The Madheshi Women’s National Conference – Part II: The Conference (aka: “The Women Leaders Are Found!”)

October 24, 2008 at 7:49 am Leave a comment

The Madheshi Women’s National Conference – Part II: The Conference (aka: “The Women Leaders Are Found!”)

09/04/07

Through the helpful web of foreigners in Nepal I became acquainted with a temporary Kathmandu resident named Anne Sung [insert hypelink to blog] who attends the Kennedy School of Government doing a dual degee in Public Policy and Buddhist Divinity Studies (who coincidently like me, also did Teach for America). Anne has been interning this summer with an organization called The Center for Women in Politics and working closely with it’s chairWOMAN, Sarita Giri.

The last time I was in Kathmandu Anne and I met up at a funky café in Thamel, discussing among many other things the conspicuous absence of professional relationships with women I’ve had this summer and the situation of Nepalese women in general. At then end of our long conversation sitting on floor pillows, illuminated by black lights, and delighting in fresh salad and decent humus, Anne insisted that I meet Sarita and possibly join us for the conference they were planning in the coming weeks. Before I knew it, I was bound for Chitwan, a district in middle of the country, to join the first ever Madheshi Women’s National Conference.

The women at the conference had been selected through word of mouth due to their social involvement in their communities. Roughly 5 women of “Madeshi” origin came from each of the 20 districts in the Terai region (out of 75 total districts in Nepal) for a total of almost 100 women. The women at the conference were truly diverse and inspiring, ranging from their late teens into their 60s, speaking a variety of languages, and representing a range of religions. Their clothing ranged from the ultra modern shirt and jeans to standard tunics and pants, to saris, and some had master’s degrees while others were so illiterate they had to use their fingerprints as signatures.

Madheshi women (particularly those of North Indian descent) are known to be more socially oppressed than their Nepali sisters of other ethnic backgrounds. Visible evidence of this was the women who were sent to the conference with male chaperones (who sat at the back of the room throughout the conference) and those that used their saris to keep their heads covered, as they are traditionally expected to do when allowed to be in public. For many of the women in attendance it was their first time away from their husbands and families. Attending itself, for many was an act of significant courage and perseverance.

Thus as the week went on and we began to have to wrestle the microphone away from women who were initially silent, we could see the unquantifiable effect of having such a gathering for building solidarity, confidence, and leadership. Throughout the conference multiple layers of meaning were intertwined when “empowerment” was mentioned; discussing ending dowries and securing parliamentary seats in the same breath. It was fascinating for me to see how strongly these women value a new national constitution that ensures and protects their rights as a tool to use in their fight for social emancipation in their homes and communities.

The conference sessions included paper presentations on the sociological status of women in Nepal and the history of relations between Pahadis and Madheshis, detailed information sessions about the constitutional assembly election, and extensive 2-day training by Anne about “organizing” (that I ended up helping teach as well!). It was amazing to see the women work to understand the complexities of the upcoming Constitutional Assembly process, which is comprised of a single-candidate and proportional representation based on party and is confusing to even the most experienced political scientists. The women would review the session material over meals, and repeatedly requested additional sessions before or after hours to clarify aspects they didn’t understand and to share ideas to use in their own districts.

The conference garnered significant attention in the national Nepali media, and even intrigued Ian Martin (the head of the UN’s Mission in Nepal) so much that he agreed to come speak to the participants. Even though we were initially disappointed when he was unable to make it due to weather that grounded his helicoptor, in the end we were quite content to be able to continue the energy generated from a day of exclusively female presenters.

The overarching purpose of this conference was to bring local Madeshi women leaders together to organize and prepare them to do meaningful work around the Constitutional Assembly Election. To this end, 3 “products” resulted from the conference. First a declaration was finalized and submitted to Nepal’s interim government and the public at large underscoring the effect of the current violence on the women of the Terai and calling for on-time, free, and fair elections as a necessary step toward establishing peace (not the other way around as many are requesting). Second, we established a set of activities and a time-line for women to implement in their local districts to pressure political parties to select women candidates for the coming election. Lastly (and personally my favorite – which I have excerpted in the subsequent blog) we wrote a collective story that binds all Madheshi women together, giving voice to their challenges, celebrating their strengths, and sharing their vision for the new Nepal they want to help manifest.

Who knew when I sat across from Anne at that café in Kathmandu that it would lead me to find a piece of Nepal I had been desperately missing. It was such a gift to spend five days surrounded and inspired by and remarkable gathering of women. And I hope we are able to continue the momentum generated by the convention to truly impact the outcome of the Constituent Assembly Election.

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The Madheshi Women’s National Conference – Part I: The Context Talk the talk

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