded property rights in divorces cases and worked to develop small businesses.
“We often have elocution or debate competitions where we invite single women and women who’ve been through domestic violence and Dalit women who’ve faced lot of discrimination,” says Ghising in her excited voice over the phone.
“We would think they wouldn’t speak, but when I see them speak out on the stage, in their loud and clear voice, it’s like I’m watching leaders being born right there.”
Kamala Devi Hemchuri
At the age of 12, Kamala Devi Hemchuri marched into the Palpa Bhagwati Mandir with a group of 20 youngsters from the Dalit community. That was her first act of rebellion which started a wave of changes around her.
For years, people from her community had been kept away from the temple as they were considered impure or “untouchables.” The incident angered the local people. There were protests, talks, and government officers got involved. After a debate, Hemchuri and her gang won the battle against discrimination.
“I draw my inspiration to work for Dalits’ and women’s empowerment from the discriminations I faced myself,” says Hemchuri.
Born in Tansen, Palpa, into a poor Dalit family, she says she was constantly bullied and looked down upon by the so-called higher-caste people. Even her school friends treated her differently in school and in the neighborhood. An excellent student, Hemchuri always stood first in her class.
“I was rebellious from the very start,” says Hemchuri. “But I never resolved to verbal or physical attack. Even though their harsh words pained me, it made me more aware and responsible to my community.”
Moreover, she also had to face discrimination for being a girl. Though she became the first girl in the 29-year history of their school in Palpa to pass S.L.C in first division, her family did not think it was important to have a girl child study further.
“That was the first time I felt different from my brothers,” says Hemchuri. “I realized my struggle was going to be a lot harder than theirs.”
She soon competed in the Public Service Commission. There too she stood first in the exams. With a job secured, she could study further. After she came to Kathmandu, her childhood political influences and interests pushed her into mainstream politics where she advocated for Dalit rights.
But after a few years, she realized that mainstream politics at the time only talked about political change whereas they were oblivious to the changes required in the lives of the poor and minority groups.
“Our political system always has had a majority of higher caste people and they were in power because they always had access to education,” she says. “We, on the other hand, were denied education so we could always live as slaves.”
She then thought of a different approach – education-based protests.
“If we were to come into mainstream politics or any other field of work, we were to first make ourselves capable,” she says. ‘If we’re excluded despite our capabilities, that’s when real protest is required.”
As an educator, she then focused on leadership and personality development of Dalit people, at the same time keeping the momentum going for the emancipation of her people and fighting against discrimination.
Now with 30 years of experience and having founded and worked with several organizations to promote the rights of the poor, Dalits and other vulnerable people of the society, she is determined to get competent Dalit leadership in bureaucracy and other professional fields.
With her educational foundation, Professional Development and Research Center (PDRC), she also avails of educational loans to Dalit students so they
feel responsible to repay the money to support the education of others like them.
When Kusum Acharya calls for support, hundreds of women from her village and beyond always come out to help her. She believes in the strength of a group and has utilized it to stop violence and discrimination against women in her village of Bakhduwa in the remote far western district of Saptari.
Acharya, who now runs her own organization “Mahila Jagaran Samaj” or Women Awareness Center that encourages women to speak out, once had her own voice suppressed.
She recalls how she had rushed over to Damauli from Bakhduwa when she found out that her husband had secretly married another woman. In a village meeting, she poured out her frustration due to the injustice caused to her. But instead of supporting her, the villagers, including women, accused her of being a shameless woman for raising a finger and her voice at her husband. They told her to shut up and deemed the husband to be right in what he did.
“The villagers thrashed anyone who tried to support me,” Acharya says over the phone. “That incident hurt me to the core and changed me forever.” When she returned to her village that day, she had decided she needed no man.
“I was the one working and earning money in the first place. My husband never knew hard work. So I had no problem supporting myself and my kids.”
Acharya now wakes up as early as three in the morning, walks up and down the community grassland to gather fodder for her cows and feeds them by seven in the morning. Selling milk is how she affords a living for her family. But what keeps her busy all day and even night are the women’s groups and the awareness center that always has women and sometimes even men coming to her for help.
In return, she is bestowed with continuous support, help and goodwill from each of the villagers.
Through the intervention of her organization that was established in 1998, she has been able to mediate dialogues between couples and families. While sometimes, dialogues have worked to reestablish harmony, in some extreme cases, she says they’ve even helped take the cases to the police and courts to give justice to the victims.
Besides working against domestic violence, discrimination against Dalits, accusations of witchcraft, helping people who’ve been cheated, and solving family disputes, Acharya has also been operating a savings fund for the women. From next month, she is also planning to start a savings and loan cooperative that can encourage women entrepreneurs in her community.
At a time when educating girls was very rare, Sharada Pokharel was one of the lucky ones to be born in a family that did not question on why send a girl to school but why not.
