Introduction: Association for Dalit Women’s Advancement of Nepal (ADWAN) is a human rights organization supporting poor, Dalit & Marginalized women, girls and children. Through mixed-caste self-help saving groups, education, skills development, soft-skills, small entrepreneurship, micro finance, ADWAN gives poor women, girls and children the tools to end inequality, oppression and poverty.

Background and PhilosophyADWAN’s beneficiaries are low-caste, marginalized poor Nepali women, Girls and children. Most live in isolated rural areas imprisoned by ignorance, gender bias and the caste system, and marginalized in their families and communities. In one of the poorest nations in the world, Dalit women and girls are among the most vulnerable and the last to receive any education.

In a society where simply being able to write one’s name makes one “literate”, their literacy rate lies between 12 and 24%, compared to the national average of 64%. But many Nepalese are disadvantaged: Dalit & Other Marginalized boys have a dismal rate of school attendance and even high caste men are illiterate. Still, girls’ education and women’s empowerment cannot thrive in a hostile and regressive social climate. To create a supportive environment where women and girls can flourish, it is crucial to educate an entire community. ADWAN works to nurture the whole community by promoting Dalit & other Marginalized boys’ schooling, including non-Dalit in the groups, and emphasizing human rights education, while encouraging women and girls to lead.

Deep Roots in Local Culture: ADWAN was founded in response to the painful personal experience of Dr. Bishnu Maya Pariyar, a young woman from rural Nepal. Dr. Bishnu grew up oppressed in three ways as a girl, as a member of the Dalit-“untouchable” caste and by poverty. Few girls went to school at that time, even fewer Dalit girls.  But against all expectations, and against the social norms, Dr. Bishnu insisted on attending school alongside high caste boys. In spite of daily humiliations (even from teachers) and physical hardship, she became the first girl in her community to complete high school. Dr. Bishnu became a social worker in Nepal and eventually earned a Masters degree from an American University. Because of her own experience, Dr. Bishnu has a profound appreciation for the importance of girls’ education, and the obstacles that stand in its way. And she always wanted her work to benefit girls and women. She believes that women and girls are powerful potential agents of change, and has dedicated her life to fighting the social forces that made her own struggle for education so difficult. Without having read about “girl power,” and before the world perceived women’s central role in development, Dr. Bishnu saw these powerless women as powerful social catalysts.

Steps to Empowerment: ADWAN organizes village women into mixed-caste groups to teach them both basic literacy and how to set up savings and loan associations. They organize to borrow money for tiny income generating activities. And to encourage education, ADWAN provides all their school age children with stipends for school uniforms-because even this $10/yr support can prevent a child from attending school. ADWAN’s local Dalit staffs, who understand the village culture, serve as advisors offering workshops on human rights, basic hygiene, and leadership development. ADWAN augments this basic program by providing access to outside credit through a small revolving business fund, by helping to support village projects and by facilitating skills training.

Children’s Programs: By providing uniforms for the children of all the women’s groups, ADWAN has vastly increased school attendance especially for Dalit girls. An individual school scholarship program $200/yr is playing a imperative role to increasing number of poor and Dalit children from our area are completing high school, and more girls than boys are passing the rigorous national qualifying exam-the gateway to higher education. A special ADWAN’s Ambitious Girls’ Fund ‘AGF’ supports college education for Dalit and marginalized girls who intend to serve their communities as teachers, social workers and health workers. Another sponsorship program pays 100 vulnerable families to keep their children in school–instead of going to work.

Social Impact: The cost of these simple programs is minimal, but the impact is profound and immediate: virtually all the children from the groups are attending school. This represents a dramatic change for girls, whose schools attendance had always been sidelined, as scarce resources were allocated for males. In addition, Gender violence has decreased dramatically as women speak up at home and in the community, and caste-based discrimination is abating. Another effect of the soft-skill training in the women’s groups is that their friends and daughters are creating their own groups– movement has begun through new generation.

ADWAN has given over 6,757 women the tools to empower themselves. They raise goats, buffalo, successful poultry, bamboo handicraft, Pashmina weaving, vegetable farming, Mushroom production, Soap production, small enterprises and fish farms, and operate sewing businesses and stores. Some women’s groups have sought and received skills training, seed funds and loans from local government agencies. Women have independently undertaken community improvement projects such as construction of water-taps, short-distance walk-way, meeting houses and small temples. Several groups have independently started tutorial programs to help early-school-age & schooling-age children improve school performance. This especially helps girls, who are more likely to have missed grades.  Women have become members of village-municipality, village-municipality councils, school management committee, and other user groups. Communities with strong women’s groups experience increased caste harmony- in some cases it has lead to acceptance of inter-caste marriage – the beginning of a fundamental cultural shift.