Libby Abbott

Libby Abbott (Center for Agro-Ecology and Development – CAED and Women's Reproductive Rights Program – WRRP): Libby lived and studied in North India for eight months as a college junior. She interned with a local NGO in Varanasi where she worked on reproductive health programs for girls living in slums. Libby also designed and conducted her own field research of a family planning service delivery model in a nearby rural district. After graduating from Brown University, Libby continued her work in public health in India as a research assistant on a tuberculosis treatment in Chennai, South India. Libby interned at The Advocacy Project in Washington before her fellowship.

The empowerment of one

30 Aug

“Your husband is supposed to be looked upon as God,” Bimala Ghimire says, explaining the way she was raised in a strict hierarchy of gender roles in her upper-caste Brahmin community.

“I used to think that way,” she adds. “Because I didn’t know any better. But now I look at my husband as an equal. And he also sees me as an equal.”

Bimala Ghimire has an unusual story of transition from what she describes as a “typical” Brahmin subservient housewife to an engaged and empowered female leader. Like many Brahmin women from her generation, Bimala was married immediately after she reached puberty so that she could fulfill her responsibilities as a good Brahmin wife and mother. When she was just 13 years old she left her natal home and moved in with her husband’s family. There she found that she occupied one of the lowest places in the household hierarchy: an outsider and a new addition to the family, she had to earn her respect from the family through work and obedience. Her mother-in-law was particularly adamant that Bimala earn her worth, and kept the teenage girl busy with endless tasks in the fields and the house.

“I never even had time to comb my hair. The only free time I had I made for myself. Every day when I went to the fields to do work I would sneak my books with me and study in the field, squatting below the rows of corn so that nobody could see me.”

Bimala continued to live under such conditions—suffering verbal abuse from her mother-in-law and physical abuse from her husband—for the first twenty years of her marriage. By the time Bimala had given birth to her four children she had come to accept her life as a second class citizen in her own home.

In the early years of her marriage, Bimala was confined to the fields and the home. Now her mobility has improved and she works freely as a community mobilizer and activist while still maintaining her authority at home and in the kitchen.

It wasn’t until Bimala’s husband was sent to London for work that a formative change took place in her life. “[My husband] went to London and he observed the culture there. He saw how women were like equals to men. He came home and he asked me to come out of hiding in the home—to go by own name and do something for myself.”

Bimala gives complete credit for her transformation to her husband. Upon his return from London, it was he who encouraged Bimala to run for the position of ward chair person of the VDC. With no experience outside of the home and an education that ended when she was 13, Bimala was at first hesitant to run for such an important position. Without her husband’s support Bimala says she would have never succeeded in that first bid for office and become the first woman in public political life in her district.

Not surprisingly, Bimala’s experiences in politics opened her eyes to a range of possibilities and issues, and encouraged her to become an activist on behalf of other women. “At first people said that I was a bad woman—that I was ruining my family and my home.” Instead of letting this discourage her, Bimala only took this criticism as further motivation. She served five years as the ward chair person, and then another ten years as the chairperson of the district women’s organization, promoting income generation, capacity development, leadership and micro-finance programs.

Inspired by her involvement in working for the upliftment of women, Bimala started her own organization a few years later. At first the group was simply a women’s co-operative, promoting income-generation activities and a savings and loan program. Ultimately this group became the Social Organizaiton for Women’s Development (SOWD), a community-based organization that advocated on behalf of abused women and victims of domestic violence. Now the organization has expanded to include awareness activities targeted at women to improve health, empowerment, and leadership.

It is in this capacity that I met Bimala, whose NGO is one of the many partner organizations of the Uterine Prolapse Alliance. Though the organization is small and un-funded, last year they had four local women sponsored for hysterectomies to correct advanced stages of uterine prolapse. Through these and other efforts realized through SOWD and in her political positions, Bimala has become a trusted source of health information in her community. Women who have suffered from uterine prolapse for decades without telling a soul have started to approach Bimala to seek solutions for their problems. Bimala insists that this is because she has encouraged a culture of openness about this condition—an openness that she has achieved by vocalizing her own experiences with prolapse.

Three years ago Bimala underwent a hysterectomy to remove her own prolapsed uterus. For two years she had suffered from heavy bleeding and abdominal pain, though she had dismissed the symptoms and assumed they were a sign of her approach to menopause. Ultimately the bleeding and the pain became so severe that Bimala, at the encouragement of her husband, went to a doctor for a check-up. He immediately recognized the case as one of uterine prolapse, and she was shortly thereafter taken to a private hospital for treatment.

Bimala had heard of uterine prolapse before her diagnosis, but was unaware of its severity and prevalence. When she returned from the hospital she discovered that her own mother-in-law had been suffering from the condition for almost forty years and had never sought treatment for the condition. When they took her to the same doctor for treatment he said that she was too old to undergo surgery and that she would have to continue to live with the condition until her death. It was then that Bimala began incorporating uterine prolapse awareness programs into her work with SOWD. Now Bimala is a local advocate for uterine prolapse and other reproductive health issues, encouraging women to be open and proactive about their own health.

A few days ago I spent the morning in Bimala’s house, which also doubles as her office. There she commanded the kitchen (where she served me the best Nepali meal I have eaten yet) with the same authority and confidence that she commanded a group of twenty or so community volunteers. In preparation for the upcoming women’s festival, Teej, the women wore red saris and sang and danced.

In preparation for Teej, Bimala (pictured at left) hosted a gathering for her twenty volunteers. The women sang and danced to songs that they had composed about women’s rights and domestic violence.

As Bimala twirled her hands and shuffled to the tune of a song written by her volunteers about domestic violence, her husband did chores outside, obviously accustomed to the loud and festive gatherings of women that now take place regularly in his home. It is hard to imagine that Bimala’s life was ever so different than it is now—that once her husband may have scolded her for neglecting her duties and that she would have hung her head and gone off to work in the fields obediently. Now Bimala is an example of so many of the things we work for: for men to understand the value and potential of women, for women to seek educational and professional opportunities beyond their home, for communities to be open and proactive about health, and for community-based development to be a process that can be initiated and led by women. As the Uterine Prolapse Alliance prepares for a national campaign to educate communities about uterine prolapse and build the capcity of small NGOs to identify and address this health problem, Bimala and her organization (SOWD) act as exapmles of the kind of change that will hopefully one day take place at the national level.

Posted By Libby Abbott

Posted Aug 30th, 2008

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