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by Shreejita Chauhan

WOW – Women of the World – is a global movement that champions gender equality, celebrating achievements of women and girls everywhere and examining the obstacles that keep them from fulfilling their potential. It was first held in 2017 in Nepal. This year, the WOW Festival will be held from April 15-16 in Lumbini.

WOW magazine was commissioned by the British Council to identify and produce the digital content for the MARKETPLACE wherein we identified 15 women entrepreneurs from across the country with a focus on their business idea, their impact, and the effect of the pandemic on their ventures. In this issue we have featured six women entrepreneurs and the rest will be featured in the upcoming issue.

The objective is to put the spotlight on and to amplify the voice of women entrepreneurs and producer groups.

Political Literacy for Women Changing Gender Norms

We often see men in our societies discussing political issues, but why not women? Prakriti Bhattarai Basnet, Founder and Chairperson of Political Literacy for Women, bravely questioned the traditional gender norms and is advocating for exactly that. PLfW is a movement to bring political consciousness among women by fostering their knowledge on politics, aiming towards a shift in the political culture of Nepal.

In Nepal, women account for over 54% of the total population and yet the political field is male-dominated. Prakriti noticed the gender gaps in political discussion when she was in high school when her friends showed no interest in discussing the political status of Nepal. 

“There was a lack of a proper program for women to discuss and learn about politics,” shares Prakriti. In an effort to change that, she started PLfW through Facebook and opened the course for everyone. Seeing over 700 girls apply for the course made her realise that the problem was not a lack of interest but the lack of a platform. 

Since then, Prakriti has successfully empowered more than 650 women from all over Nepal through training, political literacy courses and protests. “Seeing young women have political aspirations after attending our training truly motivates me to work every day,” she shares. Till date, over 40 trainees at PLfW have enrolled for college level politics or joined a political party of their choice.

One of their trainees, Sabba Rani Maharjan shares, “I wasn’t involved in any student or youth politics, so I didn’t have anyone to discuss politics with. Joining PLfW gave me a platform to have political conversation with women of my age.” Like Sabba, many other women have found their voices through PLfW and the institute continues to organise training, conduct classes and perform protests with the end goal of empowering women in politics.

Prakriti can also be seen at the forefront of political protests in the streets of Nepal. One of their recent campaigns, Ajhai Kati Sahane was exemplary. Draped in black, women lined the streets of 40 districts at the same time aiming to raise their voices against sexual violence in the country.

The Ajhai Kati Sahane Movement has recently recognised with the 360 Impact Awards 2022, an initiative of Media 9.

Ram Kali Khadka
Fostering Craftswomen of Nepal

Originally from Humla, Ram Kali Khadka, Founder and Executive Director of Women’s Skill Development Organisation found her calling in Pokhara. WSDO initially started as a handicraft training centre for women back in 1975. While the organisation still trains women, people’s rising interest in the project led to the start of commercial activities in the early 90s. In an effort to widen the organisation’s scope and create employment opportunities for women to be financially independent, trainees were employed to produce handicraft items.

Over the course of 40 years, the organisation has empowered more than 17,000 women through vocational training and income-generating opportunities at WSDO. Their sales significantly increased once they joined the World Fair Trade Organisation, linking them to the international market.

WSDO is mostly praised for the usage of pure cotton in their products. The entire production process, from dyeing the cotton to weaving and sewing of products is conducted by the organisation itself. The fabric is weaved on a backstrap loom, which is then cut and sewn into backpacks, shoulder bags, purses and dolls among others. WSDO ensures that every worker is provided with fair wage and that the production process has minimal environmental impact using local raw materials with eco-friendly dyes.

Ram Kali has fought her way through numerous challenges over the past decades, making her an adroit leader in the organisation and business. However, since the organisation mainly runs through its profits in exports, the pandemic has presented yet another challenge to the organisation. Its effect can be clearly seen in the organisation’s premises: while the place used to be buzzing with the sounds of over 600 women cutting, weaving and sewing before the pandemic, now only about 100 women are working at WSDO.

Despite the decrease in sales, Ram Kali has made the most of their time during the pandemic by conducting trainings to teach women new skills in making products out of hay and grass. She shares her life learnings as an experienced leader, “I have realised that in order to make any venture a success, creating value for customers and team spirit within all workers is absolutely necessary.”

Mamta Siwakoti
Adapting to a Digital World

Amidst the lockdown of June 2020, Lawyer Mamta Siwakoti had just received her lawyer’s licence but could do absolutely nothing with it. Mamta decided to make better use of her time instead of endlessly scrolling through her social media feeds. So, she put on her legal attire, shot a video on her phone explaining how one can become a lawyer in Nepal, and uploaded it on Tiktok. To her surprise, that simple video gained thousands of views, and her viewers had many more questions. That’s when she decided to make the most of social media platforms by setting up The Digital Lawyer.

“The Digital Lawyer is a digital personification of a lawyer; a social media law literacy campaign,” says Mamta. Through social media platforms, she aims to educate the public on the subject of law. She believes that for the people to follow through the systems of the country, they need to first be aware of the existing laws. 

With her father being a lawyer, Mamta grew up hearing about legal issues regularly at home. “I grew up in a very nationalist household,” she shares. Her proximity to the legal field from a young age is what motivated her to pursue law as a career. 

When asked about how she chooses which issue to cover in her videos, she says, “First, if there are a lot of requests to cover the same issue, I talk about that. Second, I try to include current affairs as much as possible in my videos.” She covers a wide range of topics from crypto currency, voting, divorce to physical abuse, animal rights, trespassing, etc. Her videos are loved by the public and she has successfully gained a following of 122,000 in Tiktok. 

