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Empowering women in rural Nepal: My journey from Nepal to Stanford (and back)

By Sarita Panday
on March 29, 2019

I still remember the day vividly: I asked my father for money to pay for my high-school tuition. As my father handed me the money, my mother responded, “Why do you keep spending money on her education? She will be married soon, anyhow, and will go to someone else’s home. There is no use for us.” I wonder how my life might have turned out had my father listened to her. But he didn’t. He always encouraged me to study hard so that I would not have to struggle as hard as he did. As a result, I went on an educational and professional journey that took me across the globe, from Asia, over to Europe, and now in America. In this blog, I want to share my journey from a little village in Nepal to Stanford, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. A story of how education can transform lives.

I am currently a 2018-19 Developing Asia Health Policy Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC). As part of my fellowship, I work on publications based on my PhD, which focused on improving healthcare for marginalised women in rural Nepal. By the time this blog will be posted, I will be at the University of Sheffield, UK, as an Honorary Research Fellow. In Sheffield, I will be organising a workshop to share my research and generate ideas for future research in Nepal.

So, what made it possible for me, a village girl,  to come this far – to two prestigious universities? The answer is my insatiable thirst for knowledge. I got high grades in school and graduated with a Bachelor in Science in Nursing. I worked to improve maternal and child health in remote areas with the Britain Nepal Medical Trust, and realized the absolute importance of public health, which led me to undertake a Masters in Public Health & Masters in Health Management under the Australian Leadership Award at the University of New South Wales, Australia. After my Masters, I reviewed innovative community interventions to reduce maternal and child deaths in developing countries. In Nepal, I found that a majority of community health activities mobilised community health workers (known as female community health volunteers) to deliver primary healthcare services, yet these groups were rarely studied.

Therefore, with a view on documenting the voices of women volunteers from Nepal, I pursued my PhD at the School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield. I found that women volunteers were highly dissatisfied by the lack of financial incentives for their services and wanted remuneration. My work at present is to ensure that community health workers’ voices are heard at the policy level, and I do this by sharing my work orally and in writing. Last year, I visited some of my research participants – the women volunteers – who were pleased to hear about the success of my work and my ability to give voice to their concerns.

Based on my own experience as a woman from rural Nepal, and doing research there, I’m afraid there hasn’t been much progress in the position of women in society. In some cases, the disparity has even widened, as women from marginalised communities continue to underuse healthcare services despite their availability – see a forthcoming paper of mine on this issue, in PLOS One. There is a long way to go, still, as was also evident from my previous postdoctoral fellowship on the project, ‘Resilience Policy Making in Nepal: Giving Voice to Communities’. During my field work in Nepal, I noticed how women still find it difficult to talk on a specific issue or participate in research without their family members’ consent. Being a woman, and doing research in a highly patriarchal society, it was not easy for me either. For example, I went to interview a government officer, who initially asked me to wait for half an hour. Then, he made me wait for another three hours without any valid reasons in a room full of 10-12 men. During their conversation, I heard the officer using a derogatory term for women, ‘aimaiko jat’– implying that women are less intelligent, and often lack wisdom. All attendees in the room laughed aloud. That hit me hard and I had to tell the officer to be mindful of his language – I think he had either forgotten my presence, or just didn’t count me in, as I was a woman. I felt sad to have come across a government officer, who is expected to tackle these very issues, behaving this way, and this is just one of a number of similar experiences I had.  

For me, these experiences in my homeland have inspired me to continue to work hard to empower women. To speak up on the issues that deeply affect them. I have found the participatory approaches (participatory video methods and participatory policy workshops) useful in engaging rural communities and bringing their voices directly to a policy audience. In doing so, the participatory process enabled vunerable people to present their case. I would like to use similar approaches in my upcoming Fellowship to improve healthcare for marginalised populations in rural Nepal. This vision is becoming a reality through my recent selection as a Global Challenge Fellow at the University of Sheffield. From July 2019 on, I will engage with rural women through participatory co-designed research to create better awareness and understanding of the social, cultural, economic and political factors which hamper women’s access to healthcare services. In doing so, my goal is to empower women in rural Nepal – as I did, in a way, with my mother, whom you now hear saying, “my daughter is a great scholar; education is everything you need”.

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Lisa Trei says:

Go, Sarita, Go! You are an inspiration. I am honored that Stanford was able to play a small role in helping you do your important work.