In January, Dow Punpiputt met some of the women leaders who took part in the Raising Her Voice project in Nepal. Here she gives a personal response to the impact of meeting with these inspirational women.
After a few hours along the curvy road in Surkhet district, we finally reached Chhinchu village, tucked away down the slope. I was blown away by the picturesque view of the village in front of me - mud houses painted in ivory colour sitting among green terraced paddy fields.
A group of almost twenty women leaders, greeted us with flower garlands and red bindhi, painted on our foreheads as a wish of luck before guiding us into the 'meeting room', a small room no larger than 12 square metres that is part of one of the women's house and used as a gathering space for them.
After we introduced ourselves, the women started telling their stories of change - personal stories how they have overcome discrimination and challenges, and successfully claimed their civil rights. One by one, confidence and pride shone in their faces. Their voices were loud and clear, and sometimes got even louder as their story progressed.
There was Pushpa, a 22 year old girl,considered by her friends and family as 'too old' because she is still single. She is studying to become a public health person. Together with other women, they successfully lobbied the Village Development Committee (VDC) and secured a budget of 45,000 NPRs to construct a road in the village. "If women really want something, they can make it happen," she said.
Then there was Ramkumari, who left her village for the first time in her life in her 40s in order to travel to Nepal's second largest city of Pokhara to meet another women's group there. During this visit she was so nervous she forgot her name when the group members were introducing themselves!
(Picture: Pushpa. Credit: Chaliya Sophaswatsakul/Oxfam)
Today she is certainly not quiet when it comes to her rights: "We should not be scared to speak up," she says.
Another example is Pavati, 20, who was elected to a school drinking-water committee. Her family was not supportive at first until she demonstrated that having a woman on a previously all-male committee can result in actions that addresswomen's specific needs. She successfully lobbied the school committee to increase drinking water points and construct toilets for women in primary schools. Now she has gained her confidence to work alongside men, she is lobbying for the same to be done in high schools.
And there was Rama B.K. who was elected to a Community Forest Committee. She found out that some money was missing from the committee's budget so she started to investigate and uncovered corruption among other committee members. Eventually she successfully lobbied for a re-election and now the whole committee are women!
"We are one, united voice - if one woman speaks, everyone supports." Tika BC
"We are one, united voice - if one woman speaks, everyone supports," said Tika BC, President of School Management Committee.
The stories went on; every woman had an inspirational story to tell. Oxfam's local staff told me that the same kind of stories are happening in different villages, creating a wave of change.
When the women become aware of their rights, they find the voice within themselves to call for equality and justice and, together, find the power and courage to stand up for themselves, and their communities.
It was impressive to think about how far they have come from the time when women's group discussion was not even welcome nor supported by some of their families.
One member's husband even came to the classes to take his wife back home. The facilitator had to convince him to sit in the class and listen to what they were discussing to understand that what they were doing was a good thing.
"Now the men are inspired to set up their own discussion group too!" said one of the members of Environment Development Society (EDS), Oxfam's partner.
Oxfam's Raising Her Voice (RHV) project empowered women at the village level to engage effectively in decision making processes and claim their rights. The five-year project ended its work in Nepal in March 2012, at which point a total of 2,004 women had benefited from attending the community discussion groups. The Secretary of Chhinchu VDC has taken affirmative steps to ensure 33% participation of women in the VDC council.
Since the end of the RHV project, several community discussion group members have become or remained in the post of chairperson of School Management Committees despite possessing lower education level than officially required.
Today, 10 months after the project ended, the women still gather once a week at one of the member's home. Using the skills they learned from RHV, they continue to raise awareness among their communities, for example they marked the international 16 days of activism against gender-based violence last November.
(Picture: Chhinchu village. Credit: Chaliya Sophaswatsakul/Oxfam)
The women have recently started growing and selling ginger together and use these profits, along with and money earnt from working in the field and singing songs at events, to run group activities. Each year, they can save around 25,000-50,000 NPRs (185-370 GBP).
"Now their targets are different," observed Bhim Poudel, a social mobiliser. "It's not only about social aspect anymore, but also agricultural and livelihoods as well."
Oxfam's key partner, Women Association for Marginalised Women (WAM), continued to provide support through their social mobilisers who visit the community regularly.
While the national election date is still up in the air, these women are already preparing the ground, making the wave of change and dreaming big. "I want to see women candidates run in the upcoming national election," said Pushpa.