Meeting the President
On December 10, 2015, Lorina Sthapit, Gender Justice Programme Coordinator, accompanied 150 women from Makwanpur and Surkhet districts of Nepal as they marched to the offices of the Prime Minister and President, to present a memorandum calling for an end to violence against women and girls and the strengthening of women's status in Nepal.
It had been a long wait for this motivated group of women, we had made many requests before finally securing appointments to meet with the Prime Minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and President, Bidhya Devi Bhandari, one after the other. December 10 was an ideal date, being International Human Rights Day and the final day of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. The excitement was beyond words, hence the singing and dancing along the way.
The memorandum was one of the outcomes of the 'National Assembly of Local Facilitators and Activists for the Enhancement of Women's Rights and Leadership' which took place as part of Oxfam's Women's Leadership Programme. These 150 women represented 2,200 grassroots women from the project villages. The 150 women had participated in the assembly, providing mutual support to each other, and taking part in advocacy and leadership training, group discussion and community development planning.
The first meeting was with the Prime Minister. Passing the tight security was like an achievement in itself, but we proudly held out our citizenship cards and bags for inspection.While waiting in the meeting hall, some of the women decided to take selfies, sitting on the front row of sofas. "This is probably where the PM sits," said one. "Who knows, this probably implies that we will be the PM one day. That's my dream!" said another, looking hopeful.
The speaker who was assigned to read out the memorandum managed to practice it a good number of times. "How does my voice sound?" she asked, "I want to make sure it projects our expectations and the urgency of the issues well."
After 40 minutes of eagerly waiting in the meeting hall, it was announced, much to our disappointment, that the PM was busy preparing for a cabinet meeting and that his special advisor would be attending the meeting instead. Although the representative did a satisfactory job of receiving the memorandum, the women were disappointed to return with the flower bouquet and khaada (ceremonial scarf) that they had so thoughtfully brought for the PM.
The Prime Minister's no show did not disappoint our spirits. Although we threw a few complaints here and there, we continued to sing and dance our way to our next destination, the President's office. The women were confident that the President would attend us. "She cares about our issues," announced a participant from Surkhet who said she had faith in the leadership of our first female President.
It was a long way from the villages of Makwanpur and Surkhet to the presidential residence. We entered, the President's office in Shital Niwas in a single, disciplined file, escorted by female security guards. "This is so exciting," the women whispered and chuckled. It was a long way from the villages of Makwanpur and Surkhet to the presidential residence. "In the past, we feared talking to other people, weren't allowed to leave our village, hesitated to voice our ideas, and even undermined our self-worth. But look at us today, about to meet the President and present our memorandum by ourselves!" One delegate said.
The President greeted us with a smile, warm Namaste and genuine concern: "It must have been a struggle for you to commute to Kathmandu during this fuel crisis. I applaud your commitment and determination." For many, it felt like a historic and inspirational moment. To meet with the country's first female President in person, to take pictures standing next to her and to converse with her was something many of them had not even dreamed of.
"We need to be united and proactive. Political empowerment and awareness is vital, but equally important is women's access to education and economic opportunities," said the President with much passion and encouragement. "We have to be 'equipped' and not let anyone question our abilities and take our advantage."
Oxfam's Women's Leadership Programme in Nepal works with poor and marginalised women who face discrimination in their families and communities. Oxfam and partners provide training to enable the women to understand their rights and gain the confidence and skills to influence decisions, support men and family members to improve the situation faced by women, and ensure local governments develop policies that benefit women. The programme is funded directly by Oxfam supporters through the Projects Direct scheme.
During the meeting the President acknowledged the memorandum presented by the delegation and committed to integrate them in national policies and programmes where possible. Half a year later many of the points recommended in the memorandum have been addressed in the national plan and budget. The delegation and memorandum has contributed to this achievement.
To list a few points that are now part of government programmes and strategies: Adolescent girls' education and skill development programme for awareness of early child marriage and dowry; "Rastrapati Mahila Uthan Karyakram" (President Women Upliftment Programme) to end the gender discrimination, development of skill and enterprise, and for empowerment of women; Quality free basic health services, expansion of national insurance programmes, support/encouragement to women volunteers, arrangement of vaccine to all children and expansion of senior citizen health programme; Immediate rescue programme for women violence survivors; Expansion of short-term rehabilitation centre for women domestic violence and other GBV survivors; Construction of women-friendly toilets in public places and schools and increment in social security allowance.