Women Overcome Discrimination in Nepal

Posted by Rachel Roesler on May 28th 2009 in Organizations, Volunteers Edit

In the village of Patiswara, in the shadows of the Himalayan mountains, over 60 women representing 11 community groups from the Gorkha District of Nepal gathered to attend a series of human rights workshops. A few years ago, such an event would have been unheard of, but today these workshops are common throughout the region thanks to the efforts of an unlikely pair.

Even before Bishnu Maya Pariyar met Eva Kasell, an American women traveling in Bishnu's home country of Nepal, she had accomplished much more than was expected of her. As a member of the Dalit caste, one of the lowest in Nepal's complex class system, Bishnu and her family were considered "untouchables." Forced to work in indentured servitude to as many as 100 families as tailors, Dalits such as Bishnu's father sew for 10 to 12 hours a day, earning only five pounds of rice or grain from each family per year. Because they live in extreme poverty and are treated as outcasts, Dalit children do not attend school. Bishnu was the exception.

As a child Bishnu went to the harvested fields surrounding her village to collect grains of rice and millet left behind on the ground. Grain by grain she worked until she had enough to sell for a few rupees, enough to buy her school uniform and supplies. At school Bishnu was forbidden from drinking out of a cup or eating with her classmates. If she accidently touched a classmate they would immediately purify themselves with sacred water. She was made to sit on the floor while her classmates sat at desks. Despite daily hardships and discrimination, Bishnu became the only girl from her village, from any caste, to graduate from secondary school. She continued her education by enrolling in college in Kathmandu with the help of an American Peace Corp volunteer and a grant from The Himalayan Foundation. She also started a nonprofit organization, ADWAN (The Association of Dalit Women's Advancement of Nepal), to promote the education of Dalit women and girls and to eradicate the injustice of being labeled an untouchable.

When Bishnu met Eva she had just finished college and was working as a translator to fund ADWAN. The women quickly forged the unlikely friendship of a twenty two-year-old Dalit from a small village in Nepal and a married mother of three from Cambridge, MA. Impressed by the accomplishments that this young woman had achieved despite incredible hardship, Eva knew that with the right support, there was no limit to the good works Bishnu could do. With financial support and encouragement, Eva helped Bishnu come to the US where she earned a Master's degree in International Relations from Clark University. Together the women expanded ADWAN's programs and founded the American-based offshoot EDWON (Empower Dalit Women of Nepal), which raises funds for ADWAN's programs in Nepal.

Thanks to the hard work of Bishnu, Eva and staff and volunteers in the US and Nepal, over 1700 Dalit boys and girls have attended school. Six students are currently in college in Kathmandu.

The organizations have also funded the formation of 73 women's groups whose membership totals over 3000 women. EDWON provides seed money to form the groups, whose goals vary depending on need. All of the women are offered human rights and literacy training. Additional funds are used to build community houses, provide skills training and finance microloans. Eve Kasell says that the organizations "empower Dalit women and women of other castes to see that they have more in common than they know."

Bishnu currently works two jobs in Boston, MA: as a social worker counseling victims of domestic violence, and as an outreach worker for The Asian Task Force. Her salary is paying off student loans and helps fund ADWAN's programs in Nepal. Together she and Eva fundraise in order to continue assisting women's groups and to send additional students to school. It costs about $8 dollars to send a child to school for a year, and a community group can be started for as little as $50. They are also working to raise the $45,000 needed for Bishnu to return to Nepal to work for ADWAN full-time for at least three years.

When she hears about the recent success of the workshop held in Patiswara, where women from different castes shared a meal along with ideas on how to combat domestic violence, gain financial independence and become community activists, Bishnu feels a sense of pride and longs to join her staff in Nepal. She says, "When I see what we are accomplishing, if gives me energy and strength to want to do more. I want to devote my life to this."


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