The Power of Knowledge

The Power of Knowledge

Many of Fujel’s residents are Dalits and for centuries, people of so-called higher castes have forbidden them to enter the temple. Although Dalits are also Hindu, they are prevented from practicing their religion in local temples, because they perceive Dalits as impure.

ADWAN has worked with Dalit women in Fujel for years and now has 11 groups in that area. In response to the violence, some of them decided to act. Phunu Pariyar a respected Dalit leader understands social action. She organized a number of women, who, dressed in their finest lined up in front of the temple. Prepared for the worst, but with quiet determination, the women entered the temple one by one bearing their gifts of flowers and tikka powder. To everyone’s surprise, no-one lifted a hand, as they completed their worship and quietly went home. Since that spring day, Dalits worship in the Fujel temple along with everyone else. This is because it is generally known, that these particular women, members of ADWAN groups, are knowledgeable about their rights– as women and as Dalits. The traditionalists, who used violence to preserve the status quo, were quite aware that their actions are illegal. But now, thanks to ADWAN they comply with the law. ADWAN’s women are introduced to concepts of human rights in their early literacy training and through discussions at group meetings. In addition, ADWAN holds community wide workshops where women learn how to lodge a complaint if their rights are violated.

ADWAN held such a workshops through the EU funded project for the women in Fujel and other 5 vdcs. It was a highly visible affair and many non-Dalit community members participated, too. We are proud of the women’s actions that day, and of the entire community for letting the women show them how to live together in harmony. Since that spring day, Dalits worship in the Fujel temple along with everyone else. This is because it is generally known, that these particular women, members of ADWAN groups, are knowledgeable about their rights– as women and as Dalits. The traditionalists, who used violence to preserve the status quo, were quite aware that their actions are illegal. But now, thanks to ADWAN they comply with the law.

ADWAN’s women are introduced to concepts of human rights in their early literacy training and through discussions at group meetings. In addition, ADWAN holds community wide workshops where women learn how to lodge a complaint if their rights are violated. ADWAN held such a workshop for the women in Fujel in 2009 at the local school. It was a highly visible affair and many non-Dalit community members participated, too. We are proud of the women’s actions that day, and of the entire community for letting the women show them how to live together in harmony.

Women Stage Sit-In At Village Council Office

Women Stage Sit-In At Village Council Office

The women from several self heop women groups publicly challenged their local leaders with an embarrassing question: “Where is our money?”

In Nepal each village was governed by a Village Development Committee (VDC), which is traditionally made up of men — typically wealthy “upper caste” men. Recognizing the importance of including society’s most marginalized citizens, Nepal’s government annually earmarks 15% of all rural development aid to Dalits and women. However, in most communities women and Dalits have no idea of this arrangement, and traditional local leaders usually see no reason to change that.

But thanks to the human rights training funded by ADWAN donors, the Khanchikot women knew that they had almost $1000 coming to them and had already made plans to invest in collective poultry farming. When the money wasn’t forthcoming they asked where their money was. They received only an evasive answer from the VDC and months went by with no sign of the money. Finally, the women showed up in force at the VDC office to demand an answer. With no further explanation, the VDC secretary claimed the money had already been released and they should just go home!

The women responded by organizing an investigation to follow the money trail. They found concrete evidence that the VDC secretary and another local leader had invested it for their own personal gain. In response, a large group of women and men, Dalits and non-Dalits alike showed up at the VDC office. They padlocked it shut, then settled down to wait. As the demonstration grew, the issue received wide attention. After five days the VDC members relented and released the cash.

ADWAN organized five women’s groups with a total of 104 women in Khanchikot, Arghakhachi District in 2007-2010. Empowerment training, human rights awareness and conflict resolution training have increased the women’s confidence immensely. Under the able leadership of fieldworker, Shubhakala Nepali the women’s savings and loan group activities have engendered strong solidarity. All this prepared the women to take skillful action in a community matter of great importance to them, and to win a great victory.

Provided with a few simple tools through education, and savings and loan activities, the women themselves become the agents of change. ADWAN’s low-cost, bottom-up approach to sustainable development works!

Reproductive Health Workshop in Taklung

Reproductive Health Workshop in Taklung

Gita and Sonu belong to the Jagaran women’s Group in Taklung, Gorkha. They have practiced micro savings since 1999 and gained respect and influence in their community.  But they lacked the influence to prevent the death of three of their group members, who died in childbirth.

Rural Nepali women are petrified at the thought of giving birth – but also have no control wether to get pregnant. Though the government promotes access to inexpensive contraception, it has failed to tell women where to obtain it;  few rural women actually use it. Nepal has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world – a woman dies every four hours from pregnancy-related causes. Dalit women, who fare worse on all social indicators, have an average lifespan of just 42 years.

For 15 years, ADWAN has focused on empowering women through micro finance, livelihood and rights education. We were unaware of the maternal health crisis so glaringly at odds with women’s empowerment. Gita, a community health worker, and active in our partner organization ADWAN, was instrumental in brining attention to the problem. ADWAN is so excited to introduce three new workshops in partnership with Nidan (“Cure”), a public health NGO.

