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 Dadeldhura
Meena Sawant is from Tatapani and a member of Parshuram Women Empowerment Center. Initially, she could not even introduce herself and used to hesitate to speak in fear that people will laugh at her. She feels now women’s voice and problems can be taken to the municipality and to the world. She lives neat the Rangoon River which is a tributary of the Mahakali River. They do not have any benefits from the Mahakali River as the constant river bank erosion and flooding has led to the destruction of their land and livelihood.
Due to river surges during the rainy season and floods in their village and neighbouring villages, many villagers have left their villages. “We have scarcity of drinking water. Men do not have any means of income so they migrate to the other side of the border or another country to earn money. Men also supported us and told us to move ahead with a purpose”. They have worked towards ‘one house one toilet’ scheme and they go for vigilance around the village to stop open defection and create awareness about sanitation and cleanliness. They realised that because water contamination through open defection and create awareness about sanitation and cleanliness.
They realised that water contamination through open defecation was making their children sick with water borne disease. “I am grateful that I can speak on behalf of women who are suffering from various problems. We planted trees to avoid land erosion. We as women work together and try ti find solutions to problems that our village is going through. We meet at 11 am twice a month. We have learnt to test our water under the Citizen Science Project and find solutions if the water is contaminated. As of now, our water is drinkable,” she says, adding: “I married when I was 20 years old. I married a teacher. I feel that if we as women learn any skills then we can also earn money and not be dependent on men all the time.”
Durga comes from Parshuram Municipality and represents Shivshakti Women Empowerment from Dadeldhura. A group of 31 women came together under one umbrella through the TORSA project.
“I have always been a person who has been socially active and helping around the villages. There is a powerful strengthing this group that was formed through this TORSA project. My husband is at home and because of his support I have come this far. I have meetings across the village all year round and my husband helps me do all the chores,” she says.
Women clean the temple surroundings and have built roads together. They have a monthly expense of NPR 50 which comes from RUDUC, local NGO supporting TORSA Project. This money would help them in their food expense during the meeting but they decided to save that money and utilise it for times when women are in difficulties. She affirms, “Women should support women. We have used this saved money for times when women cannot pay their delivery expense and provide for medicines when women get ill in times of emergency. Now we manage the money and we are independent from men. When I married young, I was mocked for not staying at home as I was socially active but now they do not say anything as they saw that women have to step out of the house to empower each other.”
Her dream is to make women aware of their own capabilities and make them independent.
Bhawana Kharga is from Parigaon, Parshuram Municipality and an active representative of Shivshakti Women Empowerment. Women discrimination has been a dire consequence of over consumption of liquor by the men in her village.
Men would sell off their goat or cow when women would come back after fetching fodder for the cow. She felt that was also a form of discrimination against women when the women would work really hard but the man in the house would make decisions without her consent. Bhawana was strongly against cases where women were not allowed to give opinions or were trampled under the dominance of patriarchy. She shares that there were times that if women would say anything they were mocked with a mocked with a remark ‘Pothee Baasyo Hai!’ which means ‘It is not the duty of hen to crow’. Although she did not go through this experience but she woud speak for anyone who was discriminated against because she felt the victims suffering, too. When women got together, men were fairly conscious of their actions after the formation of WEC. Women have initiated ‘Tol Sudhaar Samiti’ where women identifies issues within the Municipality and they find solutions themselves. They visit small villages to create awareness against women discrimination.
“Due to poverty, men have left their village as they do not have any income generation occupations in our area. If we had any work in the community itself, oue men would have not left the place.” When I asked her who is the most powerful member amongst all the women who had come for meeting, she replied “We all are powerful, I cannot name one person because we all are equally powerful and empowered. We are powerful together and not individually.”
She feels that the Mahakali River is blessed with rare fish and medicinal plants around the mountains. Cleaning the river is their priority and she wants to grow more trees. Her group has created connection with the women from India and they are trying to create awareness to clean the river together.
“Women are most powerful than men as men cannot solve the problems the same way women would. Women are president and have higher tolerance to crisis. There are stories of boxes of dead husbands on the thresholds of the houses. These women still have raised their children with pride without shedding tears. “I want women to get their rights. If there are women Prime Minister in the world then why cannot we get our basic human rights.”
Maya Devi Silal is a member of Shivshakti Women Empowerment Center from Dadledhura. “We used to Shake when we used to speak and we had no idea that we had any rights or privileges. We had no information of any advantages for women provided by the Municipality. Our husbands never made any documents for us because they used to feel that we will take their property away. Through this committee, we came to know about the rights, funds that are allotted for women and children.
RUDUC, local NGO working with TROSA helped these women to connect with the municipality. They started demanding their rights and demands and conducted lobby meeting not just with the District Magistrate but with mayor of the municipality.
They have demanded a community hall for women to conduct meetings to government officials. Shivashakti and Bahadure community members have already received deep boring facility for water supply from the government offcials and they all are planning for the management.
She says, “We learnt what a budget means so that we could be independent. We know that Parshuram temple is a spiritual place and many people visit this place so we womenfolk have come together to clean the temple area to promote this place as a tourist destination, so that we are sustainable and financially independent”.
A member of the Bahadure WEC in Dadeldhura, Gauri Hamal learnt white water rafting when she joined the TROSA project. “It is a matter of pride that I was the first woman to raft on the Mahakali,” she says. “I taught the women of Bahadure WEC lots of things. Later on many women came on board to try rafting, initially they were very scared. But they loved it. The raft could connect the people from both side of India and Nepal especially during the Parshudham Mandir festival.”
The rafting was more than fun. It was the way for women from India could attend the religious festival last year. And the WEC saw to it that nobody threw any garbage into the river during the festival. The members made cane dustbins to place all around the fairground. They contacted municipality officials to ensure garbage removal.
(This is the fifth 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 the third, Changing lives around Mahakali near Nepal border: Women of Baitadi and the fourth, Changing lives along Mahakali near Nepal border: Women of Darchula)
(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)