In order to reduce poverty and introduce community development, oftentimes it’s best to start with women.
That’s the approach taken by Oklahoma City-based non-governmental organization World Neighbors in its work in Nepal and India. World Neighbors currently works in about 20 villages in Bihar, India and in nearly 32 communities over five districts in Nepal.
The three main areas of work are sustainable agriculture and rural livelihood, community-based natural resource management, and reproductive health and gender equity.
“Our mission is to inspire people, strengthen communities to find a lasting solution to hunger, disease and poverty and also to make people take care of the environment,” World Neighbors regional director for South Asia Srijana Karki told KGOU’s World Views.
In the communities where Karki works, men are often out town or the country in search of work. Women are overburdened as they tend to the crops and take care of household chores. Few women are educated and most are barely literate
“We work with women to help them come together and be part of the development process so that they can find solutions to the problems they are facing,” Karki said.
Karki says the entry point for her organization’s program in Nepal and India is a savings and credit group. Every month the women bring in five or ten rupees, and then use that money for projects, like buying seeds or livestock.
“We are making them bread earners of the family. Decision makers. They are entrepreneurs,” Karki said.
The program gives women access to money without having to go to moneylenders. The women earn money, which they later reinvest in their community.
“For example, one of the groups in Chitwan, they would give the money that they collect from interest on some scholarships or buying books or buying stationery,” Karki said. “Or if there's an emergency in for some members, they would call an ambulance. That costs a lot of money.”
Karki says many of these women wouldn’t even say their name in front of strangers before they joined the savings and credit group. Some would meet in secret places just to talk about it. Now, members give presentations in front of people they do not know to explain their work.
“They have so much pride in themselves that they are involved in community development,” Karki said.
Karki says the program has helped pave the way for women to educate their children, especially girls. The savings and credit group will create scholarship and provide money for books.
“We say that if a man is educated, not necessarily his children are educated,” Karki said. “If a woman is educated, or if a woman is aware, then her children are educated and she really takes care of well-being of the family.”
The education of girls is especially important in Bihar, where child marriage and dowry are prevalent. Among Karki’s group in Bihar, the women take an oath to not marry off their daughters before they turn 18, and to not give dowry.
Karki says being married at a young age can cripple a woman’s life.
“When you are not given an opportunity at a certain time, then she is dependent on someone throughout her life. When she was born she is dependent on a father and when she's married off at the age of 14, she's dependent on husband,” Karki said.
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Rebecca Cruise: Srijana Karki, welcome to World Views.
Srijana Karki: Thanks for having me.
Cruise: Well you are currently the regional director for South Asia at an international nonprofit that we know as World Neighbors. And this is an organization that focuses on sustainable solutions for global issues. As I said you're working on South Asia, predominantly in Nepal and India. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about the work that you're doing here.
Karki: We are working in Madhubani, Bihar. That's India. And in Nepal we are working in five districts. So altogether we are working in 20 villages in Bihar, India and some 32 villages in Nepal. And we work with women. Basically it's not that we don't work with men but primarily our work, we work with women farmers, small landholders. And there are three main thematic areas that we work around, and that's sustainable agriculture and rural livelihood, community-based natural resource management, and reproductive health and gender equity. And local capacity building is our cross-cutting thing. So our mission is to inspire people, strengthen communities to find a lasting solution to hunger, disease and poverty and also to make people take care of the environment. So basically our work revolves around this mission in Bihar and Nepal.
Cruise: It's interesting that you're focusing predominantly on women. We know from study after study that if you want to develop that you do focus on women, that women are more forward thinking, family thinking in terms of resources. Tell us a little bit about the position of women in these two countries.
Karki: Yeah. The women we work with in the community if you if you go there and see that most of the men are out of the town or out of the country to find better jobs and women are left with you know doing household chores. But at the same time do the agricultural work.
Cruise: And trying to sustain the family.