The schools she studied in at the time, however, had no roofs. Her high school had straw mats instead of benches and tables and she had to take night classes to get through college.
Today, Sharada Pokharel has traveled the world, representing Nepal in several peace conferences. She was politically active even during her student life and also became a Member of Parliament.
Having grown up around a time when Nepal was known as the zone of peace and appealed to the world as a developing nation making its way through modernity in its own sweet time, she was deeply worried when the situation deteriorated and Nepal became one of the worst internal conflict-affected nations of the world.
“We realized that the conflict hit women the most. They had to live through deaths of loved ones, killings, rape, sexual abuse and economic downfall,” says Pokharel.
“I had worked for women’s rights and empowerment throughout my political and non-political career. But after the conflict, I felt more responsible to these women and peace building in the country.”
Even at 64, Pokharel keeps herself busy with her Women Security Peace Group and Shakti Malika, a network of organizations established in 2003, which work for women’s rights from grassroots to national levels.
She coordinated several national conferences where representatives from different districts shared the tortures and injustices they had suffered during the civil war. They also often held dialogues between the women from both parties of the war.
These outlets and dialogues help the nation and women in post-conflict reconstruction as they reconcile to work for building peace, Pokharel believes.
‘There is a need for democratic reform and to form effective policy on women’s issues that can address them from the grassroots to the national level,’ says Pokharel.
Nepal has adopted the National Action Plans of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820 that call for special measures of protection to women and girls from gender-based violence, rape and sexual abuse in conflict-affected regions and confronts sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations.
Pokharel and all the women activists of her organizations tirelessly work for justice for all women affected by the state-Maoist conflict. Taking international treaties and current legal frameworks, her groups continuously pressurize the government to look into the injustices caused to women war victims and make policies that ensure protection as well as participation in peace building.
Nirmala Dhungana has been to 70 out of the 75 districts of Nepal – as an anthropologist, trainer, researcher or a teacher guiding a team of Masters students.
The Kathmandu academic comes from a family of academicians themselves. With an eager interest in gender and women’s rights issue, Dhungana always wanted to work in women’s empowerment. When she chose teaching as a profession, she decided that her role in changing the lives of women for the better was going to be by being an academician, guiding capable individuals to work in the sector.
“I always took on training assignments or traveled myself whenever we had holidays from the University,” says Dhungana. “I also traveled during the Insurgency, and once when I was out for a basic health program, I even did a class for Maoist women unknowingly. A person I knew came to get me that night and I simply followed. Only later did I know they were taking me to Maoist camps. But they brought me back safely.”
She relays her adventures of walking for days, swinging on ropes to get to the other side of derelict hillside roads due to landslides and riding on water buffaloes to cross rivers. There were harsh conditions, some even risky, but she did not stop traveling to remote areas to share what she had been privileged to have.
“Many women don’t even know what their rights are. They don’t know who and where to go to when they are victims of violence,” says Dhungana. “There is need of different kinds of training and awareness programs for women in different regions and you have to develop your training and program courses according to that.”
She remembers working with women who would not even raise their ghunghat or sari’s over their heads. “There was a time we went into households for awareness programs and I would be talking to the daughter-in-law of the house while she worked in the kitchen and the mother-in-law gave me mean looks.”
Besides traveling and training, she has also helped develop the curriculum for women and gender studies in T.U.
“Women’s participation and activism at the grassroots level is very important for change. But we also need women leaders at the decision-making level who can make and control policies,” says Dhungana. “I believe right education and experience can build that leadership.”
Nani Maya Thapa was the second child in her family, born after a gap of 20 years. For her father, she was a miracle child, a son he could not get, and so Thapa was bestowed with a gift rare for women at the time – education.
Born in Sindhupalchowk, a village, though close to the capital, that was still filled with rural ideologies, and many opposed her education.
“Send her to school and she’ll start writing love letters to boys and then elope,” that’s what the villagers told her father. But he didn’t listen to them and let her complete her S.L.C.
“I was the only girl out of 169 students who passed S.L.C that year and I made it in the first division,” says Thapa with pride in her voice.
She soon got married. But even after marriage, she pursued her education. By the end of her high school, she had two kids, was helping her sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law with their school, was doing her duties as wife and daughter-in-law. But she did not let these responsibilities come in the way of her education.
She then took on teaching as a profession which she says is her passion. Besides working as a teacher in schools, she took a step further and started working with the Gramin Mahila Sirjanshil Pariwar as a social mobilizer and conducted several awareness programs and training to educate local people about several issues.
Today, she is the executive director of the same organization.
“Sindhupalchowk is afflicted with several problems, such human trafficking, religious and caste discrimination, domestic violence and post-conflict traumas,” she says. “We partner with different organizations to stop girl and child trafficking and work with trafficked victims, their families, lawyers and the community in rehabilitation.”
Focusing on anti-trafficking and women empowerment issues, she also offers counseling before reintegration into the community, runs a rehabilitation shelter and vocational training for women to make them economically independent.
