If we needed to describe social work in one sentence, then perhaps the quote by John F Kennedy does most justice: “One person can make a difference and everyone should try.” A social worker is the person who is not waiting for others to improve the society they live in, nor are they the type to moan and complain about things not being right; they are the DOERS. Their actions speak much louder than words. And their lives are spent in meeting and overcoming challenges and issues that they are passionate about. Being a proactive citizen to engage in social work requires energy, effort, and resources; and it is never an easy task. Moreover, misogynist attitudes and patriarchal society make it even more difficult for women social workers. However, the hurdles and obstacles can never stop those who are motivated and passionate about their work. Four women social workers in Kathmandu share their stories for some inspiration.
Indira Rana Magar
Indira Rana Magar offers me roti and aalu ko tarkari before we begin to talk. We had decided to meet late afternoon. I was hungry, so was grateful for the offer. She informs me that she cooked the vegetables herself as she enjoys cooking and finds time to cook and feed her staff and her children in the shelter whenever her schedule allows her.
Her schedule is usually stretched though. She runs five shelters in Kathmandu including the one where we decided to meet. She has few safe houses and schools for boys and girls in Palpa and Jhapa, runs programs like Girls Empower through Education, and she coordinates across all the prisons in the country. Her shelters have children of those parents who are in prison, some of them are orphans, few of them were affected by the earthquake and conflict.
The shelter that I visited in Kathmandu has awards, certificates and newspaper articles nicely framed on different walls. She says, “These are all by-products of the work that I do. I never thought or aspired to be recognised or appreciated for my work. I feel I got all these things because I never desired for them.” She shares, “The real joy I get is from my children. Spending time with them, looking after them, and seeing them doing better in their lives gives me real pleasure.”
However, the initial days were not easy. Coming from Jhapa, her parents had to hear all kinds of things for allowing their daughter to travel to Kathmandu and to work. “But I was always a rebellious. I always wanted to do challenging things,” asserts Indira.
The real joy I get is from my children. Spending time with them, looking after them, and seeing them doing better in their lives gives me real pleasure.
Indira started her work 32 years ago. As a young woman, visiting the prison and working with prison inmates was not comfortable. But when she saw the children inside the prison, she knew there was no other way. Indira shares, “In 2000, when I established Prisoner’s Assistance Nepal, there were not many organisations to support children who were being raised inside the prison. I dedicated my life to this work because it brings me fulfilment.”
Indira feels there is added responsibility on women social workers. While they need to be warm and welcoming and build a rapport with everyone, they also have to be extra careful about their reputation as the society is quick to accuse and character assassinate women.
There were a few men who were interested in Indira. Inspired by her work, some of them even proposed marriage. But having already married and divorced her husband, re-marriage and the possibility of repeating the cycle of another heart break didn’t interest her. Instead, she writes poems and songs on the days she feels lonely or sad.
“I could have become a full-time mountain biker or even a literary figure had I not chosen this line of work. But the satisfaction that I got from this work didn’t allow me to think or aspire for anything else,” concludes Indira.
Parina Subba Limbu
Parina Subba Limbu was introduced to me by a mutual friend. We were supposed to meet for another assignment, but that never happened and we didn’t meet. When I got the assignment of covering women who are into social work and reforms, I wanted to cover Parina too. Again, she was travelling. We still couldn’t meet.
However, Parina agreed to meet me online and talk about her journey from being a survivor of substance abuse herself to establishing an organisation to support women who use drugs.
Dristi Nepal, the organisation of which Parina is the founder and executive director, is a first Nepali organisation that has been opened by and for women who use drugs. Parina understood that while it was important to have allies, change needed to happen with people who have shared the experience and understand the process of transformation.
“One of my happiest days was when Dristi Nepal got the Red Ribbon Award in 2014 in Melbourne, after eight years of our establishment,” says Parina.
At Dristi, Parina informs, they offer support to women who use drugs and who are infected by HIV to heal, treat and to refer them for rehabilitation and also lend legal and counseling services. Having a history of being a survivor of domestic violence herself, she says substance abuse is both the cause and consequence of gender-based violence.
In countries like ours the laws and policies are very weak and there is not much support for women drug users for their recovery and treatment.
Parina shares, “In recent times I see the society changing. There is at least an acknowledgment of women being substance users but the norm of treating those women is still very discriminatory”. She elaborates, “While sons are sent to rehabilitation centres, daughter-in-laws are abandoned from their home and their children are taken away from them.”
“There is a lot of taboo and stigma attached with drugs users. There is added shame when the user is a woman,” Parina states, “In countries like ours the laws and policies are very weak and there is not much support for women drug users for their recovery and treatment.”
Her journey has had its share of tribulations. “I had established the organisation but there used to be days when I didn’t know if I could continue or not.” However, Parina also learnt to seek help from those who know better.
Doing social work is not easy. Parina was still working on the day when she delivered her son. Personal and professional life often gets blurred in this line of work. There is motivation, but sometimes there is added pressure to be available for others.
Parina is also a strong advocate of mental health. She thought that her mental health issues would be resolved once she had the organisation to run and to support others. But the opposite happened. “The organisational pressure, the anxiety of not being a good mother and personal distress took toll on my life. In Nepal we still don’t have space to talk about our mental health,” Parina shares.
