Tara Karki on the bank of the Mahakali, with India across the river Credit: Minket Lepcha

Women living along the trans-boundary river have found their own leaders who empower them to demand their basic rights

Running their homes while their menfolk migrate in search of work, women living along the Mahakali River that marks Nepal’s western border with India are especially vulnerable to water-related disasters – erosion, landslides, flash floods and polluted water.

This has worsened due to climate change, and has come on top of centuries of discrimination due to patriarchy. The average woman who runs the house and the farm has no title to either. Only some of them are educated.

But their lives are gestating into stories of empowerment, awareness of basic rights and aspirations to learn more. Much of this has come through the Women’s Empowerment Centres (WEC) dotting villages along the Mahakali basin. The WECs have been catalysed by a group of NGOs led by the TROSA (Trans-boundary Rivers of South Asia) project of Oxfam and its local regional partners – Sankalpa in Darchula, RUDES (Rural Development and Environment Management Society) in Baitadi, RUWDUC (Rural Women’s Development and Unity Centre) in Dadeldhura and NEEDS (National Environment and Equity Development Society) in Kanchanpur.

Supported by the NGOs, the WECs have started to expand their horizons and have initiated trans-boundary water dialogues with villages across the river in Uttarakhand, India. Women’s role in governance, water management and conservation has been one of the main objectives of Oxfam with the belief that empowering these women can eventually change their lives in a positive way as they are the ones impacted the most by trans-boundary water management issues.

Here are some of the women leading the change.

The women leaders of Baitadi

Tara Karki

Secretary of Navjyoti Women Empowerment group representing Chandranagar Municipality from Baitadi, Western Nepal, Tara Karki knows what the absence of basic healthcare means. She gave birth to two children in the woods near her village and to one near the threshold of her home. If villagers needed urgent healthcare, they would have to cross the Mahakali on rafts made of tubes of old truck tyres, and go to India. The other option was to walk for five hours.

Tara Karki leads the WEC members on their way back from a meeting

A birthing centre was opened in her village six years ago, but was not functioning properly. So the first job of the WEC in her village was to arrange for a nurse who would be available much of the time. “With the strength that I have gathered from my village sisters, we go to the municipality and have the confidence to speak with the officers and demand what we need,” Karki says. Women who did not know how to sign can now do so. They have learnt to save their money. If they meet a stranger, they are not silent any more.

Karki’s husband used to discourage her. “But he saw we were doing something worthwhile and the number of women participating was increasing every year, he stopped.”

Dhana Joshi

WEC members checking the TDS and pH balance of the Mahakali water with tools provided by the Citizens’ Science Project initiated by TROSA

Dhana Joshi was brought up with the belief that water is sacred, that medicinal plants grow around the source of the Mahakali, and that the river brings all the medicines’ properties along with the water. So when her children kept falling sick after drinking the water she fetched from the river, she did not know why. It was at a WEC meeting that she learnt about the problems caused by open defecation upstream. Then she got a water quality testing kit at the WEC. Now she knows about TDS (total dissolved solids) and pH balance. She also knows to boil the drinking water, and persuades all her neighbours to do the same.

Bishna Karki

She is the one who gets the flood alert on her mobile phone when the Mahakali waters rise upstream. Secretary of the Pragatisheel WEC in Baitadi, it is Bishna Karki’s job –– done voluntarily –– to warn her neighbours and villages downstream.

Bishna Karki poses in front of the Pragatisheel Women’s Empowerment Centre

It takes the flood waters about 90 minutes to travel from the district upstream. Before Bishna volunteered, police officials in that district would alert their civilian counterparts, who would inform Nepal’s home ministry in Kathmandu, who would inform the district officials downstream. The process would often take longer than 90 minutes.

The WEC members in Bishna’s village contacted WEC members upstream, and have created a community-to-community alert system, to which they have now added women living on the other side of the river in India, yet another example of trans-boundary cooperation.

Pashupati Budal

Pashupati Budal is the secretary of Panchakoti Women Empowerment Centre. Her husband works out of the country to provide for her and her child. But she has to look after the children and the farm and cannot be dependent on her husband all the time. “WEC opened my eyes and paved us the way for us. The municipality also gave motors so that we can initiate an irrigation system to encourage farming vegetables and become financially independent. After joining WEC we started earning money. We had many problems because we would travel for many miles to pick up woods. It has been two years now, and we keep meeting together. We have dreams to grow more vegetables. And I want to save money so that I can educate my children. We cannot survive without the Mahakali river. The river is our guardian,” she says.

Pashupati Budal is the secretary of Panchakoti Women Empowerment Centre

Even if the support from the local NGOs does not come, our group is confident that we can move forward as our organisations have been registered under the department of irrigation, she says. “Women from our village have gone for workshops based on farmer leaders and are in touch with the agriculture and irrigation department along with the government of Nepal,” she adds. After the irrigation system arrived in her village and she has seen the success of such projects supported by the municipality and local stakeholders like the irrigation and agriculture department, her husband also helps on the farm whenever he visits. She is also supported by her mother-in-law.

Her mother-in-law is clad in full white symbolising that she has lost her husband recently. She laments that the river is not the same and has seen varieties of fish disappearing over a period of time. She has seen fish around spring waters too. She never needed to fish in the river before and as during the rainy season fish would come by to the river banks. She would just fill the container with those fishes.

Pashupati Budal’s mother-in-law is clad in full white symbolising that she has lost her husband recently

She feels education is important. Things are not the same after the devastating flood which destroyed lands and humans killed people. Her time is limited now but she would always encourage her daughter-in-law and future generations to come together. There were times when she used to cry to starvation and at times has survived on grass and wild plants. So times are better now. Way better.

Geeta Bishta and Sangeeta Bhatta

Geeta Bishta and Sangeeta Bhatta are the social mobilisers who visit the village women and inspire these women to form a group. They are the young educated women of the village. They both aspire to work on the social work field and change society and empower women.

Sangeeta, who is 21 years old, believes that the Mahakali River keeps them clean and will not be the same without the river. Whenever she feels sad, she looks at the river and wants to be independent just like one of the ‘free-flowing’ Mahakali River. She lives at a stretch of the Mahakali River where there has been no intervention of man-made huge constructions. The river is literally flowing freely. Among the identified free-flowing rivers in India, a majority (96%) falls in the ‘short rivers’ category (10-100 km). Mahakali is one of them.

“Even if I marry, I will let my future husband know my criteria for marriage. When I interact with women, they are the ones who give us solutions. We avoid giving them solutions because I have learned that when we listen to their problems and allow them to discuss, they come up with powerful solutions for themselves, and sometimes they do not realize that they are the solution to their problems. This was a great learning for me. We cannot force them,” she says.

Geeta feels that the Mahakali River is the source for many different kinds of fish and provides water for their vegetable farming which further helped them to sustain. “My mother-in-law encouraged me to join the work of empowering women as she felt that she did not get enough opportunity in her lifetime,” she says. She is also supported by her mother-in-law.

(This is the third of a series of reports on the Mahakali basin. See the first, How women of Mahakali along Nepal border are finding their voices, and the second, Lives without men: Stories of women living in Mahakali river basin)

(This work was supported by The Third Pole-Oxfam Shared Water Media Grants as part of the Transboundary Rivers of South Asia (TROSA) project funded by the Government of Sweden. Views expressed are solely those of the author)

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