How can a woman, unwelcome at birth, raised according to the dictates of traditional values, and always regarded as the property of another, ever be a real partner in development? Prativa Subedi is helping Nepali women seek out an answer.
The New Idea
Prativa founded Women's Awareness Center Nepal (WACN) to help women develop their potential, gain self-confidence, and step into the public sphere as active members of society. WACN also fights social, cultural, legislative, and all other forms of discrimination against women. Prativa began her work among underprivileged groups of women who were initially wary of outsiders. To overcome their fears, and to learn more about their situation, she stayed in their villages, gradually building her understanding and awareness among the women. She then helped them initiate concrete improvements in their communities, ranging from environmental conservation projects, tree nurseries, and health care services to income generation and money-saving programs.
In projects like these, Prativa helps women make action-oriented plans, facilitates training, forms links with concerned agencies, and organizes exposure visits. The women she works with begin to take leadership roles and bring about social change within their communities. Their doing so overturns everyone's traditional gender assumptions, setting in motion hard-to-reverse, new perceptions.
As perceptions are overturned at the village level, it is essential that the mindsets of community workers and development organizations change in parallel. Prativa works at all levels to make this possible. Realizing that the exploitation of women is not unique to rural areas, she set up a Women's Resource Center in the city of Kathmandu to reach urban women through sharing sessions, role playing, and audiovisual presentations. The center also serves as a coordinating link between the rural and urban women's groups.
If asked what they do, women often reply "nothing," because work is valued only on the basis of cash. As in many male-dominated societies, women in Nepal are taught to be what they "ought to be" rather than allowed to develop naturally. Development workers, who could help empower women, often have preconceived ideas of what should be done, and do not address community needs as the community expresses them. Most of the development organizations use a welfare approach, making the women more dependent instead of freeing them to organize and deal with the community's needs. In Nepal, women need special training to realize their ability and overcome the limitations that are traditionally imposed by their society. Young girls learn at an early age that they are impure during their menstruation and after delivery. In fact, their first menstruation is marked by a period of complete isolation from male members of the family. In addition, the media portray women in artificial and derogatory ways. Nepali women must unlearn these lessons before they can begin to see themselves positively, let alone begin to take charge of their lives and communities.
Prativa's strategy is to develop powerful women's groups by helping them organize community-based projects. She helps the community choose improvement activities that it needs, and that its members, especially the women, plan. The women play important roles; they come up with their own ideas, and they organize, thereby experiencing their own potential. For this to work, the local women must not be frustrated by local or headquarters staff of either government or any of the development organizations. That means Prativa must change all their perspectives. All three groups must understand each other and be in sync for change to occur.
She organizes training on gender issues for village women leaders, community workers, project officers, and students. This develops their abilities and self-esteem. At the same time, she attends various training sessions organized by government and citizen organizations concerning local resources available for community development. Prativa then passes this knowledge on to the women she works with, ensuring they discover the available resources.
Kathmandu's Women's Resource Center seeks to help urban women through group meetings via video programs and role playing. It also gathers, researches, and publishes information designed to help women, both rural and urban, gain strength.
Prativa also takes on purveyors of the old stereotypes. She has, for example, been protesting to Nepali television and radio regarding the false and negative images of women used in their advertising. She is preparing to file suit in court against the national television service and Nepal Radio to stop this negative influence, arguing that the advertisements undermine women's dignity and rights.
WACN's executive committee members work hard as volunteers for the center. Prativa's training programs are self-sufficient and done on a demand basis. She plans to generate income for her village programs through membership fees and by publishing WACN books. In the long run the communities themselves will have the confidence and ability to mobilize the necessary resources.
Having gained experience by working with poor, rural Nepalese women during the first part of her academic and professional life, Prativa decided to start her own organization. It is designed as a forum that helps change-minded women come together to share ideas, and to collaborate practically in designing and pursuing their own solutions to day-to-day problems.Prativa has a B.A., a one year B.Ed., and an M.A. in economics. She taught at the university level for one year before being employed by the Women's Development Division of the government, where she worked for five years with rural women to improve their economic and social status. She realized through this work that women's awareness of their dignity and value is essential to any improvement, and yet it was lacking in the many projects she encountered.
While working with village women, Prativa was touched by their hard life: people living in one small hut with livestock and without even the minimum of food requirements. She was determined to work for those voiceless people.
Prativa directs WACN and is on the management committee of several pressure groups. She has been recognized as a trainer and facilitator in development work on gender issues, and she has just recently published a number of bold works on the subject.