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 Kanchanpur
By joining the Women Empowerment Centre (WEC), Januki and Ratna learnt a new way to make money –– pebble art. They always knew about making a living by breaking stones in the riverbed. But an artist from Tanakpur in India, showed them that they could arrange the pebbles in an artistic way, frame the result, and sell it. Ratna says, “We’d love to create more of this art but we do not have the means. We will create more if we get an opportunity.”
A member of the Kalika WEC, Purna Devi Kasera can see Nepal’s well-known Shuklaphanta National Park across the Mahakali from her village. She is leading the women to conserve the fish in the river. “We felt that if there are fish then the water remains clean but if we start killing fish for economic reasons, there is a very high chance of our water getting polluted. When bombs were exploded [to kill fish], our water got polluted, the embankments were destroyed and possibility of flood was huge. There are also different kinds of fish which we see a lot of during the rainy season. If the fish is not poisoned, I feel that the very breathing of fish is like filtering of the water,” she says.
To keep illegal fishers away, the WEC members patrol the riverbank at night, and now know how to warn the mayor and the local police chief even at midnight.
Laxmi Okheda and Kavita Lohar are from Ramanuj Women Empowerment Centre from Kanchanpur, Far Western Nepal. They are both work near the Jholunge Pool – Suspension bridge as quarry workers.
But that day they had come to test the waters of the Mahakali River. Laxmi feels that water is more important than food. So it is important for them to test the waters.
Laxmi says: “We need water to bathe our children and cook food so it was important to test the waters. Although we have not tested the tap water we are drinking, I feel like we are doing this test for us and not just for the committee. We get affected if a village kid gets sick like my own kid. We all go near the river bank, our children visits the river bank because if the children get affected by the polluted river then we get affected. It is good to have knowledge about the pollution in the Mahakali River.”
Kavita adds: “I have seen lot of pollution near the Mahakali River with dead animals floating across the river and open defecation. This is a source of income for us because we are quarry workers. And we are also directly impacted by the pollution as we work here every day.”
“I have two mothers. I have Thulo Ama (big mother) and my mother. I am blessed to have two mothers. We are a joint family and my family has been a huge support system. It has been 2 years that I am associated with the TROSA project and this project has inspired me to get women together,” says 26-year-old Jyoti Rasaily from Kanchanpur.
Her family is into agriculture and she used to earn money working stone and sand sieving. Timid by nature, Jyoti took a long journey to become fearless and outspoken now. She was disdainfully called a politician whenever she spoke about creating change or progressing as a woman. Women are usually not given an official identity card as men feel that the women might take the property. She feels that a women’s identity card is an important form of identification in the society, and helps women, informing them with the process of making an official identity card and writing official letters. She feels that men fear women groups as they feel that women’s leaderships are powerful. She is glad that the law is also helpful towards women.
“I feel women can make or break the house. So it is up to us women to make the society as men cannot make the society alone. If it is a house then women is are the ones who makes it a home,” she says.
Women Empowerment Centre has empowered her to speak for herself, the door has opened up many opportunities. It becomes very convincing when women are told right from an early age that they will have to marry, and education is not essential in the kitchen. That has been demotivating for her. But after attending a WEC meeting, she started pondering on her capabilities. “I felt only when I will do it then I will know about my capability. Women are the ones who becomes the victims of a problem.”
She wants to complete her SLC (Class X boards) after 8 years of a gap in her studies and dreams of empowering women to work on soft skills so that women also learn to speak in a public forum.
(This is the sixth 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, the fourth, Changing lives along Mahakali near Nepal border: Women of Darchula, and the fifth, Changing lives around Mahakali River: Women of Dadeldhura)
(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)