Priyanka Pokharel, a law graduate and Global Youth Ambassador for Theirworld, tells how taking direct action has helped women in rural communities.
In marginalised communities in Nepal, many women have never had a formal education. They are also not well informed about such basic concepts as sexuality and human rights.
When Covid-19 lockdowns led to reports of increased domestic violence, law graduate Priyanka Pokharel - who is also one of Theirworld’s network of Global Youth Ambassadors - decided to investigate the causes and effects in her home village.
In the latest in our Spotlight On ... series, which features inspiring people from the world of education, Priyanka tells us what she found and how it helped to shape her belief that education is the most powerful weapon to fight poverty.
Tell us about your journey to becoming an education activist.
It all started during the lockdown, enforced in Nepal in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. While we were all bound to sit inside our homes, people in the cities were lucky - they were trying their hands at making Dalgona coffee, following TikTok trends or even attending Zoom calls.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the same in every household. News articles surfaced in Nepalese media about increasing domestic violence incidents, assaults and rapes. It was disheartening to see the suicide rate escalating - even more so among women.
This motivated me to find out the root cause of this problem. Women were inside their homes with their families during the lockdown. So why had violence against women increased?
After the lockdown restrictions were lifted, I decided to uncover the underlying causes of this problem. I packed my bags and headed to my hometown, which is a rural village in Nepal. There I visited many households and talked to women directly.
I found they were unwilling to talk about rape incidents due to the fear of stigma. They didn’t know the meaning of terms like sexuality, abortion and women’s rights.
They laughed when I mentioned marital rape and did not believe that it was criminalised in Nepal. They didn’t know who to approach with their problems and what kind of remedies are available for victims.
This sparked my interest in education. I realised that if we are able to educate mothers about such important topics, they would be aware of their rights and protect not just themselves but also empower their daughters in the face of gender-based violence.
Why is tackling violence against women so important to you?
The gender inequality gap in Nepal is already too high. Due to various social injustices they face, girls and women are deprived of opportunities in education and employment that are easily accessible to men.
Violence against women exacerbates the gender gap. When women are subjected to violence, it causes physical, mental and emotional strain to the women victims. As a result, it diminishes their potential to seek opportunities. For instance, a woman who has been assaulted by her husband will hesitate to move out of her home and build a career for herself.
From my encounters with the victims and survivors, I realised that such violence has direct negative impacts on their children as well. Children who have witnessed violence in their families might be exposed to severe forms of psychological trauma. It may even affect their academic performance.
Tackling violence against women will not only help the women (who are the direct victims) but will also aid their children’s development.
How is eliminating violence against women linked to supporting education?
The main causes of gender-based violence stems from a lack of education. Many Nepalese women still face abuse when they give birth to a daughter.
Once violence against women is eliminated, they will have an equal access to education opportunities, which can also help them become financially independent. Their income contributes to the family income. Eventually, the family lifestyle, savings and children's education all get positively impacted.
What education projects are you currently working on?
I am working on education projects in the rural communities by collaborating with the local government. With their help, I go to villages, particularly among the marginalised communities, and we hold a series of informal conversations with them.
We identify their culture-specific problems and offer viable solutions. I personally take their problems, with recommended solutions, to the judicial committee of the local government. I have also started drafting a handbook on comprehensive sexuality education in the native language of those communities, so it is easier for them to comprehend complex issues.
Why do you prioritise working with rural communities?
I have realised that most projects in Nepal are urban-centred. I attended a few seminars themed on women’s education in the capital city Kathmandu. But I realised it was not enough. How could 20 women who talk about positive change in cities impact the actual victims who lived in villages hundreds of kilometres away?
Having visited these rural communities, I realised that working with the victims directly helped me approach their problems more efficiently.
Why did you become a Global Youth Ambassador?
I came across the GYA platform when I was looking for resources that would aid my projects. I was excited to see that the GYA community was providing useful trainings, mentorships and advocacy platforms for youth campaigners like myself. I joined the community and immediately had access to numerous useful materials that have helped me tremendously.
What have you learned from the GYA programme?
I have used it to develop my networking and communication skills, which was particularly helpful in approaching the local government for collaboration. I have also had the opportunity to connect with and learn from brilliant youth activists from around the world.
What keeps you motivated when you are campaigning for change?
I feel motivation every time someone has learned something from me and they tell me that they will change their behaviours. The fact that I was able to have a visible impact on their everyday life fuels my passion for change.
What is the achievement you are most proud of?
I lobbied with the local government of a rural village to dedicate a certain fund for women who came from indigenous communities. Now the women from that village need not pay any fee to report cases of domestic violence. The local municipality also provides such women with free legal services.
What would be your advice to young people who want to be campaigners and advocates like you?
At the outset, it is normal to feel frustrated. You might not have enough funds, the locals might not cooperate, your family might be sceptical and so on. But if you stay true to your passion for change, you will definitely succeed in the end.
You can avoid such frustrations by joining youth communities (such as the GYA programme), which will help you connect with young people coming from different backgrounds. You can discuss common challenges and help each other come up with solutions.