Technology, Advocacy, and Films are Paving the Way for Equal Rights in the Country.
It was late one night when a midwife received a frantic phone call.
It was the first pregnancy for 28-year-old Asha (name changed), and her husband sounded worried. Her amniotic fluid was leaking.
With urgency, the midwife asked them to visit the nearest health facility.
There was no transportation at night near their home in the Chitwan district, and the two decided to wait until morning. But the midwife, well aware of the dangers, did not give up.
She called the couple over and over again until they grasped the seriousness of the situation. Later that night, Asha was taken for a C-section by the doctor.
The midwife’s advice and insistence during those crucial hours had made all the difference to Asha and her newborn. “We really can’t imagine the consequences had Amakomaya not been there,” the couple recalls.
On Amakomaya, Maternal Health Care at the Touch of a Button
In rural and remote communities where women once hesitated to talk about conception and pregnancy, the men and women are today sitting hunched over their phones, watching content and taking counselling on a mobile app.
Topics that had been kept hush-hush for generations have become common talk.
Rajendra Poudel, one of the brains behind the Amakomaya app, had started out by bringing the internet to rural villages and promoting digital literacy, along with the Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Mahabir Pun. While carrying out their work, they noticed that many communities had poor maternal health care systems, leaving women isolated from support services and suffering from several issues, including prolapse and high-risk pregnancies. Women also often travelled long distances from the more remote regions to access health facilities, deterring them from accessing services.
From then on, the team’s mission was to provide care to those who needed it most in these communities, the mothers.
Beyond offering much-needed health care, the app has become a close confidant for many women, alongside providing critical data to health authorities.
“Amakomaya translates as mother’s love,” says Rajendra. Amakomaya has been dispensing life-saving medical advice and services to expecting mothers for years now. Beyond offering much-needed health care, the app has become a close confidant for many women, alongside providing critical data to health authorities.
Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHVs) in these communities are in a lot of ways the backbone of health care systems, educating communities, delivering health services, and collecting data. At some point, news regarding Amakomaya’s work started to spread, and the team was encouraged to apply for grants that eventually helped them give mobile and tablet devices to the FCHVs. These FCHVs go door to door to speak to women and record essential details on their devices.
When the Coronavirus hit Nepal, Amakomaya helped arrange transportation to bring expecting mothers to health facilities and coordinated with local testing labs to ease their journeys. Overall, thousands of women have benefited from their services. Some had heard about the app through word of mouth and radio and television programmes; others found out about it on Facebook. The team recruited midwives and added a toll-free number for those experiencing issues, including domestic violence and abuse. The number was linked to government systems for effective action.
“One of the considerations was the cost of accessing the internet. We advocated with the government to ensure the delivery of this life-saving information. Now, we host our content on the government network so that anyone can access it without cost through the Nepal Telecom network,” adds Rajendra.
Amakomaya has so far shown impressive results. The number of Antenatal Care (ANC) visits has gone up. Further, the team used their infrastructure and expertise to develop a system to track Covid 19 patients in the country, used by the government to monitor cases.
In places where women once felt alone talking about their problems, Amakomaya stepped in to be that adviser and indispensable companion, caring for expecting mothers and holding their hand when they needed it most.
On the Fight for Disability Rights
Tika Dahal has been a long-time advocate for social justice. She is the chairperson of the Nepal Disabled Women Association (NDWA), an organisation representing over 800,000 women and girls with disabilities.
NDWA’s members began their work in 1998 when they found strength in numbers and a powerful voice to fight against several issues, including but not limited to gender-based violence and exclusion.
“In the beginning, we did not know the best way to explore these issues. It was not easy,” says Tika, referring to the stigma attached to women and girls who speak out.
Today, the organisation supports thousands of women and girls in pursuing their rights, ensuring protection and support and amplifying their voices. Its mission is to promote meaningful participation and inclusion of women with disabilities in policies and systems.
The rehabilitation centre is a safe space for women with disabilities from several regions, many of whom are survivors of violence, abuse, and trauma and do not have family support. The women are now getting legal advice, pursuing education, and building skills to earn an income. NDWA’s team also educates the women on services and provisions available through the government and other groups, such as skill training, disability allowances, and government jobs. Similar information is spread through their self-help groups at the community level, where their effort to ensure children with disabilities attend school is showing great success.