Karki: And trying to sustain their work. So they are in a way overburdened. You know and the woman we work with, they are not educated or they are barely literate, and not much experience. So in especially, if you talk about Bihar then they are in veil. They used to be in veil from our program area and they wouldn't go out of the premises, the domestic premises.
Cruise: So they're wearing a veil and they have restrictions, cultural or religious restrictions on them.
Karki: Yeah we work with those kind of women. And you know in a community development you have men and women. It's not that as I said earlier we don't work with men, but women are far behind and they are not into the development process that they should be. So we work with women to help them come together and be part of the development process so that they can find solutions to the problems they are facing. So basically we capacitate them to come up with solutions when we leave and move on with life and have better lives have better communities.
Cruise: And the idea being that they then become invested in their their own livelihoods. It's not just you and your organization coming in to solve problems for them but to help them figure out the solutions so that they can sustain after you leave.
Karki: Yeah. Like women, we don't do anything. We are just you know involved with household chores. So we are making them bread earners of the family. Decision makers. They are you know entrepreneurs. The entry point of our program is a savings and a credit group. And this is a wonderful tool to empower women and a wonderful tool for development, to bring women together. So the savings and created group is informal group where women are brought together and every month they bring in money like let's say five rupees or 10 rupees and then that money they use for like say you know buying seeds or buying livestock. So it's it's in a way accessing them for the money that that is not accessible to them earlier.
Karki: So they don't have to go to moneylenders you know and Beach caused enormous amount of interest. So that's the basic point. Women come together and have that money in their hand and they can mobilize that resources in a way they would like to do. So that gives them opportunity to be active in a lot of productive work. Like I said you know you know buying livestock for business or expanding their agriculture and sending their children to school. Paying fees in time. Buying medicine. And that gives them confidence to do a lot of other work apart from just savings and credits.
Cruise: So the savings and credit, the money they make from that, they're then reinvesting in themselves, their families, their communities.
Karki: Yeah. Yeah. And the answer is some of them much on group. They also invest in community development. For example one of the groups in Chitwan, they would give the money that they collect from interest on some scholarship or buying books or buying stationery. Or if there's an emergency in for some members, they would call an ambulance. That costs a lot of money. So those kind of you know social things that they are doing on their own and these are the women who are not literate and who didn't believe in themselves and and slowly they started coming out and doing things for their own. So that's that's how our work capacitated people, you know. It's first to believe in themselves that they could do a lot of thing apart from household chores. Actually they can become development actors and be part of you know a stakeholder in community development.
Cruise: And you've seen this change in these women I'm sure in the time that you've worked with World Neighbors to see them first come in and the empowerment that they get from this. I'm sure there's a physical change and an emotional change that takes place.
Karki: Yeah change is a positive changes in social and social area in economic area political area and personal empowerment. You know they say the women say that you know World Neighbors taught us to speak. So that's the first statement they give. That's the biggest achievement for them. And lot of woman who wouldn't even utter their name in front of strangers and these very women you know in front of visitors they explained their work. You know they have vision. They have so much pride in themselves that they are involved in community development. They are sending these children to school especially girls. And what are seen is by investing in women. We say that if a man is educated not necessarily his children are educated or so. No offense but if a woman is educated or if a woman is aware then her children are educated and she really takes care of well-being of the family you know. And not only of the family but entire community when they come together. And I've seen this in fees in all the areas that we have programs. The second generation, especially girls, they are directly benefited when their mothers are empowered. First they are sent to school. They are not discriminated. And discrimination in terms of food you know in terms of school or in terms of any other facilities.
