Fifteen years ago a charity like ActionAid might have given a landless Nepali labourer like Nanda a hoe and some seeds, with perhaps some agricultural training. Or it might have helped her to dig a well for her community or build a school for her children. Now, they have given her something much more powerful – a voice, and the opportunity to use it to change her and her family’s lives forever.
Listen to Nanda for a while. What she is saying is amazing. So is how she is saying it. But even more remarkable is that this semi-literate young woman is speaking out at all, in a packed public meeting with many men present. And that she is delivering her message with such power, determination and conviction. Having found her voice, Nanda will now settle for nothing less than using it to secure what is hers by right.
What Nanda is so agitated about is the traditional role of women in her village, and how they suffer. At the meeting where I met Nanda, in her village, Jamunia, southern Nepal, she spoke passionately and eloquently, detailing the everyday experience of Nepali village women – violent physical and sexual abuse, dowry contracts, child brides as young as seven.
It’s not just domestic violence and exploitation in the home. In Jamunia women do the same hard labour for the local landowner as the men, but he pays the women just half of what the men get, for the same work. Today Nanda is telling us and her community that these wrongs will no longer be tolerated here and she’s explaining, in precise detail, what the women of Jamunia are doing to change this dreadful situation forever. The people of Nanda’s village might still appreciate some practical help from ActionAid with growing food, health and education, but much more important for them is that they should be able to organise together to articulate and claim their basic rights.
Just down the road from Nanda’s village is a huge dam built as a joint project between the Nepali government and the government of India, whose flood plains in Bihar benefit from the now regulated flow of river water from the high mountains of Nepal. But the dam doesn’t work properly and the Indians haven’t kept their part of the agreement to ensure that the dam is properly maintained and the waters flow evenly. So the Nepali farmers along the riverbanks are often denied water, or get too much when the malfunctioning dam causes floods. Under a spreading banyan tree in a village not dissimilar to Nanda’s, another meeting is taking place involving all the farmers displaced by the dam, men and women. There are many passionate speeches. One village leader, a dignified, articulate elderly gentleman known simply as the doctor, explains that some months back the farmers got together to mount a protest, cutting off the flow of water to India and filling the dry river bed with 60 or so of their number, as human shields. The Indian officials came to negotiate and made more promises, but still nothing is improved. So, this time, he says solemnly, it is ‘do or die’. The national Nepali media have now latched on to this story, which will elevate the campaign. The villagers are united, confident in the rightness and ultimate successful outcome of their campaign. These people are aware of their rights and are expecting change. They won’t stand for any reversal now.
Hunting tigers and elephants with a camera in the lush forests of nearby Chitwan National Park is a seminal tourist experience in Nepal. But when the Park was formed thirty years ago the government of the time simply dispossessed the traditional forest dwellers who had lived there for centuries. The park rangers then brutally suppressed dissent. Many villagers were imprisoned and some were killed. All lost their homes, their land and their traditional livelihoods in the forest. One group, the Bote (pronounced Bow-tay) are now fighting back effectively to regain their basic rights to land and livelihood that were taken from them a generation before. It’s a campaign not without risk for, like the dam project, it brings the tiny, fragile community into direct conflict with powerful, rich elites. But in the new Nepal’s fair and democratic society, this campaign too is getting results.
ActionAid and its community-based partners have enabled many people in this region and across Nepal to find their voices, to start campaigning for their rights. The achievements are often startling. Recently Nepal’s parliament outlawed the centuries-old tradition know as Kamiya – bonded labour amounting to slavery – which has imprisoned generations of families and communities, the poorest of Nepal’s poor, in servitude to rich landlords. Now a long campaign by a coalition of local and national NGOs has led to the Kamiya tradition being outlawed in Nepal forever.
If you have ever had something you thought was rightfully yours suddenly taken away, without warning or discussion – something that your or your family’s lives depended upon – then you’ll perhaps have some inkling of how strongly these people feel. They don’t want charity, they never did. They simply want to regain what should be theirs, by right. Helping them to achieve this transformation is infinitely more appropriate and fruitful than any amount of handouts or short-term services. Following the rights-based approach will, perhaps inevitably, lead to lasting social change. But then, we’re unlikely to have much impact on poverty, without it.
If British donors want to see results from their charitable giving, the rights-based approach now being practised by ActionAid and other international charities could be just the place to look for them.
© Ken Burnett 2008. Ken wrote this article in a private capacity, when he was a member of the international board of ActionAid.
Nanda speaks out for her rights. Photo Dinesh Singh.
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Ken Burnett is co-founder of Clayton Burnett Limited and a director of The White Lion Press Limited. He was chairman of the board of trustees of the international development charity ActionAid from 1998 to 2003. Ken is author of several books including Relationship Fundraising and The Zen of Fundraising and is managing trustee of SOFII, The Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration. For more on Ken’s books please click here.
The Inch Hotel, Loch Ness, inspirational setting for Clayton Burnett’s transformational events. We have wisdom circles here, but not formally.