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Discovering Kathmandu and a vision for the future of Nepal

1 June 2009

Cécile Clerc, MRG’s Head of Fundraising, is in Nepal for a meeting with MRG partner organisations to design a new programme to fight discrimination against Dalit women.

Asia seems to be a popular destination with MRG staff lately. A few weeks ago, my colleague Emma was in India and this time, Kathryn, our Gender and Advocacy Coordinator and I have landed in Nepal.

We are in Kathmandu for a couple of days to meet with MRG’s main in-country partners (FEDO and DNF) and discuss the possibility of designing a new programme focussing on fighting against the discrimination experienced by Dalit women and girls.

While waiting to go through immigration and medical checks (yes the spectrum of swine flu has reached Asia too) I look through the windows of the airport and see a clear blue sky, tall mountains in the horizon… My first impression of the country is of quietness and tranquility.

And then we leave the airport… and everything changes!

No more peace… motorbikes, human beings, cars, buses…even cows share the road. Clearly there is no space for everyone. I close my eyes for most of the trip and decide that I’ll admire the surroundings on my way back to the airport when I’m a little more familiar with the traffic.

At the hotel, we meet with Durgha, Director of FEDO. She wants to make sure that everything is fine and that we will be ready for the meeting which starts the following day. We are.

Before nightfall we go for a walk up to Patan Durbar Square, a monumental area well known for its architectural heritage (particularly Buddhist temples), recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

We also experience a few electricity cuts, which are very usual apparently. I go to bed looking forward to meeting our partners tomorrow.

This morning 17 Dalit activists (15 women and 2 men) from all across Nepal have joined us for the meeting.

The first session is about discussing the issues faced by Dalit women and girls in the country in order for us to get a better grasp of the situation.

To our question, “What do you consider to be the main challenges faced by Dalit women in Nepal?” the immediate shouted answer is “Lack of political participation!” To be honest, I didn’t expect it. I was thinking maybe poverty, illiteracy, violence… But then, discussing with partners during the meeting, I realise that this is a true reflection of how Nepali society is – very politically aware and engaged. The work of the Constituent Assembly is seen by many and especially by Dalits, who are the most economically, socially and politically excluded, as a major opportunity to for the protection and recognition of their rights.

Unsurprisingly, they want to work with MRG on encouraging Dalit womens’ political participation from local to national level. They feel that once Dalit women are able to participate in the decision–making processes that influence their lives, they will be able to advocate for an improvement of their situation. Clearly, much needs to be done.

Our partners talk about the discrimination faced by Dalit women, both within and outside their community. Their extreme poverty; their lack of access to education; the physical violence they experience; the increasing trafficking of Dalit women and girls across the region for prostitution and/or illegal employment.

The list of abuses and denial of rights is long.

But the activists are clearly not afraid by the task ahead. Ideas are exchanged on how best to work on the specific issue of political participation. Quickly, we have a strategy in place (which MRG’s Fundraising Team will then have to sell to donors in order to get the necessary funding in place to implement the work). Sometimes I wish some of the potential donors could have joined us. There was so much hope, motivation and dedication in the activists’ voices and eyes that it was truly inspirational.

I thought I’d end this blog by sharing with you two visions of the future of the Dalit movement in Nepal…

At the end of our event, one of the women who actively participated in the meeting introduced us to her daughter. She had travelled with her to attend the event and we had arranged childcare. This is a practice we welcome at MRG and always try to facilitate: women should never be prevented from participating in meetings because of childcare obligations. The little girl is funny and smiling. I joke with her mum asking if her daughter is already learning the ropes of activism. She smiled and answered quietly, “I hope that by the time she is my age, she won’t have to campaign to ensure that Dalit women are not discriminated against. I hope by that time we will be treated equally to the rest of the Nepali citizens.”

One evening during our stay, we were invited for dinner at Durgha’s house. Durgha is the Director of FEDO, a very active and professional Dalit organization which campaigns for an improvement of the situation of Dalits in Nepal. Durgha is well known in the country but also internationally and you could almost say she is famous! During dinner she tells us that not long ago her daughter was asked at school to write about what she would do when she grew up. A classic question. Her answer was not quite so typical… “To be a Dalit, because there is no shame to be a Dalit”. And she gave the example of her Mum, of her great work and engagement with the community.

I wonder if this could be the future of Nepal? A country where Dalit men and women are not discriminated against anymore because of their community? A country where they are proud to be Dalit?

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.