Miles to Go Before I Sleep

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Sara Neupan is one of the winners of the IV Rhodes Youth Forum. At the end of November, 2013 her sanitation improvement project for schoolgirls in two remote Nepalese municipalities was selected for an award due to its social significance.

Sara Neupan

Sara points out that she was definitively influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” In an interview Sara tells us about the customary lives of Nepalese women and how Hinduism helps to understand women’s position in the world.

Sara, tell us a little about yourself and about the moment you recognized that you are “committed to social change.”

It was on 5 November 1985 that I first came to this beautiful world. I feel very lucky to have been born into a family with parents as loving as mine were and siblings who were like friends. I spent my childhood in the capital of the country, Kathmandu, and went to St. Mary’s High School where apart from regular courses, I learnt about virtues like philanthropy and social service. Having been born and brought up in a developing country like Nepal, my genuine interest has always been to do something for people less fortunate than I am. To turn this interest into reality, I decided to study Development Studies when most of my friends opted to become bankers or engineers. As I pursued my higher education, I started developing a deeper interest in working at the grassroots level with the most underprivileged, marginalized and disadvantaged section of our society. I completed my Master in Development Studies from Kathmandu University, Nepal and was awarded ‘Nepal Vidyabhushan Padak’ by the Honorable President of Nepal, Dr. Ram Baran Yadav, for being first in my graduating class.
My professional life started in 2006 when I got an opportunity to work at an NGO named Development Vision Nepal under the auspices of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) and UNIFEM, now UN Women. I was basically involved in research activities during the initial phase of my professional career. My life took a new direction when I started working at a local government association, Municipal Association of Nepal (MuAN) in early 2010. It is an umbrella association for all the municipalities in Nepal with advocacy and lobbying, information and networking and technical and advisory support as major working areas. In spite of being the youngest person on the staff, today I design programmes and projects for Nepalese municipalities that range from improving the skills of the municipal employees to the implementation of pilot activities and initiatives.
Apart from my professional life, I have always wanted to maintain the spirit of altruism. So I also am involved with nongovernmental organizations for victims of trafficking, orphan children, rehabilitated women migrant workers and People Living with HIV/AIDS. I also, along with my friends, run a ‘Winter Clothes Drive’ where we collect clothes and donate to the needy. There are certain things I have done so far, however I feel there is so much more I need to do having, as Robert Frost says, ‘miles to go before I sleep.’

What about your activity in the context of the Girl Friendly School Sanitation Improvement Project? What are the results so far, and the problems?

My project is about to commence. As a part of my official work, I had visited the project sites at Amargadhi and Dipayal Silgadhi and had an opportunity to discuss the implementation of the project with the municipal officials there. The municipalities have recommended several schools where the need is imperative. However, before going forward I will personally visit the recommended schools to verify if the need is really urgent. I anticipate that the project will garner positive response from the municipalities, the schools, and the citizens. Most importantly, young girls who are now absenting themselves from school during menstruation will be benefitted which will dramatically reduce missed school days and significantly contribute to MDG 2, i.e.: the attainment of universal primary education. At this moment, I don’t see any problems with implementing the project.

Are there other problems of women in Nepal that in your mind should be solved?

Socially, the patriarchal structure of our society has been the main barrier to women’s empowerment in Nepal. Most women’s lives remain centered on their conventional roles, i.e. taking care of most household chores. Women’s status in society is mostly dependent on their husbands’ and parents’ social and economic positions. They are deprived of various opportunities in life be it education or employment. Likewise, sexual and reproductive health problems continue to affect the lives of women in Nepal. They have very little role in decision making, and their participation and representation in governance is minimal. All these social, political and health related issues should be solved with appropriate mechanisms such as government-led reservations or quotas for women who wish to enter politics or civil service. Similarly, health issues should be made a national agenda and worked upon.

Historically, how were women perceived in Nepalese society?

“Yatra naryastu pujayante tatra ramante devta” meaning “God enjoys being where women are worshipped” is a common Sanskrit adage in this part of the world. Women in Hinduism are compared to the goddesses Durga, Laxmi and Saraswati, i.e. the goddesses of power, wealth and knowledge. Ironically, discrimination against females has existed since time immemorial and seems to be continuing even today. In a Nepalese context, a girl has to leave her home and go to live with her husband and in-laws, so girls are essentially treated as burdens or as someone else’s property. For this reason, parents wish to have sons, as sons can take care of them when they become old. Likewise, it is also mentioned in religious texts that if parents have a son, they go to heaven. Hence because of such superstitions and misconceptions women are always undermined.

What in your mind could define Nepalese women and what makes them unique? Are there some changes you consider as positive or negative?

Nepalese women have been facing social, cultural and legal barriers for a very long time. Women’s movements in Nepal have always demanded basic human rights such as equality, equal participation and recognition of women’s identity. Some significant changes took place after the democratic movement of 1990 which brought about the new constitution and constitutional provisions on equality, non-discrimination and ensuring some level of participation of women. However, most Nepalese women still live in the shadow of misery and pain. Women comprise more than half of the total population in Nepal. I think patience, perseverance, drudgery and optimism are what make Nepalese women unique.

Are there barriers to the self-actualization of women in Nepal?

Self-actualization is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is the final level of psychological development that can be achieved when all basic and mental needs are essentially fulfilled. In a Nepalese context, women have numerous problems with self-actualization. Women are so much defined by their gender roles and responsibilities that they rarely have time for themselves. Besides, there is a lack of an enabling environment for women that would help them realize their potential and talent. There is a specific group of elite women who might have experienced self-actualization, but the majority of Nepalese women belong to the category whose basic needs in the pyramid are unfulfilled. Hence, self-actualization is a remote possibility for most Nepalese women.

What do you think about feminism and the relationship between men and women today? A lot of women complain that there are no real men, and men think that there are no real women. How could this problem be solved?

Feminism is the belief that women are and should be treated as potential intellectual and social equals to men. Like everything else, feminism has its pros and cons. It is often argued that modern feminism ruined society instead of liberating women. However, without it equal rights and justice to women would never have been possible. The book Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus by John Gray has really become a guiding ‘mantra’ in my life.   The book states that most of the common relationship problems between men and women are a result of fundamental psychological differences between the genders and that each gender is acclimated to its own planet’s society and customs, but not to those of the other. I think men and women are only anatomically different. There are things women can do and men cannot and vice versa. Hence, it is important that men and women realize their respective equal roles and strive to complement each other.

Photo: From the Archive of Sara Neupan

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