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“When I present myself as an example among other disabled women, they really get surprised and inspired to get education”

Meena Poudel, general secretary of National Disabled Women Association Picture: National Federation of the Disabled, Nepal

By Bhawana Shrestha, an A World at School Global Youth Ambassador from Nepal

Australian disability advocate Stella Jane Young says: “We are a society that treats people with disabilities with condescension and pity, not dignity and respect”.

About 10% of the world’s population – about 650 million people – live with disabilities.They are the ones who frequently encounter countless physical and social obstacles.

Sadly, if they are women they are doubly discriminated against. Nepalese society too suffers from this stigma. However, there are a group of women who are bold and have struggled enough to change their identity from “disabled” to “differently abled” – women empowering themselves with education.

Meena Poudel, 37, from a remote village of Nepal called Ramechhap, has set an example of continuous effort and struggle.

Now the General Secretary of the National Disabled Women Association, Meena’s struggle started when she was born – firstly for being born a daughter and secondly for being a disabled child.

Being born with scoliosis (a disorder in which there is a sideways curve of the spine, or backbone), pain has been a challenge to her throughout her life. 

In Nepali society, disability is still viewed as a punishment for sins committed in a previous life. So Meena was treated worse than an object of pity.

No one really cared for her – she was even abandoned by her guardians. As she grew up, she desperately wanted to learn to read and write but school wasn’t an easy destination for her.

Fortunately, she had a younger brother and her parents wanted her to go to school with him as his caretaker. Surprisingly, her brother failed the board exams while she passed. That really encouraged her to continue her studies. 

Her self-motivation was so strong that she didn’t lose her urge for learning even after being called a derogatory term for disabled by her classmates and seniors.

Watch Meena talking after the 2015 earthquake

Amazingly, the two hours difficult walk up and down the hill to reach her secondary school also didn’t stop her from going to school. She passed through dense forests and crossed the rivulet every day and went to school. 

When Meena left home for Kathmadu to continue her high school study, she wasn’t supported by her family. However, she remained enthusiastic.

Thinking of her own hardships, she thought of helping other disabled women like her and started an organisation for disabled women to provide training to other women. Lack of funds caused more problems for her, which she overcame by doing different temporary jobs like typing.

Later, she started working as a programme co-ordinator of the National Disabled Women Association, which allowed her to continue her studies and her work of motivating other disabled women. She used to go door to door and talk to people about the rights of disabled women and importance of education. 

Meena said: “Until and unless disabled women are economically empowered, we cannot imagine prosperous society and education is the means that paves the way of economic empowerment. I too am able to do this work because of education.”

For her vivacity and struggle, she was awarded Aosta’s (Italy) Women of the Year 2011 prize. The prize money helped her to continue her work. She utilised that money in organising skills development training for the handicapped women of Banke and Kanchanpur districts and also helped them to start their own business by providing them with seed money.

Today Meena is a happy mother (which people thought she could never be), has a masters degree in sociology (the outcome of her continuous struggle) and puts all her energy (passionately) into being a board member of NDWA.

She said: “When I present myself as an example among other disabled women, they really get surprised and inspired to get education and be empowered. I am elated to be the one who is #RewritingTheCode of disabled women.

“Lot of changes have been made to date. Yes, the conditions of disabled women have definitely risen in some level but there’s more to do.”

The government of Nepal has not been able to do significant work for disabled people. In this context, Meena’s achievements are all the more praiseworthy. She breaks the taboo and rewrites the code of how society sees disabled women.

Follow Bhawana on Twitter and read her blog.