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Nepal Women start self Help Scheme 1 Nov 1996

THE EARTH TIMES

NOVEMBER 1 – 15, 1996

ORGANIZING SELF-HELP WHERE MOUNTAINS DICTATE TIME AND DISTANCE

Mobilizing people and resources from within

By Ashali Varma

SYANGIA, Nepal—There is a quiet revolution taking place in the mountains of Nepal changing the pace of life and age-old systems in remote little hamlets, where for generations

people have existed with the barest of  necessities. This is a country where mountains dictate distance and distance is not measured by miles but by the days it takes to trek to a village. And though to the casual observer the terraced mountains and little hamlets, where women still walk miles to cut fodder for livestock, might seem untouched by modern times, in the villages men and women are working together, saving money, making vital decisions in an effort to improve their lives.

InSyangja Bazaar, a small town about one and half hours’ drive from Pokhara, more than a hundred women gathered in the local district development headquarters. Women who just four years ago would never have dreamt of leaving their villages, much less speak about their

trials and triumphs, had come from several villages to be heard. They were all members of Amma Tolis (Mothers Groups).

Prem Kumari Regmi spoke about how she had started the Amma Tolis in villages and how the women had organized themselves and started saving schemes.

“We collected money through cultural programs and in two years, we have built 250 resting places along the route that women travel, helped to build two primary school buildings, conducted literacy classes for women, broadened trails for easy access to villages and helped to maintain springs and wells for water supply,” she said.

The labor for all this activity was provided by the women themselves. Regmi said that at first the men folk were reluctant to cooperate with them but slowly they realized the benefits and have started helping out. The Aroma Tolis have been helped in some of their activities by UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA and the local government. From the saving schemes, women get loans to start income generating activities. Chet Kumari Arya, a pretty young woman of 27, spoke about how the group had helped her. She lives alone with their 7 year-old son. Her husband works in a factory in India. To supplement her income she keeps buffaloes and sells the milk. She got a loan of 1200 rupees ($21) from the women’s group and started ginger farming. She was able to make 3000 rupees ($54) when she sold the ginger. In addition she was taught how to sew clothes. Although she has only five years of schooling, she has been

trained in bookkeeping and is the secretary and bookkeeper for her group.

There is no dearth of ideas for income generation activities and the women have ventured into painting fabric, weaving, tea shops, poultry and farming. With a stake in their own economic futures, they also feel the need to improve their surroundings. Many women spoke about tree planting ventures and how the group meetings had helped to raise their awareness on health and sanitation, child care and family planning.

Subadra Arya, a 46-year-old widow with four children, said, “Before we got organized I did not know how to read and write and my only income came from a few livestock. I went to train in vegetable farming in Pokhara and today I am earning twice as much as I used to, growing ginger and vegetables.”

None of the women had heard about the Women’s Conference in Beijing but by organizing they had gained collective strength and they didn’t think twice about stating their needs. Now women have found a voice they even question existing norms. Kumari Arya stood up to say that she felt family planning was too biased toward women.  “Men should also be partners in this,” she said.  The women also felt that more of the district resources should be channelled to their groups.  They told the chairman of the District Development Committee that they wanted at least half of the funds to be given for their projects.  They also said they needed more training in accounting and management skills.

Jay Singh Sah, who has been involved with the South Asia Poverty Alleviation Program, comes from the Terai region of Nepal, and is UNDP’s man on the ground.  “We encourage the villagers to get mobilized and to work for both community and individual benefits.”

He said that there are three important elements in this drive toward village participation; developing capacity at the grassroots level; providing and generating capital (UNDP gives a one time seed grant for irrigation or water supply, depending on the what the village organization needs); and skills enhancement.

Once organized the villagers are encouraged to have a savings scheme and to lend money to families for income generating activities.  Sah said the success of these ventures lay in creating linkages.  “In each of our programs we try to have linkages between the local people, NGOs and the government authorities, so that it can be sustained.  Our projects are much more people-focussed now so we use local people.”

Manoj Basnyat, UNDP Unit Chief, is Nepali and is enthusiastic about the new thrust toward the grassroots approach.  “Early in 1994 we felt that we should focus on getting women organized.  We worked with the Amma Tolis and today they have become such a force that they want to be mainstream as far as resources are concerned,” he said.

AN OFFICE’IN THE SKY

New skills provide basis for generating wealth

SHRI KRISHNA GANDAKI, Nepal-From Pokhara the distance to Shri Krishna Gandaki is just 50 miles but the drive, along narrow mountain roads where heavy monsoon rains and avalanches have created hazardous obstacles, can take more than three hours. The view is spectacular, every bend presenting a different panorama of the Himalayas—-high snow capped mountains and deep gorges—-but the difficult terrain is a constant reminder of the fragile existence of the people who have made their homes here. A narrow trail leads to the office of the Village Development Committee (VDC), a small room equipped with rough wooden benches where farmers from several villages have gathered for a meeting. A few years ago they would have been confined to the daily routine of trying to make a few extra rupees from the crops they sold from their little terraced lands. Today, they have gathered here with pride and announce their specialties.

They are managers of funds, livestock experts, water supply technicians, specialists in cattle insurance and horticulture and even a midwife. The chairman of this VDC, responsible for the development activities of 35 villages, is Bishnu Bahadur Thapa. He said, “When we first interacted with UNDP, we were told to focus on three elements; organizing ourselves, developing a savings scheme and looking at our human resources. To achieve this we had to change the way we were doing things before.” He went on to explain the difference. “Before when we thought about being rich, it meant being wealthy with land. Now we know that by developing our own skills and with income generation programs we can generate this wealth.” The farmers now have access to government funds and are also linked with agencies which give them specialized training in livestock care, agriculture and cottage industry. With a seed grant from UNDP and money from the government they have built a water supply and irrigation system and improved crop yield.  Some farmers have gone into vegetable farming, coffee plantations and fruit trees and are training others to do the same.

Dondi Raj Neupane did a training program in horticulture and forestry.  Today, he has a nursery where he grows seedlings which he sells to other farmers.

Goma Devi Bhattarai, a shy young woman, spoke proudly about her training as a birth attendant.  “Before I started doing this work, the women would not speak about their pregnancy problems and were too shy to go to the local health post for checkups.  Many women would have problems during birth and some died.  Now they come to me for check ups and out of 10 cases this year, I delivered eight babies successfully.”

“I feel that the basic infrastructure for poverty alleviation has taken root. The people have changed too.  They no longer sit around drinking and gambling.  Now they are involved in projects and accounts and what more can be done,” said Thapa.

The work to get more villages to organize continues.  Pointing to a mountain a day’s trek away, Jay singh Sah said, “That is my next goal, to bring those villages into this scheme.  Up there at the top of the mountain is my next office.  It is hidden by clouds today.”