Its mission is to promote meaningful participation and inclusion of women with disabilities in policies and systems.
In 2009, Nepal ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol, which calls for state parties to ensure “effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others” through procedural accommodations and by promoting appropriate training. But to date, police stations and courts lack reasonable accommodations and gender-sensitive services.
“Those who are wheelchair users, blind, deaf, or have an intellectual disability are very vulnerable to GBV, but our legal provisions do not focus on providing them with the right services,” Tika explains.
“The police stations and courts are still not accessible; when a deaf woman goes to the court or police stations, there are no sign language interpreters, and no one is trained on how to communicate and help them access support,” she adds.
In addition, cultural barriers hinder justice. According to Tika, in many cases where perpetrators serve prison time, they are often welcomed back with open arms by their families and communities. But the journey is not easy for victims and survivors of this violence.
According to “Invisible Realities”, a 2019 research report that involved 145 women with disabilities from the Morang, Kavre, and Gorkha districts, 64 % of the women respondents who had experienced violence said it had been perpetrated by family members, most commonly intimate partners. In addition, women had faced several barriers in accessing justice, with a majority of them saying they did not report the abuse.
Further, 50 % of people with disabilities, who were part of the research, did not seek justice because they felt that no one listened to them. Many respondents also reported experiencing psychological problems due to the abuse and violence, such as “mental health issues, feeling fear, and suicidal feelings”.
Some even had to leave their homes.
“They are victimised over and over again in their lifetimes,” says Tika.
While Nepal guarantees 33 % of seats in the Federal and Provincial Legislatures to women and has provisions for Dalit and some other marginalised groups, the striking lack of reservation quotas for women with disabilities and LGBTIQ+ people is concerning.
“During the elections, the political parties ask for names of representatives from disability groups, but they never include them on their candidates lists. That is discrimination,” Tika explains, adding that although their team filed a public interest litigation on the issue, the court eventually dismissed it when those in power did not pay heed.
“They have forgotten about us, and that is a barrier. We have only six women with disabilities serving as representatives on the local level in the country,” she says.
“They have to respect disability rights alongside the rights of other marginalised groups,” she adds.
Together, Tika and her team are working hard to make disability rights a top priority on the national agenda. But, according to Tika, other civil society organisations and activists need to pay attention, too.
“We are raising our voices, but mainstream women’s rights organisations, human rights groups, and activists should know about our agenda, about what inclusion means or the needs of deaf women or women with spinal cord injuries from the hygiene, sanitation, health, or security perspective,” she says.
On Equal Rights and Making Schools Safe and Inclusive Spaces
Through her role at the Blue Diamond Society, Bhumika Shrestha’s work touches upon several themes, but some of her most exceptional work today is making educational settings inclusive and welcoming to all.
Students from the LGBTIQ+ community often face bullying and exclusion from a young age. Such environments often increase isolation for young people and impact their physical and mental health. In addition, a striking lack of protection mechanisms against discriminatory attitudes plagues the system.
According to a 2012 assessment of the rights of LGBTIQ+ children in Nepal, published by Save the Children, most children reported facing “stigma, harassment, and discrimination”, especially at schools and while walking on the streets. Bhumika has been campaigning tirelessly to end this discrimination in Nepal and make schools and colleges safer learning environments for all.
Starting with just six members, the Blue Diamond Society today has an expansive network across 40 municipalities and within all seven provinces. The organisation broke new ground in Nepal when it established itself as one of the first to work on the rights of LGBTIQ+ people. Just this year, Bhumika was also awarded the International Women of Courage Award by the United States Department of State for her pioneering work and strong leadership on the ground.
In addition to their work on child rights, Bhumika and her team are fighting for “all other rights, be it political, economic, social, or cultural”.
Starting with just six members, the Blue Diamond Society today has an expansive network across 40 municipalities and within all seven provinces.
“Especially in Nepal, we raise our voices for equal rights and to reach all levels. We are not able to make good use of our rights because reservation quotas and social schemes have not been provided to us,” says Bhumika.
Marriage equality and access to housing and inheritance rights are just some of the other battles activists from the community are fighting for to date in the country. In 2015, a government-appointed committee recommended legalising same-sex marriage in Nepal, but progress has been slow since.