Karki: So boys are always given priorities. But when a woman is empowered. So discrimination is not there especially in Bihar. The social issue of dowry and in child marriage and not sending girls to schools it's very rampant. But at least in our program area we have seen this huge huge change. So it's a kind of a social movement. We have formed around 300 groups and in some of the groups we are still working. And right now the work is focused on a wash. But these women do all the activities that we do in communities, It's led by these women. So our program is community-led program. It's not that we impose upon activities - we go there and say hey these people need this kind of thing it's not like that. We sit with them, we plan with them, we just facilitate the development process. And I've seen in Bihar that the women have taken oath that they wouldn't get their daughters married off before 18 and they wouldn't take dowry. They wouldn't give dowry. So those kind of social issues they are tackling on their own. There are you know capacitated enough to talk about the issues, you know. They have fought with government officers to get their entitlements and they have brought electricity. They are working in clean drinking water. They are making their communities aware about this personal hygiene and sanitation. So those kind of things that was in a way unthinkable some years ago. So these women are doing age right now. And especially coming back to you know impacting on second generation you know girls are sent to school and you know I've seen in Bihar that this child marriage thing how it cripples a woman because when you are not given an opportunity at a certain time, then she is dependent on someone throughout her life. When she was born she is dependent on a father and when she's married off at the age of 14 she's dependent on husband.
Cruise: And then children.
Karki: And then her son so she doesn't get this time to you know capacitate yourself so that you can stand on your own feet and the work that our work is what our work is doing is the kind of woman, we are capacitating them to take care of them self, take care of the family. And you know and again very progressive.
Cruise: Right. We see this around the world that again focusing on women and it's nothing against men but that focusing on women strengthens families and strengthens communities. But this also perhaps challenges some of the cultural norms you mentioned some of the women were still in veil when you first met them some were very quiet. How do you or your organization approach women to encourage them to become part of the credit lending and how do you get that first step going?
Karki: Oh yeah it's very interesting. If you go back then the women tell me you know they used to go to jungle not telling anyone just to have this savings and credit group meeting.
Cruise: That they had to hide.
Karki: Yeah they had to hide because men wouldn't approve. They would say that these organizations come in you know just to persuade our women to do all the wrong things. So they want to have that trust initially and they will approve. But this thing in women. That given an opportunity how far they can come. This is the example of our work in the community in the rural communities. So this is the very chance that we are getting to prove themselves that they can be something they can do so many things. So I think that spark inside them kind of make them rebel, in a way way. So they come in hiding and do all these things. And then when men start seeing that, actually this is a good work. This is not bad work that you know the woman brought gotten into. So they slowly start changing. They have changed. And we also run this gender equity awareness session in our program area. And sometimes men also come. We all encourage spouses to join the sessions so that they also know what this gender equity is about. And when they start seeing that this is true sustainable agriculture and all the magic areas or changes that are happening, when they experience those small changes that positive changes by themselves and they are convinced by themselves. And I tell you our work is not one time event. We it's not that we are there for a certain time and we vanish. It's not like that. We stay in our community for eight to 10 years and that's a pretty long time. So we slowly facilitate their own development process. So one day they can really stand on their feet and become self-reliant. So in that process I've seen men changing and now they support us. They support the work the women are doing there. And even during the meeting when we go there the onlookers and the Kenaan they also learn from the wives. And there are a lot of examples when we give training on sustainable agriculture. And it's shared in the family and then together husband and wife are doing that thing together. So I've seen that. It's not that challenges that are not prevalent now it's there but that's how we work.
Cruise: Challenges and dealing with the challenges, finding solutions together, and thinking about the long term.
Karki: Thinking about the long term.
Cruise: What comes next? You've been very very active. Are there new programs inside or new places you all are thinking of extending to?
Karki: Yeah we would like to expand our program there's a huge demand in the communities but we work with very limited resources.
Cruise: Of course.
Karki: In a way that limit us but we would definitely like to expand in new areas, new communities, and new countries. And in Bihar we're starting this reproductive health clinic soon with a very small amount. And we love to expand our work there. In Nepal we are into new district. We are working with small communities and if we have enough resources we would like to expand our work in both the areas.
Cruise: Wonderful. Well thank you so much for coming and sharing your inspirational story with us and the impressive work that you're doing in that World Neighbors is doing. And thank you so much for your time.
Karki: Thank you very much for having me.
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