Mountain women as agents of change

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Participants meet with Rekha Bhandari and other members of Jajurali village
Photo Credit: ICIMOD/Sunayana Basnet

“At first I was afraid about having to come here by myself. But now I am happy with my decision. I have learnt that I have the potential to do something for my community,” said Tira Kunwar, a young woman from Darchula, Nepal, who was part of a group of 26 Nepali men and women who had travelled to the Indian side of the Kailash Sacred Landscape (KSL) to participate in an exposure visit.

The visit was organized by the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI) targeting the women of the Api Nampa Conservation Area (ANCA). They were taken to sites in India where degraded ecosystems have been restored using fodder species, and fodder management, both of which have become important livelihood strategies for locals in the region. 

Tira’s comment made me realize how difficult it must have been for her to leave her home and family behind for a week to travel with strangers, to rely on people she had never met before, and to visit a new country. This must have required a lot of courage on her part, along with support and encouragement from her family. 

Before I met the participants on this trip, I was curious to know how vocal and confident the women from ANCA were. During the visit, I saw that the women participants were not afraid to share their views and opinions, even in large groups. Although there were quite a few male participants in the group, the women were not overshadowed by them. They conveyed their thoughts without any hesitation, and had no problem letting their voices be heard. 

It was not just their self-confidence that was incredible. The knowledge that they had about the environment around them was impressive as well. Whereas for me, a tree is just a tree, for them, different trees, shrubs, herbs and animals serve a multitude of purposes. They truly live with nature, and everything around them adds value to their lives. They are conscious of the fact that their actions affect the environment directly, they were keen on learning new ways to protect and restore the ecosystem during the visit to India. 

For many women, the opportunity to meet Rekha Bhandari, an inspirational figure from Jajurali village in Pithoragarh, India, was the highlight of the tour. Rekha, who has established a successful dairy and vegetable cooperative in her village, shared with the group how her mother-in-law, and husband have played major roles in her success. With support and encouragement from her mother-in law, she says she has been able to work successfully even in a society where women who work outside the house are considered to be a bad influence.

Rekha talked about how even though she had support from her family, her community was initially not as cooperative. They criticized her, and even mocked her attempts at starting a business of her own. Despite these set-backs and criticisms, she did not give up, and remained focused on her goal. This determination finally led to her success – she is now a successful entrepreneur and also the gram panch (local leader) of her village. 

I like to believe that the difference between a broken community and a thriving one is the presence of women who are valued. When the views and opinions of women are valued, they are capable of bringing positive change in the community. With her bold actions, Rekha has not only helped herself and her family, but she also her entire community. Most of the women in her village are now members of the cooperative. 

It is rightly said that if you educate a man you educate only an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate an entire family. Rekha is somebody who has not only transformed her life, but also successfully steered her village towards development. This positive attitude could also be seen among the participants of our tour as they were keen to share the knowledge they gained with other members of their respective communities. They were enthusiastic about implementing innovative techniques that would bring about change in their own lives, as well as the lives of others in their communities. 

Boldness does not always have to be something big or extraordinary. It can be something simple as leaving one’s comfort zone and being in an environment completely different from one’s own. Boldness to me is Tira Kunwar who overcame her fear of leaving her family behind, and Rekha Bhandari who did not let the disapproval of society change the path she had taken. Boldness is both these women continuing to persevere knowing they are doing the right thing, and helping bring about change in their respective communities. They will not sit with their hands in their pockets while the men make all the decisions. They are influencers, and will help shape the perceptions of younger generations. I believe women play a major role in bringing gender transformative change in our mountains.

Tira and Rekha, as mountain women who are agents of change, are an inspiration to me. 

Sunayana Basnet


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