Thursday, June 19, 2008

Aasmani, tribune of the people

Nepal is a country in transition, and Aasmani Chaudhary herself is emblematic of that fact. The nation has ousted its King, become a democracy, and is going through a struggle for the control of its Parliament between formerly-rebel Maoists and the traditional ruling party.

In Dang valley, these seismic national changes are not readily apparent – the region has been controlled by the Maoists for years anyway, and its remoteness gives it a certain insulation from tumult. But times are changing anyway, and perhaps for the better, in part because of the Rural Women’s Development Center and its leader, Aasmani.

She began 15 years ago (just as the valley was first being electrified; now roughly 40% of the people have electricity), organizing small groups of Tharu women (the Tharu are the ethnic minority that live in this part of Nepal) to pool their money and save it – empowering them with a level of financial independence Tharu women never had. For years she was resisted by the men in the community, by the local rebel leaders (who didn’t like seeing money that could have gone to finance their revolution spent on sewing machines and farm animals instead), and even by some of the women themselves. But her proof was in the pudding, as they say, and the success of her savings (and now microfinance lending) groups brought about the birth of more groups, such that everywhere we stopped in Dang valley during our visit Aasmani could tell me about the local women’s group there.

And as these women’s groups expanded in number and size, Aasmani saw the need to expand their mission as well. By the time of my trip, she could show me a literacy group teaching girls to read, a landless-peoples group working for the rights of the very poorest Tharu, groups of younger women talking about safe sex and family planning, and groups of mothers talking about how to tell if your pregnancy is encountering problems and you need to see a trained doctor or nurse. All while the microfinance and savings groups continue to empower the women of Dang.

Now, when the local political leaders encounter Aasmani, they know better than to fight her or disparage her work – instead they bow and honor her by way of currying favor with half the population that she understands better than any of them.

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