“We stood on the highway and stopped vehicles to collect money for the establishment of our village health post. Men in the village ridiculed us when we sought their support for the health post building”. Narbada Oli explained to me. She is a women’s group member of Chhinchu village in Surkhet district of Nepal. Men in the village challenged us that if we were an empowered women’s group then why we couldn’t mobilise resources for the health post.
Though in the beginning men in the village were sarcastic, when they saw that women started stopping vehicles on the highway to collect donations, some of the men came forward and supported the women’s group. On my way back from the village, the women members proudly showed the two-storey building constructed for the health centre. The women were able to mobilise enough cash to purchase the land for the building. Recognising the enthusiasm and commitment of the villagers, the local and district authorities decided to allocate resources to construct the health centre. They also upgraded the health post to a regional health centre to serve other neighbouring villages!
I also heard similar inspiring stories from women’s group in Lekhpharsa village in my two-day programme visit to Surkhet district. Oxfam and its partner WAM run CDC (community discussion classes) for women in these villages to mobilise and empower women to realise their rights. The women also enable other community members to know their rights and together address community problems.
The CDCs combined with bespoke capacity building efforts enable the poor women to gain their power and self esteem and provide a sense of solidarity to raise their voice to make government accountable and challenge discriminatory practices. The women play active role in local decision making bodies like village development committee, village school education management committee, community forestry and health management committee to attain development and the progress of their communities and villages. Most of the women belong to socially excluded communities like dalits and janajatis.
“The CDC has ignited fire in us and has given a sense of solidarity as women. We have realised our potential and responsibilities. We are committed to support our community to solve its own problems and fight against injustice and corruption. We will not tolerate any violence against women in our village,” one of the CDC members said. In my meetings with this group they told me that they were fortunate to enjoy this freedom but acknowledged that this is not the case for many women in other villages. “How can we share our stories of struggle with other women so that they can learn? Similarly, how can we learn from stories of others?” The members enquired. I shared one of Oxfam’s initiatives that provides learning and networking opportunities for women leaders at national and South Asia level.
Later on while talking to the Oxfam team members in Nepal programme, I understood that CDC-based women empowerment approach is adopted in all the 350 CDC groups in 90 VDCs of 14 districts where Oxfam operates in Nepal. The team, along with the partners, endeavours to gather evidence from these experiences and influences similar donor supported government programmes in the country. This is an obvious way forward to share and scale up the programme for greater impact. They are also advocating for legal, budgetary, and policy framework that address the inequality and poverty challenges.
Another uniqueness of the programme is the way young people _ especially young girls _ encouraged and involved in planning and implementation of the work. I was impressed by the way the Oxfam Nepal team has integrated this approach to address the range of issues such as Land, Food security, Climate Change, Enterprise development and Disaster Risk Reduction.
Before flying back, I also attended Oxfam Asia Regional Leadership team meeting. It was an opportunity to meet and be inspired by women leaders like Narbada Oli. She said that when she joined the movement she didn’t complete her 8th class. When there was an opportunity for her to join the village education management committee, rules didn’t allow her. Only those who have passed 10th class were eligible to be a member of the group. “I resumed my studies and completed the 10th class and now I am a member of the committee,” she said proudly. Her eyes sparkled with determination and a sense of purpose.
As I travelled across the villages tucked away in mountains and valleys and met with women groups and leaders, I could feel the echoes of freedom, dignity and power of women. On 8th March, I had the privilege to celebrate International women’s day along with some of the women leaders across South Asia. There were members of parliament, women business leaders, women leaders from people’s organisations and village women leaders. This is an attempt by Oxfam in Asia to bring women leaders from diverse backgrounds to debate, discuss and inspire solutions that bring about transformational changes at scale.
I narrated the stories of women leaders that I had met in villages. In accordance with the theme of this year’s International women’s day, “Equality for women is progress for all”, I elaborated and shared how the women’s voices in these villages had resulted in progress for the entire village community.
In Nepal, women are ready to be on the highway to demand justice. They also know that they have a long way to go to overcome unjust practices like child marriage, polygamy, rape, trafficking and other forms of violence against women in Nepal. But nothing will stop them. As they said the fire has ignited. They are truly on the highway to freedom, justice and equality.
Let us join the fight.