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.
“We were alone and after the organisation was formed we felt that we were not alone. If we are together we can do something impossible. In the class that we have, got encouraged and felt that we can go ahead,” says Pushpa, who has become the secretary of the organisation — Sagarmatha Women Empowerment. Her friends had never got an opportunity to work outside the house and speak their mind.
With the Municipality encouraging women to come forward and represent their community and demand, they have been going ahead. There were three or four liquor shops in their small village. There was a lot of discrimination, fights, women violence and children learning bad habits. They realised that liquor and intoxication were the reason for hate and fights. So women got together and submitted a report to the Municipality stating that the women of her village would not want the liquor shop in their village. The Municipality supported their demand.
Many men were happy but some of them threatened them for closing the liquor shop. Liquor was a bad influence on children, too. Now, these men do not drink outside in a shop but drink inside the house which has reduced the violence to some extent. Local NGO Sankalpa is doing very well and with women facilitators like Uma Kuwar, there was a continuity to these meetings and it got stronger. “We will continue even if the project is not there,” she says.
“Daughters-in-law are very advanced and forward and they teach us and are helping us. If a woman faces any discrimination, we all are going to go forward and fight against it. The Mahakali River is a resource for us, we get sand, stones and wood. There is a flood and we also face the wrath of Mahakali when there is a flood. Happiness and sorrow are equal. Although the population of fish has decreased after the floods, the school of fish has come down. the Mahakali is born here and if the Mahakali River dries up, then the mountains also will not be there,” she says.
She felt encouraged to see me travel from afar and wanted to inspire her daughter to work in a similar field.
Vicious young Leela from Sankalp Darchula is a part of two groups — Mahakali Women Empowerment Group and Pragatishil Women Empowerment. “For me, the river is just a boundary between the two countries. I feel that this river is very scared and we cannot make this river dirty. This natural spring water has been here for ages unknown. Before, there was just a small hole and now we repaired it and made it a better one,” says Leela.
“We all women suffer no matter which side of the boundary that we belong to so repairing this spring water helped women as many people had many opinions. Men would chide us about participation and felt it was a waste of time. When men saw that we were serious about coming together and determined to solve problems we also earned respect. We tried to get supplies for the birthing center in our Health Care and repaired the centre. We created awareness that men and women are equal during our discussion and we as a woman have a stand too. We respected time as we had to manage between household chores and attending WEC meetings. With our dedication to attending meetings, men also started trusting us,” says Leela.
When men also started doing their duty, the women had more time for themselves. “We would not have been here if husbands did not trust us,” she says.
Women from her village are very supportive. There are 62 women in one group and many more women wanting to come and join the committee. She is very enthusiastic to move forward and support women even if there is no support form anyone else. There are few agendas that as a woman they have kept, like not polluting the river, from women from both sides of the river. She is proud that they have proved that they can work hand in hand with men.
Since she is leading 62 women, her vision is not just limited to TOSRA objectives, she wants to move forward and make the women move along. “We do not get our rights easily, we have to ask for it and when we get it we have to make the right use of it. As women, we get discriminated against when we are out of our homes and our respect is with us and if stay in the right path then no one can stop us. I would like to encourage women to come out of their kitchen and to have voices in society not only socially but also politically. If there is a problem in the village and if it is solved within the village by women coming forward with the budget funds in solving the problem with the available funds, then the society can progress,” says Leela.
Secretary of the Pragatisheel WEC in Darchula, Chandra Samantha lives just across the river from India. The district in India is also called Dharchula, the extra “h” being the only difference. “The relationship between India and Nepal is very close. We wanted to make this relationship even stronger. Nepali women are married in India and Indian women are married in Nepal,” she says.
Women from India attended the WEC meetings, and together they decided that repairing the spring – on the Nepal side – was top priority, since that is where women from both countries get the water for drinking, cooking, washing and all household chores. The women from India and Nepal came together to repair the spring. “We carried stones and cement and women from the India side helped us paint the spring,” Samantha recalls. “As we share the same water, we want the relationship to grow stronger.”
Ajaya Dixit, the doyen of water experts in South Asia, wrote recently, “A preliminary analysis of 693 springs over ten districts of the Far West [of Nepal] showed 187 had their average discharge decline by 60% between 2013-2016.” What the women of Darchula and Dharchula have done together is to keep their lifeline intact.
The secretary of the Sagarmatha WEC in Darchula, Leela Sawanth, lives near a primary school in her village. A small river had to be crossed to reach it, and children would find it tough on rainy days – there were many absentees. The WEC decided that the river had to be bridged. The men were sceptical. “This discouragement pushed us to show courage and prove them wrong. We consciously did not ask them help. After building the bridge we as women proved them wrong and showed them our capability. I gathered all the women together and we learned something besides cutting grass and cooking,” says Sawanth.
Nanda Daga is a grandmother who has lost her parents and siblings to floods in the Mahakali. She was hesitant to join the WEC. “I had never attended meetings in my lifetime as I was a woman of the older generation and was often chided if I was around meetings. During my menstrual cycles I used to live in a cowshed and have given birth to five children there.”
But when she did join, it was her persuasion that led the WEC to build a drinking water tap for the primary school in the village. Now she says, “I want to encourage my daughter and daughter in law to learn more as I have lived my lifetime picking grass. We did not know then that we had so much potential. Our group gave me the courage. I feel we can do it if we are together. We joke around but not during the work.”
With her husband working in Lebanon, Jayanti Dhami –– a bride from India –– has not only brought up two children by herself, but has also earned enough from her farm to buy a pair of earrings. It happened because she joined the WEC and learnt how to irrigate her terraced fields. “I was very shy and I used to feel scared when I would see people. I would not speak but when I got the support from my women folks, I got the courage to initiate the irrigation system which would divert the water to our fields,” she says.
(This is the fourth of a series of reports on the Mahakali basin. See the first, How women of Mahakali along Nepal border are finding their voices, the second, Lives without men: Stories of women living in Mahakali river basin and the third, Changing lives around Mahakali near Nepal border: Women of Baitadi)
(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)