One woman’s fight to bring Nepalese widows out from the shadows

In this interview with Sumeera Shrestha, an alumni of our international trainings in peace and dialogue, we learn about why and how she advocates for women’s rights in Nepal.

Why do you work with gender issues?

It is about my lived realities. I was born a female, and I have witnessed the patriarchal structure we are raised in here in Nepal. In a way, you’re always considered subordinate if you are a girl. I have one younger sister and growing up I saw how my parents often faced pressure to have more kids, to have a son.

The positive side is that my parents, they never took it that seriously. They raised us well and gave us every possible opportunity to achieve higher quality education. School and academic institutions were however places where I witnessed lots of discrimination against women, but I also learned there about legal aspects, government policies and slowly understood that this discrimination is not only a social construction but also reflected at the policy level.

So that is when I realised that the private is political and this motivated me to start advocating for gender issues. Work in rural areas through Rotaract Clubs and forming coalitions with people from different background in regard to caste, class, ethnicity, geography, and age, including non-binary individuals, gave me further inspiration. Even having my daughter three years ago and the patriarchal bureaucratic process which I had to go through to just give her my last name as well (despite my husband and family being supportive) has further fuelled my desire to work on promoting gender equality.

In some way, I feel I sort of unknowingly started in this field all those years ago, but now I am definitely sure that I will spend the rest of my life advocating for equal rights for all.

Sumeera Shrestha

Sumeera Shrestha

What is the current situation in Nepal in regard to gender issues?

Over the past few years we have made some good progress, including the Gender Equality Act and the mainstreaming of gender in many policies. But much work remains. We need to recognise contemporary issues like intersectionality of identities and the diversity of women, and there are still problems with the discrimination of women in lower castes, violence against women, unequal pay and a lack of women at the decision-making level in government, the security forces and other sectors which are predominantly deemed to be masculine.

There are also issues related to the ten years long internal armed conflict which ended formally with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006, such as sexual violence and torture victims, that have never been properly acknowledged or addressed. As for the way we respond to humanitarian issues, such as the mega earthquake in 2015, women are always seen as beneficiaries whereas women are actually frontline responders, in the family and society. The concept of working with women is missing from the humanitarian system and this needs to be addressed.

We are also seeing new and different types of violence such as online harassment and abuse, all of which makes a stronger case for working on mental health issues and self-help groups. We need to ensure women are given access to these services and that policies are enforced that are not only corrective measures but are transformative and address the root causes of gender inequality.

Can you give an example of the work that you do?

I have worked with the organisation Women for Human Rights, single women group (WHR) for 15 years now. We work closely with more than 2500 single-women groups at the grassroots level, in villages and communities to put together self-help groups and social mobilisation classes, particularly for widows. The membership base stretches over 125,000 women.

A quick side note, in Nepal the word widow is considered demeaning  so we refer to them as single-women, but single-women is in fact a term used to define five different categories of women: widows, divorced women, women living separately from their husbands, women with a missing husband (often conflict related or husbands working abroad), and any single women over the age of 35 (in our part of the world these women are seen as too old to get married, something we are trying to change!).

The problem though is not really the word widow, but the way society treats widows. In Nepal, widows face a lot of stigma and are discouraged from leaving the home, are often abused by their relatives and have no source of income. They are in essence stripped of their happiness and expected to mourn for their husband’s death until the end of their lives.

So our groups give widows an opportunity to come out of the house and talk to each other. We help them understand what services are available to them at the municipal level, where they can turn for help and how they can save money, as well as generate an income now that they are on their own. These include traditional and non-traditional income-generating actives, like sewing, candle making, along with driving (not that common), and professional caregiving for the elderly and people who need assistance.

It is also about breaking down the stereotypes in society and changing policies. For example, a widow can be denied her property rights if she loses her chastity. So we have asked lawmakers, what is chastity? Do you lose it by just talking to a man? In some instances, this has been the case and so we filed many public interest litigation cases, successfully arguing widows’ chastity should not matter, that they also should be able to remarry and if they do they should not lose their property nor their social security. 

What are some of the ways you have worked to break down stereotypes?

Let me start by giving you one example. Widows in Nepal cannot wear jewellery, make up or colourful clothes, like red. So we did a red colour campaign in many districts, where widows were given a red coloured tikka (mark on the forehead kept by Hindus), red bangles and a shawl in front of the whole community. As family was often part of the ceremony, this helped break the whole concept of discrimination against widows in the community. This is now an on-going campaign in our networks and we see that things have started to change for the better. Wearing colour is viewed more and more as a choice everyone has the right to make.

We also hosted a widow’s conference in Kathmandu in 2005 where many single-women from different districts attended. It was seen as a real milestone and we pushed the boundaries for those who attended. Many of them said, I cannot put on this name tag with this red thread, because if someone takes a picture and sees it, I will be kicked out of the house, of the family. Now these women are the catalysts in our networks, setting an example as leaders in their family, and community. About 25-30 of these women lead our work in their district and six of them are even Deputy Mayors and Mayors. Actually, today more than 160 widows have been elected to the decision-making positions at the local, provincial and federal level.

So it is still a long journey to convince all people and policy-makers that what widows face is discriminatory, but by bringing women together and fighting on their behalf we are beginning to see real change in society. We have achieved this by using different kinds of advocacy tools, providing documentation, generating evidence, replicating the best cases, strengthening the sisterhood within and across the groups and networks and working in coordination and collaboration with other agencies and institutions.

How has being connected to a the alumni network of the International Training on Dialogue and Mediation (ITDM) been helpful in your work?

Being an ITDM alumni has definitely given me many opportunities to learn from others. We are a group of people from such diverse backgrounds, as both researchers and practitioners, and with so much positive energy that it makes the network a unique platform to share experiences. The resource materials and the contemporary issues in other countries that we share with each other also provide helpful examples that I have been able to use in my work. And I must say, I am grateful to be part of ITDM alumni network as it is foremost an opportunity for learning and sharing, something that should never end in life.


Sumeera Shrestha By Sumeera Shrestha

Sumeera Shrestha is Executive Director of Women for Human Rights Single Women Group (NGO), Co-founder of Nispakshya (Alliance of Conflict Affected Women in Nepal) and Founder of GyanBodh Research and Development Services Pvt. Ltd. She is an energetic feminist and her research and practice focuses in the issues of single women (widows), gender-based violence, peacebuilding, social inclusion, humanitarian response and multi-generational leadership.

Annika Östman By Annika Östman

Annika Östman is the Head of Communications at the Foundation and leads our outreach and strategic communications work.  Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked on climate change communications at the World Bank in Washington. Her work there included media outreach at COP20, organising high-level events at WB-IMF Annual Meetings in Peru and Japan, and producing a myriad of digital content, such as a film about climate-smart agriculture in Costa Rica. Annika also worked in the Africa Region of the World Bank, both at headquarters and in Liberia. Annika has an MA in International Broadcast Journalism from City University in London and has also worked as a TV Producer. She holds a BA in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.