On the down side, leading a life with social fame comes with its own challenges. There have been numerous instances when Mamta came across sexist, and sometimes even threatening, comments or messages. “People fail to recognise me as a law professional at times,” Mamta expresses. Despite the challenges, Mamta persistently uploads videos while balancing her professional career, and her content is accessible to anyone who wants to know about the legal systems of Nepal.

Amma Café
A Story of Change and Hope

The lives of 15 marginalised women changed when they were presented with the opportunity to work at Amma Cafe. The cafe is the first women-led social enterprise in the Lumbini World Heritage Site, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha. The Development Trust provided the building as a part of their plan to empower women; it is also supported by the World Bank. The cafe has not only given employment opportunities to women but has also changed the mindset of people who thought that women should not be allowed to work.

As baristas at Amma Cafe, women have found voices in their families and in society. Talking to the accountant of the cafe, Bishnu Gharti Chhetri says, “In Grade 12, my teacher informed me about the new cafe opening at Lumbini and that I should apply for it.” Soon after, Vishnu along with 14 other women was trained and responsibilities were divided among them as per their strengths. It has now been six months since they started running the cafe and are truly doing a remarkable job.

“Initially my family was reluctant about letting me to work with men. Since all employees in the cafe are women, they let me work here,” shares Bishnu. Similarly, other women also struggled to join the cafe–the main reason being resistance from their families or societies. Even after joining the cafe, there are other challenges that the baristas have to face. Since many had never studied before, they first had trouble doing basic calculations. But with regular trainings, many have improved and are still learning.

One of the baristas at the cafe, Munni Devi Chaudhary talks about her responsibilities at the cafe, “I arrive at 7:30 in the morning and clean up the cafe. Whenever a customer arrives, I greet them with a Namaste, serve them water and take their food orders.” She had never worked before and at first, struggled to take the orders of men customers. Though it will still take some time for her to adapt to the new environment, nowadays she takes orders and even converses with the customers.

Women’s empowerment has become central to the global development and with initiatives like Amma Cafe, the patriarchal mindset of people is slowly changing. Women like Bishnu and Munni have become an inspiration to many other women in Lumbini combating for an empowered Nepal.

Indira Sapkota
Unbound by Age

An active entrepreneur at the age of 84, Indira Sapkota has continuously proven that age is just a number. As the Managing Director of AAD Tayari Poshak, President of Bhotu: Indira Social Welfare Organisation, and Founder of Nepali Grihini Udhyog, Indira is not only financially independent but has enabled many women to find employment with a stable source of income.

Married at 14, Indira’s husband’s income of Rs 500 a month barely met the family’s basic needs. So, in hopes of generating extra income, she started knitting. After selling her first product in the market for double the cost price, she realised that people are willing to pay good amounts for good products.

The traditional mindset of people was a constant barrier for Indira to uplift her business. “They tried to tell me that a woman should not be involved in money-making, but I persisted,” she says. In order to start her business on a wider scale, she sold all her jewellery to gather an initial investment of Rs 50,000. Teaming up with four other women, she founded AAD Tayari Poshak and is still working as the Managing Director there.
She soon realised how important it was for a woman to be financially independent. So, she set out to help other women by teaching them the necessary skills to earn a stable income. She started training women–including those in prison–the skills of knitting, sewing and making pickles. “I was proud to see women from rural regions of Nepal attending our training and putting their skills into practice,” Indira smiles.

Once, her company employed over 250 people and the majority of her product was exported to Japan, the US and other European nations. Although her growing business was deeply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, Indira is not one to lose hope. “My work motivates me to wake up every day and I will continue working till my body allows me to,” she says with a smile.

Upcycle Nepal
Rags to Bags

Like most people, Pushpa Sthapit had plenty of clothes in her closet that she hardly ever wore, but also didn’t have the heart to throw out. Being a creative person, she got the idea of upcycling old jeans and a bakhu fabric to create a bag for her MBA class project. Some positive feedback and days of research later, she turned it into a business venture by co-founding Upcycle Nepal.

The majority of the fabrics upcycled at Upcycle Nepal come from households, that are paid in exchange for their old clothes. Over a span of three years, they have successfully received around 50 tons of fabric waste only from Nepali households.

“The process of creating a single upcycled product is quite challenging,” shares Pushpa. First, they receive a call or a text in their social media handles to pick up used clothes. After collecting the clothes, they are washed, disinfected, and segregated into reusable, recyclable or down cyclable. While the clothes that are reusable are donated, those that are upcyclable are turned into bags, pouches and wallets. However, the clothes that are in no condition to be either reused or upcycled are downcycled: shredded and used in mattresses, cleaning rags, etc.

Another interesting aspect of their work is that in every upcycled product, you will find a touch of traditional Nepali fabric. According to Pushpa, “Using Nepali fabrics like dhaka not only make the products look more beautiful but also gives the message that they are made in Nepal.”

As of now, their products can be bought online; however they are in the process of building an outlet in Ason. The selling point of the products at Upcycle Nepal is that using an upcycled product is synonymous to taking action to be more eco-friendly.

“Since all Nepalis are not yet aware of the concept of sustainability, foreigners tend to value our products more,” she says. Although using products made from used fabric confused many, including their factory workers, now people are slowly starting to understand the value of reducing fabric waste and carbon footprint.

Pushpa, who became an environmentalist along the way of building her brand, aims to create upcycled products that are not only environment-friendly but also durable and functional.

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