Nepal

'Untouchable' women in Nepal get the opportunity they never had

UDAYPUR DISTRICT, Nepal, 26 December 2006 – She is the 45-year-old ‘musahar’ woman from Nepal's Udaypur District with four children and an ailing husband. Until four years ago, this pithy description constituted her only identity. "No one ever called me by my name, which is Nemni Sada," she says. "Now I also know how to write it."

Ms. Sada belongs to the musahar caste – the name literally means 'rat eaters' – who are among the most disadvantaged groups in Nepal. They are considered ‘untouchables’, which in the heavily stratified Hindu caste system means they are too impure to rank as worthy beings.

Prejudice defines their lives, particularly in the rural areas. They are routinely shunned, insulted, banned from temples and higher caste homes, and made to eat and drink from separate utensils in public places.

Double discrimination

According to the 2001 census, there are an estimated 172,000 musahars in Nepal, constituting .74 per cent of the population. Most of them are illiterate, living on the edges of villages and towns and doing the most menial jobs for the lowest wages.

Throughout her life, Ms. Sada has experienced double discrimination – she has been treated with disdain by the higher castes because she is a musahar and has been regarded as inferior by her own community because she is a woman.

Although Ms. Sada desperately needed to support her poor family, she was only occasionally allowed to seek work because women in her community are supposed to stay home. When she did work, she would typically receive two and a half kilos of unhusked rice for a full day in the fields and turn over all her earnings to her husband. Her children never attended school.

Fostering financial independence

But all of that changed when she joined the Usha Kiran Women's Cooperative in Gaighat. Such self-sustaining cooperatives, supported by the Nepalese Government and UNICEF, seek to empower women by teaching them about their rights and the rights of their children, giving them a voice and encouraging them to make decisions. The cooperatives foster the financial independence of their members through vocational skills training and loans.

With one such loan, Ms. Sada bought two piglets and embarked on her first entrepreneurial venture. A year later, she made a handsome profit when she sold the pigs.

"I had never had so much money in my life before," she says.

Money didn't just give Ms. Sada financial freedom but also earned her the respect of other women in her community, many of whom have joined the cooperative.

"Even my brothers, who treated me with disdain earlier, now ask me for help," she notes.

Role model in the community

Hari Maya Shahi, who has chaired the cooperative since its inception, is very happy to see Ms. Sada's success. "When I first met her, she was very shy and never spoke up at meetings," she recalls. "Now, she assists other women from her community with legal procedures."

This in itself is quite a feat, considering that until very recently Ms. Sada couldn't even look up into the faces of higher-caste people.

These days, Ms. Sada is one of four women from disadvantaged groups who are members of the Executive Committee, where all decisions concerning the cooperative are made. She has become a role model in the musahar community, inspiring others to get into the mainstream too.

One more dream

"The fact that we can sit here and eat with everybody else shows how far we have come compared to just 10 years ago," says Lila Suyel, who is a member of the Executive Committee and is also considered an 'untouchable'.

"Before, people wouldn't drink the water we touched," adds Ms. Suyel, whose husband, she says, has grudgingly begun to accept her newfound financial and social responsibility. "Imagine, sometimes he even cooks for me," she says, and bursts into laughter.

Ms. Sada, who recently trained to become a birth attendant, is busy building a two-room brick house. She hopes that her elder son, now employed with a tractor service, will bring a bride and come live with her. Her elder daughter is married, and her younger daughter and son now go to school.

Ms. Sada says she has seen all her dreams come true, except for one. "I want him to study," she says, patting her shy, five-year-old son. "I want him to be the first government officer in our community."