Many of you, over the past few months, may have been subjected to my mediocre banter in Union Court, as I attempted to get you to buy a piece of clothing to help Nepali women. I apologise for my poor form, but hopefully this article will convince you to be that tiny bit late to your lecture next time, and stop by to say hello.
The Op Shop(s) for Women were raising funds for the grassroots organisation, Change Action Nepal, a showcase of local women, helping local women. The main woman behind the scenes, Indira Ghale, is a picture of strength and defiance, working tirelessly to improve the lives of women and children throughout Nepal. This organisation is a testimony to the change that can happen from within, by engaging women of developing countries to own their own path to safety, security and identity, on their own terms.
Change Action Nepal is a small, yet important organisation because it can reach places and people that others cannot. Through local connections and feminist networks, Indira and her network can access information that slips through Western imported channels of development. For example, during the 2015 earthquake, she was the first to access areas unreached by international organisations due to her local knowledge of vulnerable areas. Through her local engagement with Hindu caste systems, she is able to identify which people need the most help, the underlying power structures within seemingly homogenous communities, and how best to positively impact them, with cultural sensitivity.
Indira’s work is various; she reaches out her arms and helps people wherever she finds them. Her main project is the development a safehouse for victims of gender-based violence, which currently houses seven girls with varying stories, as well as a divorced, homeless Aunty (Indira’s sister who fled her husband’s family and her two young kids). The girls come from various parts of Nepal, and often arrive at the home through contact with a network of feminists, who are well versed in Indira’s work.
The girls are inspirations. One girl for example, who shall remain nameless for confidentiality reasons, was forced to work as a child maid after her father died and her mother left her. She remained in one home until the physical, verbal and sexual abuse became too much, and she had to escape to another. Indira heard about her situation and brought her to live at the safe house. Another resident of the safehouse was a victim of continual sexual abuse from her grandfather, from the time she was seven. But these girls are not defined by their experiences. They are not voiceless victims, but are working to be empowered to change the systems that created their circumstances. It’s truly inspirational to have witnessed the spread of this attitude, first-hand, because of Indira’s work.
Indira’s central focus is the provision of education – she believes education is the key to change, gender equity and the eradication of the caste system. While she cannot house everyone, she provides scholarships to the vulnerable – mostly girls, but also boys – experiencing caste based discrimination. Recently she provided 32 scholarships to girls in the Shindapalchok – the largest, poorest and most vulnerable region in Nepal. It was also, horribly, the most affected area by the 2015 earthquake.
When I asked her what her dream was for the organisation, she responded that she wished to one day provide scholarships to 15,000 of Nepal’s most vulnerable girls. She also hopes to be able to purchase land, where she can build a coffee plantation and a series of houses for girls to live and work, with a self-sustainable income and a potential eco-tourism business.
So what can we at the ANU do to help? In development, we must listen and facilitate. We must put the people who understand and have the local knowledge first. We must not go to a place and assert ourselves, based on the power of our nationality, or our university degrees. We must use our privilege to enable locally engineered change, whether it be by giving up a few lattes a week or spreading the word of injustice as far as we can. We can offer our skills too – but may only help after a discussion, dialogue and the granting of consent.
Right now CAN relies heavily on unsustainable, discontinuous sources of funding that makes every day uncertain. Relying on a few Op Shop sales at a Canberra university, for example, is not nearly enough to sustain Indira’s work and future goals. She needs funding, awareness and help – and that’s where we can come in. Every little bit counts. The fight for equality is everywhere. Do not be complacent in it – we can be the generation to get there, if we each just do the best we can. Pick something that you are passionate about, use the resources you have, and make something change.