Keynote Speech at the Australian Council for International Development National Conference- Transformation Change and Development. #ACFID2017
Ms. Lily Thapa Founder of WHR presenting during the conference a proud moment for all widow right activist around the world
My DREAM is to become the FIRST female Prime-Minister of Nepal.
It was not always my dream. I wanted a normal life, with simple dreams like eating good food and wearing good clothes.
But things took a different turn. And so did my simple dreams.
I am a widow, but I am still ME.
Of course, I mourn; and I shed tears.
But, to carry on alone, I deserve dignity and respect NOT the fears and humiliation.
This poem Is me. And every widow.
A Very Good Morning to everyone here.
I wasn’t always a widow, of course. I was born first as a daughter, became a sister, and after marriage, I was reborn as a wife and then mother.
And when my husband died and I was born again as a widow. And this third birth was really really challenging….my life changed forever.
My first life began well. I was born into a well-off family in Kathmandu city. I bloomed as a stunning Lily in the garden of my parents. I was charming, amiable and precious. And then I became aware of societal expectations. I became aware that the reputation of a daughter represents the reputation of her entire family; that her chastity means everything for her and the entire clan.
My chastity? I couldn’t believe it. I rebelled. I rebelled again this, against society, against the very patriarchy that made my mom bow down her head at her husband’s feet.
I wanted to study, to learn more about the world, and complete my higher education but my father, my father who was ill, wanted to his eldest daughter married. And so I married an Army Doctor from a well-off family when I was only 17.
It was the next incarnation of my life, one where I had to leave my parents’ house and move to my in- laws’ house. I changed from a daughter to a daughter-in-law. I had to build and maintain new relations with new people in a new household as a 17 year old teenager.
The harshest form of marriage in South Asia is an early marriage. It limits a girl’s education, increases her vulnerability to violence, increases the chances of teen pregnancy, restricts her decision-making authority within the family and undervalues her status in the household and the family. When I became a daughter-in-law, formal study was no longer an option. I hated this.
But I accepted my fate. And then destiny cheated me. My husband died while serving as a UN peacekeeper in Iraq. I had three young children. I was just 29. When I heard the news, I fainted.
I didn’t wake up until hours later. When I did, I could tell that everything had changed. I was not allowed to touch anything. I had to stay in one corner. I had to throw away every colourful red dress and every piece of jewelry I owned. I had become a widow.
It was the darkest day of my life. My in-laws switched from loving ones to hateful ones. They called me ominous. They said I snatched their son. They blamed me for everything. And as if it was a sign from above, our marriage vase that was decorated with a lily, cracked suddenly after 12 years.
My husband’s dead body was brought back from Iraq. My sons began fulfilling the traditional death rituals for their father. At that tender age of 29, I had no idea about my future days; what life would surprise me with.
Before this incident, I had never realized that women should stand on their own feet. When I had to admit my children in the school for their further education; I had no money and no other options than asking for the property of my husband.
As I was quite young, I had no such idea how I could have access to my husband’s property to admit my children in good schools because of the legal policies which say a widow has to be 35 years of age to obtain the property. This was really shocking news for me…
When we talk about death rituals, we need to talk about Sati. It’s a system where widows would be tied up on the death pyre of her husband and burned to death, because if her husband is dead, she should die too.
That system is over now but have things really changed? But now widows are living physically but socially died.
A newly widowed woman must follow societal rules. These rules deliberately diminish her perceived attractiveness, inhibit her sexual power and increase her vulnerability. A widow becomes the prey of physical and sexual assaults and harassments, is scolded with rough words, accused of various crimes and sexual misdeeds, is outcast from a property or and restrictions on her mobility and on food. Hindu mythologies stress that a widow must follow these restrictions as well as maintain her chastity throughout her life.
I was forced into a next incarnation of my life, one of widowhood. For the first time in my life, I felt lonely and disliked.
Until I lost my husband, I had never realized how society so often defines women by the men in their lives. Our identity as women is fluid, but always dependent on men.
When she is born she takes on her father’s surname. When she gets married she takes on the surname of her husband. When she has children, she is addressed as somebody’s mother.
It made me ponder where I existed on my own?
I had never expected that along with the death of my husband; I have to sacrifice all my desires, hobbies and interests.
I hadn’t even completed the first chapter of my life and was doomed by my husband’s death. My little son’s queries about his father were the most painful thing for me though the other two were consoled saying he went to meet God. I could do nothing than avoiding his queries, telling a lie and crying silently. His questions would pull me back towards the pressure of nurturing my three little buds into mature flowers.
I cried not for my dead husband but for the future of my little children.
In Nepal, 82% of widows are totally illiterate, and 67% of widows are in between 20 to 35 years of age having 3 to 4 children in an average, as per the census of 2011.
