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Alum accelerating gender equality by contributing to women’s economic empowerment in Nepal

Posted: 5 March 2024

Nepal, Alumni, Impact, Indigenous,

This International Women’s Day, we highlight the work of Australia Awards alum Shanti BK, who joined Nepal’s civil service in September 2012. In the past 12 years, she has served in five districts and has closely worked with women across these districts to understand and address the issues that Nepali women face.

In her current role as a Senior Women Development Officer at the Office of Municipal Executive of the Hetauda Sub-Metropolitan City, Shanti is primarily responsible for formulating local policies, programs and plans to build women’s capacity; providing rescue and relief support for women who have survived gender-based violence; and running skill-based training for women. In addition, she also coordinates with local women’s groups and other like-minded organisations to raise awareness of gender-based violence.

Shanti completed a Master of Arts specialising in Women’s Studies at Flinders University in 2021, with the support of an Australia Awards Scholarship. Her study program offered her a range of interdisciplinary subjects, covering topics such as sex and gender, power and change, development problems and solutions, gender mainstreaming, gender analysis, public management, global feminist activism and politics and policy. When asked if her Australian degree has been helpful to her career, Shanti says, “Definitely! I have gained theoretical knowledge and practical skills in subjects directly related to my profession. I now feel more competent in my job.”

Shanti in her current role at the Municipal Executive Office of Hetauda.

Shanti was born and raised in the rural village of Belchautara in Tanahun District. As a member of the traditionally marginalised Dalit community, which still suffers from stringent caste-based practices such as untouchability, Shanti has experienced discrimination, yet has never lost her motivation. She recalls, “I felt very bad when people discriminated against me because of my caste. However, I always kept my morale high.” The eldest among seven siblings, she was a bright student at school. After she successfully passed the school examination, her school offered her a teaching job, which she accepted. Shanti could now support her family and also her undergraduate studies at the nearby Aadikavi Bhanubhakta Multiple Campus.

Upon completing her bachelor’s degree, Shanti sat for a civil service examination (generally perceived as highly rigorous and very competitive) and succeeded, becoming “the first in the whole history of my family-line to get a government job”. She credits her hard work and perseverance for her success. “When I applied for civil service,” she says, “I was married and had a small baby. I was a teacher in a local high school in Hetauda and was also doing my master’s degree at the same time.” Despite these highly demanding circumstances, she managed her time efficiently enough to prepare for not one but two examinations. “I had prepared for both the assistant and the officer levels of the exam,” she notes. She was successful in both and chose the latter. Her first posting was in Darchula District—a remote district in the north-west corner of Nepal—where she accepted a job as a Women Development Officer.

In Nepal, formal employment for women is a relatively new phenomenon and a vast gender disparity remains. Men still dominate all sectors, including civil service. Shanti is one of the few women—let alone Dalit women—to work in the civil service. When asked if her family was supportive of her taking up her job, she replies, “Absolutely, they have always supported me.”

Sadly, not all women get such support. Shanti soon realised that many women in Nepal suffer severe forms of gender-based violence (both physical and mental) from their immediate partner. She began to meet such women on an almost daily basis as they visited her office to file gender-based violence cases. “The survivors shared different types of violence,” Shanti recalls. “Some of them were beaten brutally by their husbands, while others suffered the deep trauma of mental torture caused by sheer ignorance, sexual abuse and financial deprivation from their immediate partners and in-laws.” The survivors were in dire need of rescue and relief. Unfortunately, Shanti’s office did not have enough resources to support them all. In order to help as many people as possible with the limited resources available, Shanti found creative solutions. For example, she says, “We converted one of our office rooms into a safe house and provided immediate rescue support to the survivors.”

Shanti at her office getting ready to serve her community.

Throughout her career, Shanti has continued to extend rescue and relief support to gender-based violence survivors. She has closely examined their plight and problems. Although the survivors came from different sociocultural backgrounds, they shared some common predicaments. “They were too vulnerable to speak against their own violence, mainly because they were financially dependent on the perpetrator,” Shanti says.

Shanti strongly believes that economic empowerment plays an instrumental role in gender equality.

She says, “Economically empowered women are self-reliant and are highly likely to claim their rights and raise their voice against gender-based violence, which ultimately contributes to gender equality.”

Economic empowerment has, therefore, been one of the main components of Shanti’s job. She has administered several activities, ranging from providing training on weaving rugs to supporting survivors of gender-based violence to run their own small and medium-scale enterprises.

In many cases, such initiatives have resulted in women’s economic empowerment and as a result promoted gender equality. One example Shanti shares is from Pyuthan District, where she rescued a woman who survived gender-based violence, arranged for her treatment and helped her establish a grocery shop in collaboration with local women’s cooperatives. Over time, Shanti saw the woman becoming economically empowered and self-reliant and taking the lead in organising activities to raise awareness about gender-based violence. “It feels so good and satisfying to be part of their progress,” Shanti says.

Shanti’s professional achievements resonate with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, which is Count her in: Accelerating gender equality through economic empowerment. As she says, economic empowerment provides women with a pathway to self-reliance, instilling awareness and the ability to claim their rights and entitlements. These factors ultimately contribute to gender equality.