That’s why you should read this: In Nepal, Dalit women make up the lowest layer of society that others may step on, demean and ignore. The women in the village of Banlek have formed this lowest layer in the country’s structure for so long that they are born with an inherited belief in being less valuable than other people. But then they heard about rights, and that has changed their lives.
By Anne-Mette Futtrup
The straight back and firm look indicated both the will and the way when women in long, heavy skirts and beautiful pompadour hairstyles walked toward Jagtvej 69 in Copenhagen on an early August morning in 1910. In the Workers Meeting House they wanted to discuss equality, which was lacking all over the world in those days. The initiator of the International Socialist Women’s Conference was the German socialist Clara Zetkin who believed that it certainly was time that women were heard and included where decisions were made. The meeting was a landmark for the 99 women who participated - and for the future.
During the 48 hours the conference lasted in the later so famous Youth House on Nørrebro, the women jointly produced a change of major importance: Women’s rights were on the agenda.
One of the concrete results was the annually recurring international Day that ever since has been celebrated with marches and speeches almost all over the world.
So is everything just fine now? Are potential waves on the surface of equality laid to rest every year on March 8th when the world’s women – and men – remind one another about equality?
The answer is no. And here is why:
Far from Jagtvej and Clara Zetkin in a completely different era – but still on the 8th of March - Nepalese Lila Kohli is ready for the day’s work. She has gathered her long, black hair with a bright green elastic hairband into a tight pony tail. Put on a bright red sari and a green blouse that matches the hairband. She stands for a moment in the courtyard in front of her house in the village of Banlek and takes in the view over the mountainside’s terraced fields and vegetable gardens.
For the stranger it looks idyllic in the glow of the sunrise.
But don’t believe it. The cock crows in vain, because the women in the village have gone to their first tasks long since; the brutally hard work in the fields.
The women in Banlek live just as poor women in Nepal always have. They labour without complaint from morning to evening for the survival of their families. In houses without electricity and without running water, but at least with newly installed latrines on the paths between the houses. Most of the women have never gone to school and they can neither read nor write. They are rarely spoken to by other than one another and therefore women’s voices don’t matter. Because they are at the very bottom of the hierarchy.
That the women in Banlek are also Dalits makes everything even worse. Dalits are oppressed, outcast and completely without any rank in the Hindu cast system. They are so lowly in society, so unclean, that they are literally something to be avoided. Even the shadow of a Dalit must be avoided, for God’s sake and one’s own, it is warned from people of higher cast. If a Dalit’s shadow touches a person he will be contaminated by impurity, it is said.
Women in Nepal earn nearly 60 percent less than men for the same work.
That the government has in recent years carried out efforts to eliminate discrimination both between genders and casts hasn’t really made much difference to the people. Poverty, beating, attacks and lack of food are still everyday occurrences for Dalit women. Traditions carry more weight than treaties.
That is also what it is like in Lila Kohli’s life. She was 13 years old when she came to Banlek. Lila’s mother had asked Lila to come along on a visit to her grandmother. But when they got to Banlek, it was an - for her - unknown future husband who waited and not her grandmother. As tradition requires, Lila was left to the parents-in-law and married to Kalula Kohli. And Lila’s mother went home again.
Like all other daughters-in-law she lived as the family’s servant and waiter. At meals, which it was her duty to prepare, she served her husband first and let him eat alone, then she served the children and at the end she ate the leftovers- if there was anything left.
It is with the memory of those days that she gets up on the 8th of March 2016 before the sun, like all the other women in Banlek.
They have walked on steep and sandy paths to the fields in the valley to harvest the mustard plants that they sowed earlier in the year. They break them, stem by stem, by hand and gather them in careful sheaves so the tiny mustard seeds stay on the stalks.
In between getting meals, Lila Kohli, together with her eldest daughters, weeds the scarce plants in the garden, washes clothes in the water she has lugged home herself, sweeps the floor and the yard.
That’s what it’s like for all women. Not until the men have gone to bed do they bring the animals in quietly, wash the kitchen utensils and finish the day. That is how Dalit women have always lived.
Every day. All week. Year round. Life- long.
Why don’t the men help? Partly because field and garden and house and children are women’s work. Partly because most of the men often aren’t there at all. They are migrant workers in neighbouring India and away for months and years at a time because it is very hard to get work in Nepal. Some send part of their salary home to the family, others use it all themselves.