“Then there are single women we work with who lost their husbands in the conflict, seen their loved ones killed in front of their own eyes, suffered through torture and rape,” she says. “It’s hard to get these women, often driven to revenge, to come to terms and live normal lives.”
She says there are times when people accuse her of working against men solely because she works for women’s empowerment.
“I don’t revolt or lash back. I transform that into my energy and a drive that keeps me going with more passion and willpower,” she says.
Nani Maya Thapa
The Poet & Change Maker
“Madhesi matra hoina, Nepali pani haun, Sarkar” (Not just Madhesis, we’re Nepalis, too, my Lord) is first line of Pahichan, one of one of many poems by Maimoona Siddiqui.
An activist working of the rights of Madhesi and Muslim women, Siddiqui wrote the poem, saddened that Nepali government rarely paid attention to the Madhesi community.
Born in Gorakhpur in India, she was married into a family in Nepalgunj at 18. With a Master’s degree in Urdu, Siddiqui initially wrote down on pages about the injustice she saw around her to women, Dalit groups and Madhesi people as a whole. Her sister, who was also married in Nepalgunj, gave Siddiqui the push she needed to start working against the injustices she wrote about.
“After seven years of being married, I finally stepped out of the threshold,” she says in her calm voice over the phone. “Firstly, I myself got sewing knitting training from the VDC. Then, with the VDC support, we started training more women.”
Alongside, she started the Fatima Foundation for the protection of Muslim and Madhesi women’s rights and child rights through awareness campaigns on domestic violence, dowry issues, witchcraft practices, sexual abuse, human trafficking and the legal status of women. Beside counseling and awareness services, the organization also focuses on women’s empowerment through skills development trainings like sewing, embroidery, knitting and such to increase their financial independence.
“When we go out into the field, there are so many heart-wrenching stories I hear from my fellow Madhesi, Muslim and Dalit sisters,” she says. “I still write poems related to these issues and present them to authorities concerned.”
Being an educated woman and from a financially stable family, Siddiqui says she hasn’t yet faced much discrimination. But she says uneducated and poor people mostly suffer all the brunt as they are often demeaned by the society.
Without proper support, women, and even men, from these minority groups will never make it to the national mainstream politics where there is a great need to have their voices heard. All that Siddiqui does is an attempt, she says, that the future will have capable individuals from her community and the start has to happen at the local level.
“The language barrier when trying to get anything official done in government offices is often a problem with the people of these communities. It increases their inferiority complex and many women often come for help at Fatima Foundation simply for such matters,” she says. “We’ve seen improvements, but there’s still a long way to go.”
The Voice Giver
Irada Gautam left her comfortable job at an INGO to start making changes herself. Positioned in Surkhet by the INGO, she worked and lived in the region for years and encountered numerous cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse. But almost all of these cases were hushed as it was considered a social taboo to talk about them.
Having lost her father when she was a child, this hardworking woman, who had to make her way through life herself working from a very early age, was not the one to be hushed down. Gorkha was where she was born and brought up but Surkhet had become her workplace. There was a certain emotional attachment in that her father had worked there before and she felt a sense of responsibility to the people of the place.
She worked in Surkhet and raised her voice against the social issues.
“Even mothers were unhappy when they got girl children because they knew their daughters would only suffer,” says Gautam. “There were many cases of domestic violence against women, sexual abuses and even trafficking going on, but there was no one to address these ills on the community level.”
She then founded her NGO which she aptly named Aawaj (Voice) to start raising awareness against such malpractices.
“It was high time to start prevention. How many victims could rehabilitation centers take anyway? Things had to change at the grassroots level to stop the vicious cycle of girls and women being victimized in the first place.”
It was initially very hard, she says. Women and children especially would not speak up about any sort of sexual abuse they faced, especially because the culprits were their husbands or the sole breadwinner of the family. But with massive advocacy campaigns, awareness programs, case study presentations and training representatives from several influential groups in the village like mothers’ group, youth group and such, people started opening up.
For all cases, the priority was first to try to solve at the community level through active local participation in mediation and dialogues. In worst cases, they would work to give justice to the victims in court and in the community.
“The first step was to listen to their stories patiently. That’s one of the most important parts of counseling,” says Gautam. “Mediating in dialogues, reporting to the police or taking cases to court follow. .”
Gautam believes that those who face violence or abuse are the real owners of the problem and thus only they can be change makers. Their job is to only positively facilitate, counsel and guide them through any legal procedure when needed.
Now working in Surkhet, Dailekh and Bardia, Aawaj has continued giving voice and courage to suppressed and victimized women and children as well as providing livelihood support through vocational training and economic support for income generating activities.
This news item is printed from myrepublica.com - a sister publication of Republica national daily.
© Nepal Republic Media Pvt. Ltd. Kathmandu Nepal.