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A voice of hope from Nepal valley

August 16, 2013

One hour flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj and another one to Jumla; take a four-hour bus and another six hours by foot. Why would you travel there? That is the question Radha PAUDEL, local activist and 2012 N-Peace Awardee, has been asked many times.

Karnali is one of the poorest, conflict affected and most remote regions of Nepal; its headquarters of Jumla was hardest hit by destruction during the Nepal war. Radha chooses to give up her life of luxury to travel and serve the people of Jumla. Without pay or compensation Radha demonstrates that with commitment and dedication anything is possible, however not without the shadows of daily threats and staggering challenges.

‘Though I have published a book, I do not have words to express the pain, suffering and depression I experience in my every day work in Karnali…

Women and girls are more vulnerable to the post-conflict struggles in Nepal and their needs are not the priority of the national government, or the focus of development actors. Women and children are deprived from basic health services. The government has fallen short on providing essential medication, as simple as Oral Rehydration Solutions (ORS) to children dying from chronic starvation and sanitation insufficiency.

With only 66% literacy rate nationwide[1], most of the 6 grade children of Karnali are not able to write their names in Nepali. Majority of young children instead of attending school, tend to farming and foresting in order to feed and sustain their families. And those who are in school feel the struggles of limited space and lack of qualified teachers. Students of grades one through three are placed into one classroom forced to keep up with imbalanced curricula and different levels of education.

Women confine to their homes and farms without possibilities for education and growth. Many lack the financial resources and time to attend vocational programs, trainings or basic education for sustainable income.

‘I gave up my well paid job, luxury life and continue my voluntary work in Karnali and other rural, poor and marginalized areas. Whatever I know. Whatever I can, with my few passionate friends’

To support the families affected by these hardships, Radha founded the Action Works Nepal Organization (AWON). AWON works to empower the poor and marginalized by providing education opportunities, improving livelihoods and fighting for human rights. Today AWON undergoes a number of activities to connect individuals and organizations to create a healthy and non-violent environment in Nepal. The organization invests in women’s capacity building; supports children’s education by offering scholarships and school management support; improves livelihoods through social business, saving and credits,; organizes campaigns on women’s issues such as ‘Chaupadi Campaign’ on women’s participation in peace building and addressing Gender-based Violence. AWON’s current campaign ‘MiteriGau-Let’s Live Together Campaign’ promotes a non-violence culture through mutual respect through a positive mind set and honest contribution.  

‘I save the perdiem offered during international trainings to cover my travel cost for Karnali and other programs’

Raised during the Nepali war Radha shares a limitless passion to build her community. Unfortunately the struggles she faces every day are, also, limitless. The initiatives that could be undertaken to build Karnali are underutilized due, primarily, to insufficient funding. Like many other organizations on the ground, AWON struggles to sustain its activities. Fully dedicated to her work, Radha knows the money from selling her book on memories of war ‘Khalanga ma Hamala[2] is not ‘a sustainable approach’ but she can’t stop her work ‘I love to do whatever possible from my side’ - she says.

One hundred percent volunteer, working 20 hours per day, Radha wishes she could do more and everything in her capacity to provide the support her community needs. A mountainous region, Karnali’s geographical location and high levels of poverty stand as a wall between efforts and progress. Without an agricultural system Karnali is the most food insecure region in Nepal. Food production is sufficient only for 3-6 months of the year with food insecurity running at 40%.[3] Many international and national organizations, while compassionate to Radha’s efforts, have little interest and capacity to provide support.

Choosing to work at the community level with the marginalized and poor, Radha is facing – what could be – the hardest challenge to overcome: suspicion and threats of her own people. Some view her transparent approach as a threat to their corrupt affairs. In 2001, when she began working in Jumla, Radha faced continuous accusations by security forces and the Maoists for being an enemy spy.

‘It is all about the mindset and commitment of the leadership’

Government officials and many international actors have limited understanding of what women rights mean in the context of Karnali and little progress has been made to enforce existing policies on women’s rights. Sexual and gender-based violence and cultural practices are daily threats, where help is nowhere near. National and international organizations don’t have the capacity or will to reach into the deep mountains of Karnali and the far west to understand the struggles of these women. Alone in her journey, Radha uses what she can garner to train women on their rights.

Nepal’s adoption of the National Action Plan (NAP) on UNSCR 1325 is a milestone. However, the NAP and its important cause don’t reach the women of Karnali or at grassroots levels. Pressured by a culture of silence women rarely speak out for their rights. And it is Radha’s conviction that only with strongly enforced legislation and bottom-up pressure, will changes be made and women’s rights protected. Community level women need to be given the proper foundation of support to empower participation. 

 ‘We need a holistic approach to address the issues and challenges in Karnali’

Nepal needs a clear framework and cohesive plan on how to reach the gap between national action on women’s protection and developments on the ground. Challenges women like Radha face in their daily work are long-lasting and will take years to overcome. In this challenging environment and with limited support, women activists need a great amount of strength and patience. Experienced in her work Radha believes that women working in post-conflict areas of Nepal need support though:
  • political empowerment and economic opportunities;
  • engagement of men and community leaders in the cycle of development programs to target women;
  • conducting assessments of contexts and challenges, and then designing plans for sustainable development work;
  • monitoring of each effort to avoid repetition of mistakes.
‘N-Peace Award brought recognition and visibility to my work at national level’

Radha’s efforts are anchored by a personal commitment ‘to end the struggles for the new generation!She expected no recognition, nor awards. After receiving the N-Peace Award in 2012, international organizations poured with phone calls and emails inquiring, interviewing and wanting to learn more about Jumla. While the people of Jumla already knew Radha for her tireless work in the community, through N-Peace her story has been brought to light nationally and globally.  

Understanding their daily struggles Radha’s message to 2013 N-Peace Awardees is filled with inspiration and hope for a better world tomorrow:

‘Peace is not a matter of giving and receiving. It is a matter of feeling by an individual at home, school, community, workplace and everywhere! So let people feel peace in their surroundings. But do not undermine the invisible conflict: it is dangerous like fire in a straw. Invisible conflict overlaps with multiple causal loops. Work to address these causal loops to restore peace in your community. You are the perfect leader for transformation, do not worry about what others think or say. Follow your destiny, because your destiny is the smile of the poor, marginalized, and survivors of war. Go ahead, put a smile on their faces!’

[1] Adult literacy rate: http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/nepal_nepal_statistics.html

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