Rural women’s voices, loud and clear in Nepal

By Katie Taft 

Development workshops are, generally speaking, filled with practitioners, policy makers, donors and academics mulling over a problem and – among break-out sessions and working groups – coming to a consensus on how best to approach it. These tend to be technical discussions on technical problems and, as such, they can become lifeless, without the passion and emotion that prompts the workshop in the first place.

A workshop session in Kathmandu. ©IFAD
A workshop held in Kathmandu, Nepal last week by the UN Joint Programme on Accelerating Progress toward the Economic Empowerment of Rural Women was far from this typical scenario. Following speeches by three Nepali women farmer leaders in the opening session, the two-day workshop remained filled with tense debates, passionate pleas and rallying cries from an audience composed mainly of rural women.

The joint programme is a five-year initiative of UN Women, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme. It will be implemented initially in Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Nepal, Niger and Rwanda. Consultative workshops at the country level are being organized to shape the programme goals and activities, based on national priorities, including in Nepal.

Although there have been significant improvements in Nepal’s poverty level in recent years, it is still considered a food-insecure country. Women make up 65 per cent of the labour force. And while they work more hours and produce more than their male counterparts, many rural women are hampered by less access to credit, land and services. Often, their opinions are not sought out. But at the workshop, they demanded to be heard – and given the reaction of the audience, who applauded and sometimes “whooped” in support, they were.

Below are excerpts of the rural women’s speeches. They not only set the tone of the workshop, they set the tone for the entire joint programme.

Raj Kumari Chaudary, Kailali district: “Empowerment can help us”
“I am bringing my problems here – to represent  all small women farmers’ problems. We rural women have to work very hard, and although we put in so much work, we are not recognized. Women in the villages are oppressed. We cannot overcome these challenges alone. We can’t even get a decent meal. We work hard but cannot produce enough food for our families.

Raj Kumari Chaudary says women must be heard. ©IFAD
“We have to work all the time. When we go to the hospital, we don’t get any support. Empowerment can help us because we are in a lot of trouble. No one hears us, and because of this I say it here: We demand that we be heard.”

Nanu Ghatani, Kavre district: “I am not afraid”
“I lead women farmers in my district. There have been positive changes that have taken place. For example, our credit group with 600 members is able to distribute low-interest loans for farming-related equipment. If we are to complete seven steps on the ladder – we have three steps left. We have access to food, but we don’t have control. We only eat whatever remains after feeding our families. Women farmers do not get any honour. They say: you have land and you have food, but we have no control inside the house.

“Agricultural programmes do not need to just focus on rural women’s production. We need to be entrepreneurs, and be our own businesses. If we can become business leaders, we can have more income in our hands. It’s not that we don’t give it to the men, we just want it to be equal. Women know about their children that they give birth to, but not about the plants that they grow. We must get more information about the nutritional information of the products we can grow. Women’s groups help build trust and support. I am not afraid like I was before. I am not alone.”

Radha Kunwar, Kaski district: “Among us there is trust”
“I am the chairwoman of the cooperative. It took us a lot of trouble to form the cooperative. They accused us of trying to spoil rural women – they didn’t trust us with the money. Now there are more than 1,000 women in the cooperative. Among us there is trust and respect. All of the women pay back their loans on time and help move us forward. They put it towards sustainable things like goat breeding. One goat costs 5,000 rupees [about US$50]. Perhaps we can give loans without interest for a year or two, so that they can build a business and they can make more income. They need to prepare for the next cropping season. When they distribute the budget for supporting rural women in the villages – women must be given a certain amount.

Radha Kunwar calls for women's inclusion. ©IFAD
“But still, women are kept from the process. We are still not given a priority. If we don’t demand it, they don’t give it to us. They make it difficult for us to request our part of the budget – they makes us bring letters, forms. We are happy to go through the process, but there is no monitoring of this. There is not evaluation of monitoring. We feel they should come and look at our work and encourage us, but they don’t. This will help encourage us, and by honouring and acknowledging our work, we will be motivated to do more. We need a voice to demand it. I was a housewife, always inside the house, and now with your support I am able to come and speak here with all of you to tell you of the challenges.”

Update: News stories
Here are some links to news stories about the Nepal workshop on the economic empowerment of rural women. The stories include reporting on the UN joint programme, the need for women to gain greater access to agricultural technology and skills, and the imperative for them to be more involved in local development decisions.

In English:
United Nations in Nepal NewsInsight, Oct.-Nov. 2012 [PDF, see pg. 5]
Kathmandu Post National Daily, 30/11/2012

In Nepali:
Kantipur National Daily,  30/11/2012
Karobar National Daily, 2/12/2012