Raising Her Voice in Nepal: rekindling women's lifelong desire to go to school
Sandhya Shrestha Programme Officer
11th Jun 2012
When women in mid-western Nepal started attending community discussion classes, designed to promote community engagement, one of the unexpected outcomes was that many went back to school - for many this meant realising a lifelong ambition. Programme Officer Sandhya Shrestha explains more.
Until four years ago, women in villages in mid-western Nepal were wholly confined to their homes and kitchens. Attending and organizing meetings seemed a far-fetched idea. But their lives changed after the Raising Her Voice (RHV) project began running community discussion classes for women (CDCs) three years ago in Bardiya, Surkhet and Dailekh districts. The classes brought women out of their homes and built an enabling environment for them to raise their issues - first within the community and then gradually, remarkably, at district
and national level too.
Since they became part of the RHV project, the women have started to claim key positions in local decision-making structures, such as school management committees (SMC). A number of women have also been going to school in the afternoons, in between their challenging morning and evening chores at home.
Ram Kumari Malla describes how she came to be voted chair of the Shanti Rastriya Secondary School SMC.
"We held a huge gathering. There were seven male candidates but only one female. They must have thought that they would intimidate me by shouting and talking loudly. They said, 'How can a woman stand for the post when there are men available? If you wish, you can try next time. We have big plans for the school. We can't let them fall through.'"
Despite the men's attitude, Ram Kumari became chair of the SMC with support of CDC women from all wards in the project area. She began work to upgrade the school to secondary level. She won over all the parents and went to the district education office many times.
For 37 years the school had been teaching classes only up to seventh grade. But with Ram Kumari as chair of the committee it went up to tenth grade. Men who had been underestimating women for years were finally persuaded that women are also capable of doing many things.
She said, "Men who said women are going to ruin everything have been silenced. We upgraded the school to the secondary level."
This is just one example, but many other women holding positions in SMCs and doing a great job of it have proved that women can do better, if they have the opportunity. 1,177 out of the 1,680 women attending CDCs now take part in local decision making structures, including Village Development Councils (VDC), where poor and marginalised women had previously not been well represented.
Farse Kumar Tiwari, VDC Secretary, Surkhet district has seen the impact of women becoming more aware of their rights and more actively engaged:
"A few years back the budget allocated for women's human resource development remained unused because no one went to claim it. Now it is different. Women not only lay claims to this special budget, but also apply for financial assistance from the overall Village Development Committee budget. This is largely due to the CDC's contribution where they learn about local resources."
This was validated by several women, who proudly said "We are individuals with an identity of our own and have every right to make decisions that affect our lives".
One of the biggest impacts of the CDCs is that women realised that they must learn to read and write to hold key positions and make their role effective. That's why increasing numbers of women have returned to formal education. These women not only study at school, but also attend in order to help the school to operate properly.
Bimala Shahi, Dailkeh shared her experience: "My son used to say, "Mummy, please don't come to my school. It's so embarrassing, with you and I in the same class" but these days he says, "Mummy, let's go to school. If you miss a lesson, they won't teach it again tomorrow. Then how will you learn it? I can't teach it as well as the teachers; so you shouldn't miss a class." This shows that how change happens in society.
Gita Shahi also shared how she is managing her time so that she can attend school "Until seven in the morning I am busy with cooking and cleaning in the house. Then I have to go and collect grass for the cattle. After that clean the shed and prepare fodder for the afternoon. Only then can I leave for school." Jagati Kumari Gharti Magar added "I learned a lot of things from discussions class. I realised the value of learning". Bimala Shahi and her friends now study in grade five at a school near home.
Another example is Jodhani Tharu of Chhodkideuda village in Bardiya district whose children are studying in grade twelve. But Jodhani herself is in grade three at a school near her house. She shared her experience "Once I took part in a session on gender and sex. Everyone else in the class had had some education. Only I was illiterate. That was when I realized that I must learn to read and write." She added "I had always wanted to be educated. But my parents did not send me to school. After I got married I had children to send to school. There was no way for me to get an
education for myself. But after my children started going to college, I had some time for myself and I went to attend classes. I thought to myself, as long as one is alive, it's never too late to learn. That's how I gathered the courage to learn."
Rupa B.K. Seri, Dailekh valued education and said "I could not even write my own name. I used my thumb print for my signature. But things have changed now."