How does a young widowed woman without her husband’s property educate and nurture her children?
I started thinking myself why these restrictions to a young widow… this discriminatory legal policy made me feel time and again that I should fight against these unfair systems and this was the first victory of my life that I won the cases through supreme court.
In Nepalese context, the chastity of a widow is directly linked up with the treatment of the family. Even if any three of the relatives of the dead husband blamed the widowed wife to have extramarital affair with someone else then she would be legally outcast from her husband’s property.
This freedom allowed the in-laws to defame the widowed woman, question her chastity and abandon her from her husband’s property. Many of our sisters were facing the same problem.
After continuous lobby and advocacy with the government, we have been succeeded to change these laws as well and now no one can restrict a widow on her property rights just because of the chastity.
As a widow, I could not participate in ceremonies especially religious ones, nor could I wear what I wanted. Restrictions existed everywhere; widows were not even allowed to meet their parents until a year of their husband’s death.
Most of the widows are believed to be inauspicious and are not invited in any of the religious occasions. They are treated to be someone ominous and bring misfortune in life.
I remember once when one of my brother -in-laws was going to get married, I was invited too. When I saw senior women holding the trays of gifts for a bride; I also wanted to help them and hold one of the trays. Suddenly, one of my relatives approached and manipulated me that there are many others who could hold it and there is no need for me to help them.
Then I understood the underlying meaning; she and many other women there didn’t want me to touch the auspicious tray.
This event dismayed me so much that from that day onwards I started thinking about who has made these discriminatory cultural practices in the name of culture and religion?
This incident forced me to ponder into a fact that why not a man is restricted to do various things even if he loses his wife. A man marries another woman just after fulfilling 13 days of death rites of his wife but a wife when she gets widowed her whole life gets doomed.
In addition, I started thinking myself, if an educated woman from the capital has to go with all these superstitions then what would be the real condition of the women who are uneducated and belong to a marginalized group.
I like red colors… but the widow in our country are not allowed to wear red and bright colors; even we cannot eat non vegetarian food and, has to maintain her chastity and follow many more restrictions.
I was astonished to discover the fact that these all restrictions have been linked up with the sexuality of widows. In the name of socio-cultural taboos, our sexuality gets enchained. And in fear of getting defamed by the society and losing her right to her husband’s property a widow gets silenced.
As a result of these all socio-cultural stigmas take widows into depression, and they are psychologically traumatised.
All these restrictions further stigmatize widows to live a life full of seclusion. Even they can’t enjoy their right to body.
A question always clicked me why there are so many dos and dont’ for the widows?
Foundation of WHR…
One fateful day, I met a young girl Laxmi from Godavari who had been living the most painful life after her husband’s death. I could meet her after a long struggle as she was not allowed to meet anyone from outside.
When I saw her and talked to her, I realized how hard life is for a young widow in this country. Laxmi was just 22 and had to keep sexual relation with her younger brother in law. If she denied doing so, he would beat her two-year-old son and threaten that he won’t let the child eat. Even if the whole family was known about it all, they couldn’t revolt back just because he was the only bread owner in the family.
My encounter with Laxmi made me realize that the pain I have been going through is very less in comparison to her. Then I realized the level of stress Laxmi could feel after sharing her woes with me.
And poor me, I had nothing to offer her than the words of courage and consolation. Then later I could help her learn sewing and come out of her tragedy and to relieve her life.
This incident fueled me from my inner heart to collect the widows from my circle and organize daily talks where they would be able to share their challenges and sufferings.
In the initial phase, it was incredibly challenging to break the four walls of their houses for widows, as it was directly connected to the maintenance of their chastity. Slowly and gradually, many of my friends and relatives started summing up in the “Sunday Forum” which I felt was quite similar to Confession Room in the churches.
The women shared their woes in the mass, closing all the windows and doors of the room in the fear that some outsiders would listen to them and they have to end up with the forum. “Sunday Forum” became a platform for helping widows transform their sorrows into strength.
They learned to be independent and achieve what they wanted without any discrimination. The “Sunday Forum” paved its way towards the legitimate establishment of an organization called Women for Human Rights, single women group (WHR) with the motto that No discrimination on the basis of marital status.
The Sunday forum has now transformed into a national widows’ movement forum in the country and has been able to mobilize more than one hundred thousand widows as the change agents in the community.
WHR, is one of the first kind of organization in Nepal, with the aim of developing widows into ‘change agents’ by providing capacity building programs on social, economic and legal empowerment thus mobilizing them towards the mainstream of development.
Also another focus of WHR has been to pressurize the government in equally addressing the issues of widows in all spheres of development and raise voices against the discriminatory laws and policies that further stigmatizes them and suppresses their rights.
I am proud that now WHR’s door is the first door widows knock after their husband’s demise….
