I’ve repeatedly heard a similar line of rhetoric in speeches given by members of marginalized groups in Nepal (of which there are many). It goes something like this: “We [insert group] have been historically excluded from the governance and power of Nepal. We’ve struggled to raise our voices and to be included– yet we are not being acknowledged. No one is going to hand us our rights. We must fight for them and we must seize them!”
Since first hearing that idea I’ve puzzled over what it means to “seize” one’s rights… Last week after spending a day watching events in the Eastern Terai, I think I finally understood.
I was a representative of the Center for Women and Politics supporting the Morang District Accountability Meeting organized by the Biratnagar-based Steering Committee of the Madheshi Women’s Advocacy Forum (explained 2 blogs ago). The purpose of the meeting was to bring together District leaders of political parties to pressure them into supporting the candidacy of Madheshi Women in the upcoming election.
VIEW OF THE MEETING HALL
The event was fated from the start as a district-wide bandha was called the day before, shutting down shops, schools, and public forms of transportation (buses and taxis were out, but cycle rickshaws and private transportation was ok). Essentially, with creativity people could still move about, but always under the threat of encounter or confrontation with the group calling the bandha. Despite the significant transportation challenges, just over an hour after our start time the hall was nearly filled with local participants and the program began.
About 45 minutes into the event a flood of women with heads covered in saris squeezed into every empty space of the rented hall. I later learned these women, many of whom are Dalit (the lowest strata of the Hindu caste system) and illiterate, woke up before dawn to complete their household duties, walked several kilometers to wait at an assigned stop, then spent roughly 3 hours covering 15 kilometers packed in a tractor to join our meeting in defiance of the imposed bandha.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, OVER 100 WOMEN SQUEEZED INTO THIS TRACTOR….
Through the interpretation of my friend Ajaya I asked Niva Devi Keist, the rural organizer responsible for the incredible participation, how she motivated all the women to come. She shrugged away my amazement and explained “I simply told them the meeting would be an opportunity to learn about the Constitutional Assembly (CA) Election and to support Madheshi women struggling with political parties to be come candidates. They were all very interested to attend – there was no difficulty to get their participation. In fact, they were glad to have the opportunity to show the political parties that though they are not educated, they are interested in the CA.”
As a testament to the exclusion faced by Madheshi women, none of the political party representatives showed up to the meeting. And though the stated purpose could not be met, the gathering was certainly not in vain. The rural women listened attentively for several hours as people gave speeches about the political challenges faced by Madheshis and how their participation in the CA election is an opportunity to change that. Specific suggestions were given about how they could continue to inform themselves and take action. A strategic discussion also emerged about the possibility of running women candidates independently if the political parties continue to be unresponsive.
Then after some tea and a quick snack, the women headed back to their tractor to make the return journey to their villages. As I watched them squeeze in I looked at the array of expressions on their faces – the same ones I had seen throughout the day: excitement, confusion, happiness, boredom, exhaustion, and intense focus. Then I thought about all the obstacles standing between these women and their ability to caste a vote – their lack of education, a confusing and constantly changing electoral system led by politicians who do not take them seriously, and potential risks to their physical safety as they struggle to be involved.
I made the connection between the significant challenges they face and their determined, courageous commitment to keep moving forward despite it all. And I finally started to understand what it means to struggle for and “seize” one’s rights…
**follow this link to an interesting article about the current bandhas affecting Nepal
Posted By Nicole Farkouh
Posted Oct 4th, 2014