Sarah Kelly, a teacher from Bandon Grammar School, Co Cork, recently visited Nepal with ActionAid, after her student Emma Young won the charity’s first Speech Writing Competition. This year’s first prize will be a visit to ActionAid’s women’s rights programme in Malawi. Visit www.actionaid.ie for more information.
When our talented student, Emma Young, entered the ActionAid Schools Speech Writing Competition last January, I had no idea of the profound impact this was to have on us all. Emma won the 2015 competition and the first prize was a visit to see ActionAid’s women’s rights programme first hand for Emma and one teacher, in Chitwan, Nepal!
Gender inequality is an issue that ActionAid tackles head on in Chitwan province, with support from Irish Aid funding. Women here have been the victims of domestic violence, child marriage, polygamy and have been treated as second class citizens for many generations. In essence, women have been regarded as the property of their husbands. We were also shocked to learn of cases where a woman could be accused of witchcraft as a way of ousting her from the family home. As can be imagined, women’s rights in relation to property and land have been non-existent and urgent action is being taken to address this. Another pressing issue that is being addressed is the sad fact that rape and sexual harassment is a real problem for Nepalese women. But things are changing in Nepal. Social mobilisers, facilitated by ActionAid, have set up women’s rights groups in each district to help address all these very real problems.
Speaking to these women, it became clear that they felt empowered and enriched by their experiences in these groups. Before ActionAid facilitated the setting up of these groups the women told us that they had felt isolated and alone. They had been unaware of their fundamental rights. The fact that the groups met in a formal sense once a fortnight (or weekly in some cases) and were managed by ActionAid’s social mobilisers meant that the women could voice their concerns in a safe and controlled environment.
Their solidarity and willingness to share their stories of domestic violence, child marriage and polygamy with us was truly inspiring. What really struck us was how much richer their lives had become as a result of these meetings. These had allowed the women to tell their personal stories, express their trials and tribulations, as well as look at the bigger picture about the future and their new found legal rights. As well as addressing the immediate problems they faced on a daily basis, we were always warmed by their readiness to laugh, to joke and to overcome.
All of the women we met spoke of how these platforms have made them more aware of their rights as women. They told us that, for the first time, they realise that if they are being abused in any way then there are laws to protect them. They know that there is a system in place and that help is at hand, no matter how dire their circumstances might seem. The women of these groups told us that they impart their new found knowledge to other women in the community. The idea is that no woman needs to feel isolated and alone whatever problem they may face.
One of the questions we asked was how the men felt about these meetings. It was wonderful to hear the response that, although the men were suspicious about them at first, they are now open to the women of the community meeting regularly to discuss these issues. Indeed, from time to time, men are invited to take part in these discussions.
I think I speak for all the group when I say how we were truly moved by the open-door policies of all the communities we visited. A great sense of “Love thy neighbour” was transmitted throughout the meetings we attended. When we asked the women if they ever criticised each other, they replied with a resounding no. We had these qualities once upon a time also. But in our rush to embrace modernity, something got lost. In Nepal, care for your community and care for the elderly are top priorities. These are lessons we can all learn.
The way that ActionAid supports work on the ground in Nepal was a revelation to me. As someone previously unschooled as to the workings of NGOs and whose judgment of foreign aid had been negatively coloured by various corruption scandals and the like, it was a real eye-opener. We braved the perilous mountainous road that snaked from Kathmandu to Bharatphur. We jolted awake at 6am to the sound of Hindu music blaring from a tree in a neighbouring square. We met about three hundred and fifty Nepali people. We ate curry for breakfast, for dinner, for tea. We danced at a party outside a mud hut in Madi, a place devoid of electricity but illuminated by hope and promise. We built new friendships. We laughed.
Thank you, ActionAid Ireland and Action Aid Nepal. Dhanyabad. It has been a great privilege.
Sarah Kelly, Teacher, Bandon Grammar School, Co Cork