In September 2012, ADWAN conducted a first ever reproductive health project in Taklung in partnership with Nidan. This was the first time ever a doctor had set foot in that community. During the two-day workshop, the Nidan doctors and trainers from Marie Stopes International (MSI), a family planning agency, conducted a “Train the Trainer” workshop for 28 community health workers and women, chosen for their leadership and influence. Together, they learned how to train an additional 150 women.

The partnership and the “Train the Trainer” approach bring health care knowledge to women in remote areas in a most cost effective way. In addition, it connects women to local agencies, so they can obtain services on their own in the future.

When challenging cultural norms and bringing new information to a conservative community, lack of trust and poor communication are huge obstacles in dealing with ingrained cultural practices. Mothers-in-law, shamans and unskilled traditional midwives wield huge power over young women especially regarding childbirth and pregnancy. It takes great skill to change minds and habits, but the easy and friendly manner of the Nidan doctors easily won the women’s trust; and the women in turn opened up:

“There were twelve women with me in there {the meeting house}. Another discussion was swelling and receding in the adjacent room where Dr. Mali was talking. In that momentary period of silence, a woman started speaking in a tone of amused wonder -”, observed Dr. Giri.

In discussions and exercises women absorbed information, which could save their lives: care during pregnancy, danger signs, importance of check-ups and having a skilled birth attendant during delivery. Family planning options, birth spacing and the advantage of small families were also on the table. Since is so prevalent among rural women, the trainers explained how to prevent and manage this condition.

A young MSI nurse, Pampha Nepali, educated participants about inexpensive contraception, easy to obtain and use. After two full days of training, participants and trainers agreed this first workshop had been a resounding success.  Women assured the doctors that they had understood the material and were ready to teach other women.

Rural Entrepreneurs

Rural Entrepreneurs

Every morning at earlier, Til Maya Ale gets out of bed and dresses in the dark before heading out of the stone and mud house that she shares with her husband and two teenage children. She crosses the yard to a newly constructed two-story building to feed the twenty-five chicks. She checks on them before continuing to the rooms that house twenty-five older chickens. Two hours later, she will once more get up to fetch water at the village tap and fill their drinking troughs. “Sometimes I can’t sleep because I worry about the chicks,” she confesses, “but I am hopeful about the future.”

Til Maya joined the Abtha Uthaun Womens’ Group in 2005. The name means: Friends, let’s wake up! “We were blind before,” she says, “and thought joining the group would help educate us.” Like many of the women, Til Maya recognizes the importance of the literacy program. Although she is far from fully literate herself, the program has opened her eyes to the value of education. Both of her children work hard in school, while also helping her with chores.

Her dream was to raise chickens. Using her profits from the pigs she invested in goats and a buffalo, besides growing vegetables. With years of savings, and a small loan from her siblings, Til Maya had nearly enough to build a new home for her chickens, a building, which will also serve as store.

“Because of my initial success, I got a small loan from the government for my chickens,” she explains. “In addition, our women’s group received seven new kinds of vegetable seeds for free!” Emboldened by her success, she asked the government for orange trees and soon received twenty-five trees, which she now tends.

Tilmaya is president of her group of 36 women. She asserts that their newfound confidence, access to credit, and a pre-school program the group has initiated are the greatest benefits. “I want to learn more about business and I also hope to build a latrine,” she says. “All this came about as a result of the group. I would be so happy if there were money to fund more women like me.”

Til Maya’s story exemplifies ADWAN’s approach to empowerment: Give women opportunities to develop confidence and build a track record, and they take the next step on their own. This year many groups have approached local government agencies and NGOs for training, seed funds and loans. ADWAN’s women run successful sewing businesses, raise livestock and vegetables on a larger scale, tend their own fish farms and operate general stores.

Happy to be Alive, Worried for the Future

Happy to be Alive, Worried for the Future

Balmaya remembers standing in front of her garden when the entire house and ground started shaking and quavering. She fell unconscious, but thankfully woke up to see that her entire family was unharmed! When the quaking stopped, this family and most other villagers were homeless. And with her stored food buried under rubble, Balmaya didn’t know how to feed her family.

A mother of five, married to a sick man, Balmaya has been an active member of a women’s group for ten years.

The first few days, she explains, villagers waited for government aid; it was rumored that supplies had arrived at the district headquarters. Yet they received nothing. She and others think it is because they are Dalits, “We are never a priority! “, she says.

But a few days later, it was ADWAN that arrived with urgently needed rice, lentil, blankets, tents, and other items.

“I will never forget the day ADWAN arrived with food and relief aid in my village. We can’t imagine if we didn’t receive any support from ADWAN. Thank you ADWAN for your support in this difficult time” – Balmaya

Today, the family lives in a shelter of straw, tarp, and debris, and Bal Maya worries about keeping everyone safe during the monsoon. People are pessimistic about delivery of government supplies for temporary homes– let alone for permanent ones. With tears in her eyes she says, “Even though we have survived the earthquakes, our future is so uncertain! Once the aid ration is finished, I will have to borrow money to buy food and medicine.”

Since that horrible day, she has not been herself, Balmaya says. The trauma, the stress and the total destruction have her feel very anxious for the future.

She says that members of her women’s group have met a few times since the earthquake; and they plan to resume their activities and to help each other rebuild their lives. They hope ADWAN will be there for them.