These days, she has made the conscious decision to take time out for herself and to heal. She is serious about her fitness routine. She meditates and writes a journal. She also enjoys self-care and spending time with her son, and once in a while, a good cry always helps.
When I enter Pabitra Sewa Samaj premise, I am greeted by people of all genders, ages, and ethnic backgrounds. Dikchhya Chapagai comes to receive me and takes me inside her room which is inside the premise of the shelter that also has homes for both senior citizens and children. Dikchhya tells me that her shelter is open for everyone. “Everyone needs love and care, there is no space for discrimination in this shelter,” she says as we sit for our conversation.
The children at the shelter call her “mamu,” another name for a mother. Dikchhya tells me that the children have promised that they will look after her when she gets old. But she doesn’t hold any such hopes or expectations from anyone. Nobody told her to do this work. The motivation to serve those in need has come naturally to her.
“This was my personal choice and I am glad to be in this path of service for those who have been abandoned by their own families,” says Dikchhya.
We think people who receive are the lucky ones but the people who are able to give are the lucky and blessed ones.
Dikchhya came to Kathmandu to learn computers. She used to travel from Bhaktapur to Putali Sadak to attend classes. While travelling by public transport, she used to see needy people on the streets; children, old people and the sick. Her heart would go out to them and she would get restless thinking if ways to help them.
In 2002, when she got her first job in the same computer institute, her salary was just Rs 1,500. She got a room for herself and started to help people. She would rescue them from the streets, bathe them, feed them, take them to hospital, sit and talk to them.
Dikchhya believes that anyone interested to help the needy must go beyond personal desires and wishes. “If we are still entangled in materialistic wants, we cannot serve whole heartedly,” she says. Other than her work, there are not many things that make her happy. One of her biggest joys come from the children she brings to her shelter, the ones who call her mamu and make demands on her time and attention. She takes pride in their success. One of the oldest daughters that Dikchhya adopted is in grade eleven now.
Dikchhya’s mother was her biggest supporter. She gets emotional when she talks about her mother who passed away three years ago. “Even on her deathbed, my mother motivated me to continue my work and told me not to be disturbed by criticisms and accusations,” she shares.
“I was never interested in starting my own family or having my own biological children. For me, the people in my shelter are my family,” says Dikchhya who is immensely thankful to the people who have trusted her and her work over the years. People from abroad and within Nepal write to her, contribute to her shelter, and hep her when the need arises.
Through her work at Pabitra Samaj Sewa, she is happy that in one life she is both mother and daughter to those who are in desperate need of love and care; the forgotten and the abandoned.
While concluding, Dikchhya tells me that we don’t remember the person who got Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s old coat but even after many years we remember Devkota who gave away his used coat. She looks me into my eyes and says, “We think that people who receive are the lucky ones but the people who are able to give are the lucky and blessed ones. I hope in this life I will have courage and zeal to keep giving.”
Srijana Thakuri has 12 dogs in her home and 250 in her shelter. We had to decide some other place for our meeting as I am someone who gets remembered by her friends whenever they see memes of people being scared and running away from dogs. Srijana was kind enough to understand my situation, thus we decided to meet at a cafe. As we walked towards the cafe, there were a couple of street dogs on the road. Seeing her treat those dogs, I knew it was my loss that I wasn’t visiting her shelter.
After we ordered our drinks, she said, “My shelter gets shaken and there is chaos every time I enter the gate. They all come running towards me as soon as they see me.” She informs that the situation is similar when she goes to Pashupati area to serve food to the street dogs in the area. She even has a name for each one. Srijana feels our world would be a much better place if humans loved each other as much as dogs love us. Animal love is unconditional.
Srijana laments, “Even though Hindu mythology has given importance to different animals and we even have separate days to celebrate their significance in our lives, the same is not seen in our daily activities.”
She has already changed five shelters till now in her seven-year journey of formally establishing Shree Animal Rescue Nepal. She has been bullied, accused and threatened while running the shelter. Srijana shares, “When they see a lone woman who is very sensitive towards animals, they feel they can easily manipulate her.”
Her journey of loving dogs and adopting them started when she was just a child. She loved dogs so much that she would threaten her parents that she would not go to school if they didn’t allow her to adopt the injured dogs that she found on the streets.
“It costs a lot to run a shelter, I have even sold my house for this.”
She uses her personal money, time, and effort to save abandoned and injured dogs. “It costs a lot to run a shelter, I have even sold my house for this,” says Srijana. Saving dogs that arrive in a critical stage to her shelter and seeing them gain a new life gives her immense satisfaction. It also gives her strength to overcome obstacles in her life.
Her personal journey has not been an easy one. She has an ailing son at home. Recently, she underwent a major surgery which was almost life threatening. And the lack of financial security to continue her shelter keeps her anxious and often awake at night. Her family and relatives advise her to give priority to her own wellbeing and family, but she is determined to continue her shelter.
Today, Srijana is pleased to see the young generation animal enthusiasts and lovers, but cautions them against using animals to gain personal fame and profit. She also hopes that people start adopting street dogs and not only spend tons of money on breed dogs.