Sorrow transformed to strength…
The first achievement of WHR became the passing of national declaration to use the word ‘single women ‘ instead of widows because the word ‘widow’ in Nepali society is viewed with humiliation and agony.
Also, it has been able to change and reform various discriminatory laws that have further stigmatized single women. The major step carried out was lobbying the government to collect data of widows in the census.
This fact-finding helped WHR’s movement to be more specific and straightforward. As a result, Nepal is the second country in the South Asian Region after India to have data on widowhood at the National level.
WHR also created benchmarks in the Nepalese legal system by reforming various discriminatory laws like; Right to inherit without waiting to reach the age of 35, right to retain late husband’s property after remarriage, right to widow’s allowance irrespective of age, right to obtain passport without male consent, right to sell or hand over property without the consent of adult children etc.
Moreover, WHR transformed its members into ‘change agents’ who became the development defenders in their local area. The single women groups are viewed as “women’s peace initiatives” at the grass root level as much initiation has come from within these groups in hopes of managing and resolving a conflict.
As WHR is the pioneering organization in the issues of widows, it has also contributed in forming a network of conflict-affected widows called Nispakshya that works together for a just equitable and peaceful society.
WHR now covers more than 25,00 villages in 73 out of Nepal’s 75 districts and has more than 1,00,000 members. WHR has also set 19 shelter homes Chhaharis, where widows can come and stay and have social and psychological counseling to regain their self-confidence.
WHR is able to mainstream the issues of widowhood as fundamental rights into present Constitution of Nepal. The Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare (MoWCSW) have set up an Emergency Trust Fund solely for the single women (widows) in Nepal.
Nepalese Government also provides widows allowances to all the widows regardless of age.
WHR being a Secretariat for South Asian Network for Widow’s Empowerment in Development (SANWED), was able to incorporate the issue of widowhood into Colombo Declaration 2008.
Through constant lobbying and awareness raising initiatives, WHR has successfully changed many discriminatory laws against single women, such as:
1. The deceased husband’s property no longer needs to be returned after remarriage
2. Selling or changing property ownership doesn’t require the consent of adult sons and unmarried daughters.
3. Widows no longer need to wait till the age of 35 years to inherit deceased husband’s property.
4. Widows do not have to remain in the chastity of their deceased husband to inherit property.
5. Protest against the Government Budgetary policy on providing NRS 50,000 to couple who marries widow is no amended.
6. Widows no longer need to take consent of male family member to obtain a passport.
7. Government has announced the practice of Vaikalya (child widows) as ill-practice that should not be continued.
WHR has received Special Consultative Status in ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) in the UN in 2011 and continuously highlighting the plight of widows in the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women) and United Nations Commission on Status of Women (CSW).
Our broader goal is to empower widows, improve and sustain the living condition of widows and advocate for widows rights globally to reduce inequalities, poverty, and hardship for widows.
The major crux lies in the fact that developed countries are unaware of such a severe issue of International Human Rights Violation that occurs in the name of ‘widowhood’ in the South Asian scenario.
The Australian government and affiliation can support this movement by assisting in developing widows as “Human Rights Defenders.”
Not only that, we look forward to work together with international agencies
• To mainstream the issues of widowhood in the international development agenda and to incorporate the issues of widows in international human rights instruments.
• We also have to work together with developed countries to acknowledge widows as social capital for peace building and development
• We do expect support for the immediate services to the highly vulnerable widows and their children particularly those widowed by the conflict and natural disaster.
• Additionally, there lies a huge gap between the international NGOs and local level CSOs as they lack direct links with one another.
• WHR also requires necessary resources that are needed to sustain the movement.
• There is also a need of equipped human resources to be mobilized in the field. If WHR can build the leadership ability of the widows, their dependents and other youths than many foot-soldiers could be equipped for the future who can continue the movement.
• This readiness would prepare future potential widows for defending, capacitating and be raising voices for their issues. The first and foremost, is of breaking the Iron Gate that omits a widow freely enter the restrictions free societal premises.
• There also lies the dire need of supporting widows in facilitating their participation in education, skill training, and income generation programs that can help them be less vulnerable to violence and exploitation.
Many widows migrate to urban centers and take on foreign employment in the hope of finding employment to feed themselves and their children, where again their poverty and powerlessness leave them vulnerable to the worst forms of exploitation and modern slavery, including trafficking.
Despite of many achievements and development work have happened on widowhood, globally, there is much more to be achieved. There is still discrimination, violence and harassment inflicted upon widows.
But I am ready. Ready to face more challenges. Ready to give widows and women of South Asia and all over the world, the respect that we deserve. And ready to take on my dream of becoming Nepal’s first female Prime-minister.
Thank you all for being so patient. Thank you for listening. And thank you for having me here.
Have a wonderful day.