Next up in this series of case studies in Active Citizenship is some inspiring work on women’s empowerment in Nepal. I would welcome comments on the full study: Raising Her Voice Nepal final draft 4 July
‘I was just a baby making machine’; ‘Before the project, I only ever spoke to animals and children’; ‘This is the first time I have been called by my own name.’ [Quotes from women interviewed by study tour, March 2011]
While gender inequality remains extreme in Nepal, Oxfam’s Raising Her Voice (RHV) programme on women’s empowerment is contributing to and reinforcing an ongoing long-term shift in gender norms, driven by a combination of urbanization, migration, rising literacy and access to media, all of which have combined to erode women’s traditional isolation.
During the past 20 years, Nepal has also undergone major political changes. It has moved from being an absolute monarchy to a republic, from having an authoritarian regime to a more participatory governance system, from a religious state to a secular one, and from a centralized system to a more decentralized one.
These shifts have produced some important windows of opportunity and implementation gaps on which RHV seeks to build. To do this, RHV has set up some 80 Community Discussion Classes (CDCs), bringing women together for up to 2 hours a day to share experiences, enhance their knowledge of local decision making, and build their communication, advocacy and leadership skills. Crucially, facilitators come from the communities themselves.
CDCs have become the building blocks of a remarkable exercise in grassroots empowerment. Women have seen tangible progress in their homes, communities and broader social and political roles on issues such as violence against women, political representation and the right to be heard.
Although men have many informal and formal forums in which to discuss their issues, such as local tea shops or community meetings, women have previously been more isolated. Aiming to counter this, the CDCs have reached about 2,000 women through 80 classes.
CDC activities include literacy, discussions on community issues selected by the participants, and agreement on action plans to tackle shared problems. Often the facilitator introduces new information to the group, using printed material, but also role plays and debates.
The CDCs have proven effective in breaking down the walls of women’s isolation. Almost all of them have started collective savings and credit schemes. Many have claimed ring-fenced, but often undisbursed village budgets for construction of community toilets and halls. Others have organized ward meetings that bring together women and men from across the community, as well as teachers, political party representatives and local government officials.
In many cases, CDCs took root slowly, identifying a few women who were relatively free to join project activities and building out from there, as they encouraged others who were either less convinced or faced greater constraints from husbands or others.
By creating an ‘enabling environment’ of women’s empowerment, rather than a specific project, RHV was able to adapt to the different context in the three project districts. In one, the focus was on addressing shared issues such as alcohol abuse, whereas in the other two, there was a stronger focus on supporting individual women through group coaching, counselling and mediation.
In addition to promoting women’s participation, the project deliberately sought to influence existing, mainly male, committee members as well as other influential local actors such as policy officers and civil servants.
Work at national level highlighted poor governance, particularly at village and district levels, and its negative effects on the people, especially women. This was achieved through radio programmes, national assemblies involving over a hundred community women representatives, subsequent lobby meetings with politicians, bureaucrats, police, rights organisations etc.
In the event, RHV found that although the lobby meetings did not yield anything concrete immediately, they served as a strong morale booster for the women who came to Kathmandu (the majority of them for the first time in their lives). Many said that now that they had interacted face to face with so many senior officials and politicians, they could easily face the local level officials and politicians and would not allow them to look down on them and ignore their voice. They went back to their villages and did exactly that.
The CDCs also encouraged women’s participation in Nepal’s plethora of community organizations. RHV targeted four in particular: Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs), School Management Committees (SMCs), Sub-Health Post Management Committees (SHMCs), and Drinking Water and Sanitation User Groups (DWSUGs).
Women’s participation has grown most in committees with quotas, and evaluation finds that women members have more influence on, and are more likely to have leadership roles in, committees when they have received more training, are involved in more than one committee and are fully supported by their family.
New institutions are often more malleable and thus easier to influence than established ones, and an opportunity has arisen with the Ward Citizen Forums that are being gradually implemented under the Ministry of Local Development’s Local Governance and Community Development Programme. These are intended to facilitate participatory planning processes at village and ward levels, and also espouse accountability and transparency in local governance until local elections are held.
To some extent, CDC women leaders have also become role models for women in other communities, inspiring numerous women from villages next to RHV communities to ask for help in setting up their own CDCs.
Surprises and Dilemmas
Local political party committees and leaders soon noticed the confidence, leadership skills, and networks of RHV women and started trying to recruit them. Initially, the women were reluctant for fear that if they joined different political parties, they would lose their previous levels of solidarity and organisation, and things might fall apart.
Oxfam and its RHV partners cautiously watched and supported the CDCs, helping them analyse the manifestos of different political parties, explaining how political parties function, the electoral processes, and the pros and cons of joining political parties. This was a delicate balance between giving useful knowledge but at the same time leaving the decision up to them. So far more than 150 CDC women have joined different political parties and some of them now plan to stand in local elections.
When a project like this succeeds, it has to accept a certain loss of control. In the phrase of Robert Chambers, project managers have to ‘hand over the stick’ to poor women to take their own decisions. Empowered women come up with their own priorities and approaches, and these are sometimes uncomfortable for project organizers, as for example when women set up a number of Alcohol Control Committees, started limiting alcohol sales in the villages and imposing fines on drunkards. Some then went further and physically destroyed bars.
Feel free to comment on previous draft case studies in this series on Campaigning on the US Deepwater Horizon oilspill, Changing hearts and minds on Violence Against Women in South Asia, promoting Women’s Leadership in Pakistan, Labour Rights in Indonesia, and Community Protection Committees in DRC