A proposed amendment to the citizenship laws also negatively targets the community by requiring “proof” to choose their gender identity on citizenship cards.
“We are trying to put pressure on them to stop this (from happening). Why should we be forced to show medical proof when we demand our citizenship cards?” she asks.
Blue Diamond Society also carries out other critical programmes through their networks in Nepal, including HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention and economic empowerment, alongside documenting rights violations, advocating for policy change, and improving representation and participation.
“Many community members have mental health issues, mental stress, and associated problems, and we provide counselling to them. Our community friends have faced a lot of discrimination in terms of family rejection. We talk to the families and give face-to-face counselling there, too. Right now, family acceptance is comparatively high,” she adds.
Brick by brick, activists like Bhumika are filling in the cracks in the systems by calling for equal rights and inclusion while responding to the community’s needs effectively and sensitively on the ground.
Hopefully, it is only a matter of time before those in power catch up.
On Girls’ Empowerment, Voice, and Agency
When Sue Carpenter began working on an assignment in Nepal, little did she know that her journey would lead her to Belmaya Nepali and a deep and lasting association with the women and girls of the region.
Sue was running a photography project at a home for girls when she met Belmaya.
“Belmaya is a natural feminist, and I think I empathised with her. She could not help speaking out when things were unfair, and that’s what really got me because that is what I am like…I have a real sense of natural justice, so when things are not fair, it is really hard to swallow,” she says.
“Belmaya just missed out. Because her elder siblings were predominantly boys, they made the decisions. She did not have a say, so it was kind of a routine silencing of women,” Sue explains.
While Sue had intended to visit Belmaya more regularly, communication between the two became difficult when the home shut its doors to outsiders.
“It was just worse upon worse,” Sue recalls, adding that learning photography had given Belmaya a “window of excitement and opportunity”.
“She loved the camera, and she could see a life ahead with it,” she says.
Sue and Belmaya recently released their documentary film “I Am Belmaya”, which is being screened in communities and countries across the globe.
“Belmaya’s story highlights issues that many women in Nepal face, one being the intersection of being Dalit and being a woman. Within that broad umbrella of being discriminated against, there are fewer chances for good education. Belmaya herself missed out on a lot of education opportunities for numerous reasons, not least that she was orphaned and the family was very poor, so she had to work and do domestic chores,” says Sue.
Directing the film brought together the “two strands” of Sue’s life, as somebody who advocates for women’s rights and is a “natural feminist”, like Belmaya, and a journalist with a background in photography and filmmaking.
“Films can be really, really powerful. If you get the right combination and story for a longer form documentary, it just has massive ripple effects,” she shares.
So far, the screenings have received an overwhelming response.
“I think a lot of the time, people feel that if you have had a disadvantaged upbringing, there is no future or hope of transcending the life that is set out for you. But when they see Belmaya who’s achieved something great, they feel inspired,” Sue shares.
“You can reach beyond people’s limitations for you and your own for yourself. And I think that is the overriding feeling people come away with, especially if they have come from the same group or community as her. That you can reach for the stars,” she adds.
When talking about the film’s impact, in the long run, Sue believes these efforts are like drops in a bucket that build up to something more important.
As a trustee of Global Girl Media UK, which “trains girls to take agency of their own stories,” she says that agency is paramount.
“It is absolutely vital that Belmaya tells her own story, picks up the camera herself, and shows us her view of things because otherwise, you will never see that true picture of what she wants to say about her life and how she wants to present it,” she says.
Belmaya’s story highlights issues that many women in Nepal face, one being the intersection of being Dalit and being a woman. Within that broad umbrella of being discriminated against, there are fewer chances for good education.
“So, for example, at the end of the film, she just sort of slips in a couple of words saying that I am happier now that it is just my daughter and me. Some people come away saying what happened? Why don’t we learn more about what happened between her and her husband? But Belmaya did not want to say it; she said it was all in the past and wanted to look forward. That was all she would say on the subject. It is her voice, her choice,” Sue explains.
Some of Sue’s happiest experiences have been showing the film to interested groups. Today, she is hoping to do more community screenings. In the west, she says, it is harder to bring general audiences to a film about a foreign land with subtitles, but she is determined to continue to show the documentary to more people worldwide to spark more conversations and let Belmaya’s story touch even more lives.