Lila Kohli’s husband, Kalula Kohli, works in India too. Since he was nine years old he has washed dishes, swept streets and hauled building materials on worksites in Mumbai.
He comes home to visit every second or third year, and they both know that they will never be able to afford his moving home to live with the family, Lila Kohli says.
She smiles shyly and covers her smile with her hand. She isn’t used to talking about her husband. For many years she didn’t even talk to him.
Just a couple of years ago, Lila Kohli would have hidden away at the sight of foreign visitors in the village.
Overcome by inferiority and burdened by generations of customs about women not speaking and retreating to the house, she would have left others to speak.
“Previously it would have been completely unheard of that I could stand here and talk to you. Now I dare, and it suits me well,” says Lila Kohli and starts on a tale about the change that has brought fair winds to the women in Banlek.
It all started when DanChurchAid’s partner, FEDO (Feminist Dalit Organisation) a few years ago invited the women in Banlek to meetings and introduced the idea of rights. Women’s rights. Dalit’s rights. Human rights.
The ideas caused wrinkled brows around about in Banlek. What was that about? What was it that women had a right to?
But slowly the women have adopted the new ideas, and they have set up women’s groups, discussions groups, savings and loan groups. They have been taught about democracy and have learned that violence and oppression shouldn’t be part of everyday life.
They have insisted on the funds the government has set aside for marginalised Dalit women, but that the women in Banlek had never heard of. So one day they knocked on the door of the local authorities and demanded the pool of money that was theirs.
Almost every second Nepalese women will in her lifetime be a victim of violence.
And today, the 8th of March, Lila and the other women cement their newly found belief in better times when they with banners, speeches and megaphone on the road in the valley mark the same Day as the other women in the world. Almost all the women in Banlek are there and walk in a row while they shout:
“We want equality.”
The women want the right to a life without violence, they do not want to be married as children, they want to participate in public meetings, they want to vote and to be elected to political bodies, they want to be allowed to go to the temple and the tea house like all other people, as the law says they are entitled to.
And up in Banlek stands Lila’s pride and joy that is a daily reminder of the new fair winds.
A shop with biscuits, soap, notebooks and all sorts of other things. The belief in the right to develop oneself made Lila’s business skills blossom.
With help from FEDO and DanChurchAid Lila succeeded in saving up enough for a small metal box with a padlock that she filled up with goods from a nearby shop once a week.
Every second woman over 15 years can read and write while that is true of two out of three men.
For the profit she now has saved, she has built her pride and joy, a new shop, strategically located next to the school.
It isn’t just the physical shop that has changed Lila Kohli’s life. She and her husband have five children, a now grown up son and four girls. The son’s wife has moved in and has made Lila a grandmother. The son, Suresh, who like his father has worked in India for some years, has come home to run the shop together with his mother.
“I was married far too early. That is why I have decided that my daughters cannot marry until they are 20. I will support them until they are grown up,” says Lila Kohli.
Even so, there is still a lot to fight for:
“Even though I am doing well economically, I still don’t dare to go into the temple, because they will shout at me because I am Dalit. I hope that will change.”
See the five best selling items in Lila’s shop.
The wrinkled brows that the teaching caused a few years ago can still be seen round about in Banlek when the topic of women’s rights is mentioned. Not everyone – not women either – are just as enthusiastic for the noisy group’s enthusiasm for change.
Because change is also uncertainty. And uncertainty makes a mess of the familiar traditional hierarchies that rank women lower than men but that also rank women among one another. That is why some of the women would rather maintain the old customs no matter how unjust that may be.
Not so long ago a young Dalit girl was beaten up by several grown up people because her shadow fell on a man of a higher cast as they passed one another at a water pump. That the shadow dirtied the man with the girl’s impurity was the excuse for the attack.
The story about the attack on the girl shows however also that a change is beginning to happen. Because the story got so much attention that it was in the newspaper and was talked about widely. So stories like this remind Lila Kohli that, even though she has got a shop, there will always be women to march for the 8th of March.
What does DanChurchAid do in Banlek?
Since the 1980’s DanChurchAid has supported development projects for Nepal’s poorest and most marginalised groups such as for example Dalits. All the projects strengthen people’s situation by among other things focussing on human rights, gender equality and development of democracy.
DanChurchAid also helps with: creating women’s groups, farming groups, savings and loan groups. They teach about rights and farming, teach about saving and provide support economically through the Give a Goat campaign.