Supporting Women's Empowerment in Rural Nepal
Behaviour Change Communication Officer, RVWRMP
Home Office Coordinator and GESI/HRBA Advisor, RVWRMP
In rural Nepal, women are often compelled to work in the household, regardless of their education status. The cultural tradition is that women are in second position in both the house and community. Every community of Sudurpaschim Province has fewer women in leading positions in the development sector and politics, and few women are houseowners or heads of household. The Rural Village Water Resources Management Project (RVWRMP) has been promoting women's empowerment through local government by supporting various capacity building related activities and encouraging women to participate in development activities, taking a leading role in the community. RVWRMP also considered how the Rural Municipalities are promoting rural women’s involvement in development activities and empowering the decision-making power of women at grassroots level.
The Project began in 2006 and the current Phase III is ending in 2022. RVWRMP is working with local and municipal governments to achieve 100% access to safe drinking water supply and basic sanitation and improving nutrition and livelihoods. The project focuses on Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI). Local ownership, transparency and accountability are core values of the project. They are integrated into all project modalities, activities, and implementation efforts. One specific aim is to sensitise the population to stop the harmful tradition of forcing women to use menstruation huts (Chhaupadi).
RVWRMP has integrated and mainstreamed a GESI approach both as a cross-cutting issue across all activities, and also via implementation of targeted activities as needed (for instance on specific issues linked to menstruation or disability). The project promotes social change by empowering rural women and disadvantaged groups through an inclusive and participatory development process. The target is to ensure at least 50% women and proportionate representation of minorities in the activities. Significant capacity building has been given to communities (individuals, groups and community-based organisations such as cooperatives) and to local government representatives.
The new Constitution (GoN, 2015) mandates that there must be at least 33% representation of women in committees, while RVWRMP has set the target at 50%. Yet many women feel hesitant to take up a leading post without male support and need encouragement from their family and community. At the start of the project, in 2006, it was difficult to encourage women to take leading positions in any of the community groups, such as water supply User Committees (UC) or Home Garden (HG) groups, but the situation has gradually improved. Finally, in Phase III, there is a balanced representation of men, women, Dalit and Janajati in the UCs and other groups. In fact, in many activities there are many more women involved, reflecting both their growing confidence, and the fact that men are often working outside of the village for much of the year.
RVWRMP interviewed female vice chairs of participating Rural Municipalities (RM) regarding women’s empowerment (including reflecting on their own situations). They considered that several factors are important to encourage the participation of women in community activities, including in leadership roles. These include family support, quotas, official celebrations, rewards, vice chair support, increased opportunities for income generation and social transformation.
Rural women need support from their family to have the time to participate in community activities. In remote areas, tradition requires them to ask their husband for permission to work outside the home. Women are generally busy in the many household tasks, as well as looking after children, cattle, grandparents and HGs. Time pressure may prevent them from staying long outside of the house. Yet, with encouragement from RVWRMP combined with changing norms, families are supporting women to participate in community activities.
Quotas for participation of women and disadvantaged groups
Men usually lead activities in the community, and women are kept in second place in both their home and community. Often women and disadvantaged group members such as Dalits or Janajati are invited to participate, only to make up numbers. But by enforcing a quota system for both committee participation and for leadership roles, and actively facilitating their participation, women are getting the chance to take active roles. They are gaining experience and confidence in key positions such as UC chair, secretary or treasurer, and have the chance to receive capacity building. As a result, women are taking the responsibility to lead community groups such as UCs and income generating groups. In addition, they have received training and are now employed as Village Maintenance Workers, Improved Cooking Stove Masons, Livelihoods Resource Persons, or as cooperative managers.
Participation in official celebrations
RVWRMP supports communities to celebrate thematic events such as International Women’s Day, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) Day, World Water Day and 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. During the celebrations, women can share their problems with the municipal executive and relevant staff to encourage them to prioritise activities for women. These celebrations also give an opportunity for women to share their knowledge and raise awareness on relevant issues.
In the early days of RVWRMP, women felt hesitant to participate in any kind of local level activities, including in the celebrations. When topics such as menstruation was discussed, men escaped the meetings and women felt uncomfortable to share their problems. After RVWRMP facilitation, this situation has gradually changed. During the recent Dignified Menstruation Management (DMM) musical tour in Sudurpaschim Province (see the photo below, with DMM Goodwill Ambassador Rekha Joshi), more than 4000 people participated, and community people were encouraged to talk about MHM-related issues openly.
Rewards for sustained behaviour change
The RVWRMP working area is affected by serious cultural taboos and stigma regarding menstruation, that have proved difficult to change. As one solution, the project decided to publicly reward women and households who resisted the taboos and did not restrict their behaviour during menstruation - for example, those using regular toilets, taps, using safe shelters for sleeping and participating in workshops and trainings. This method supported them to talk openly about menstruation, and to encourage others to use the toilet during menstruation. It also supported all household members to permit menstruating women and girls to use the toilet and tap and move towards the community declaration of Total Sanitation model village. When women are ready to change their behaviour, they can teach men as well.
Vice-chair support to raise women's issues in the RM
Before the federalisation process of Nepal, women’s voices were not heard, and they were not in decision-making positions. After local level elections in 2017, most RMs had one elected female leader (most of them vice-chairs) to raise women issues (see Ms. Kushma Chand, vice-chair of Shivnath RM in the photo below). They were trained to carry out gender responsive budgeting and planning, develop policies, and conduct capacity building for community women, as well as taking judicial responsibilities in the RM. Communities began to realise that women’s participation is not only for signatures and has significant impact. Thus, it was disheartening that mostly due to arrangements within political coalitions, a significantly smaller number of women were elected to leading positions in the RMs during the 2022 local elections. Despite this, the project is certain that all the capacitation and experience for the women will be useful in future community representation.
Opportunities increased by income generation activities
The project supports increasing the income of community people. Thus, women have access to new opportunities and can earn an equal wage compared to men. Vocational trainings as well as livelihood improvement and income generating activities enable them to become self-employed and independent. These opportunities increase women's confidence and economic independence and as a result, they can plan their work and use the money for their own needs.
Outdated beliefs, thoughts and myths hinder behaviour change. Traditionally, women undertake all household activities but have no say in how money is used. If she needs money, she needs to ask her husband or the head of the household. Women are not allowed to keep the profits from sales and thus can't control their own assets. In general, women are considered rather as a worker than a leader in a household. Especially married women's mobility is restricted due to a lack of trust, gender-based violence and menstruation myths. In these situations, it takes courage for women to stand for elections or raise their voice in RM council meetings. In the early years of RVWRMP, women were even reluctant to participate in monitoring activities. Now, in part thanks to family support, we can see social transformation and advancements in women's empowerment.
With RVWRMP support to different sectors, women have been able to raise social issues and advocate for women's rights, decision-making, access, control and meaningful participation. Women have received training and become experienced in holding leading roles. RM Vice-chairs have been instrumental in including women's rights in local level decision-making.
The journey from housewife to policy maker and legislator shows that women can lead - this is a transformative change. Women who were used to always being dominated by men are now standing against violence, defending their rights and getting equal justice. While the loss of women in RM leadership roles following the elections of 2022 is a set-back, women are capacitated and ready to still take active roles in their communities and promote development for all.