Considering how long it takes to travel from Berkeley, California to Kathmandu, Nepal, you could say my stay is rather short — seven days. But, thanks to Rakshya and Nirmala who seem to know everyone in the disability rights /independent living and women’s rights communities, my schedule is jam packed from morning until night. Fortunately for me, Nirmala found a brief gap after our visit to the US Embassy (more about that visit later) and I got to meet the staff at CIL – Kathmandu today.
If you didn’t know CIL-Kathmandu was in the building, you might think that it was a motor scooter shop—there’s a garage in the front of the building where at least four of the staff’s four-wheeled scooters are parked. Others rest in front of the building. Four-wheelers are used by people with disabilities — including people who use wheelchairs to travel independently around Kathmandu—there is no accessible public transportation (there’s no public transportation at all) and no private accessible transportation. Wheelchair users transfer to the seat of the scooter and pull their chairs onto the small space between the seat and handlebars (or if your chair folds, hook it onto the side of the scooter). Continue reading →
Between the Kathmandu morning rush hour traffic (the worst I’d ever seen until we returned to Kathmandu during the evening rush hour) and the road conditions leading out to the small villages in the Kavre District, we are on the road for almost three hours before we arrived at Kushadevi Village Development Committee. Rakshya and Nirmala told me to expect to meet 20 women who were interested in joining one of the new Self Help Groups for women with disabilities (including Dalit women with disabilities) that are the focus of our joint project. We were greeted by 48 women! Some women had disabilities, some were parents and others were friends, family members or local activists. Many had walked or ridden a minibus for up to two hours to attend. Attendance was evidence of FEDO and NDWA‘s strong outreach and networking throughout Nepal.
The women introduced themselves and spoke about barriers they face as women with disabilities. There were parents of children with disabilities in the room and they spoke about their children. Nirmala explained the purpose of the SHGs—developing advocacy skills and working together to address barriers in their villages, and ultimately at the national level. The SHGs will also serve as income generating groups for the women, beginning with a micro-loan fund, which was made possible through a mini-grant from the US State Department.
Margaret Mead’s famous words, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” reminds me of the founders of the Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO).
In 1994, feminist, poet and journalist Robin Morgan who was serving as the global editor for Ms Magazine spent three weeks in Nepal consulting on women’s rights and Durga Sob, a Dalit woman who was thinking about oppression, gender, and caste had an opportunity to hear her speak and talk with her. That encounter stimulated the founding of FEDO.
On Monday, along with the staff of FEDO, I met founders Durga and Renu Sijapati. Durga and Renu (who was only in grade 8 at the time!) along with five other women formed FEDO to fight discrimination based on caste and gender. Discrimination based on caste was outlawed in Nepal in 1963, but the social norms and values are very deeply entrenched and the caste system remains strong. In the caste system here, people who are Dalit are considered ‘untouchable,’ and that experience, as expected, results in extreme poverty and exclusion—and high rates of disability. From its beginnings, the women of FEDO recognized that Dalit women with disabilities would be included in their work. Three of the District Leaders in their vast network (more about that in a minute) are women with disabilities. Continue reading →