Holding up the whole sky in Jumla
Of the more than 753 municipalities in Nepal, most are led by men and the deputy is required by law to be a woman. Jumla is one of only two where both the mayor and deputy mayor are women.
And what a difference that has made. Mayor Kantika Sejuwal of the Nepali Congress and Deputy Mayor Apsara Devi Neupane Mahat from the Nepal Communist Party have been working together ever since they were elected three years ago to deliver services and run an efficient administration.
This is all the more remarkable because it has happened in Nepal’s most deprived regions that has traditionally been steeped in caste divisions and patriarchy.
Unlike the bickering male leaders in Kathmandu, the two women leaders from rival parties have worked hand-in-hand to expand the road network, end an acute electricity shortage, improve irrigation, but also to empower women with schemes to raise household income, address domestic violence and access to medical care.
Sejuwal’s red brick home in Jumla speaks of comparative affluence, but inside it is different. The mayor is seated on the porch-like extension of her house with her deputy next to her.
Head covered with a shawl, and a yellow tika radiant on her forehead, on Tuesday Mayor Sejuwal was marking the seventh death anniversary of her husband, Manav Sejuwal the district president of the Nepali Congress, who died in a plane crash in 2014.
Sejuwal was married young to a political family, and spent much of her adult life in this house. She had the chance to continue her education, unlike most women here. She was involved in lifting the status of women, and balanced that with motherhood and household cares.
It was after the death of her husband that she was pushed into a more prominent political role, and was elected to be one of only two elected municipality heads in Nepal. Sejuwal admits that being a woman helps her see things differently, and ensure that there is tangible change.
The Mayor and Deputy Mayor place a lot of emphasis on roads because there is local demand for access, making it easier for villagers to get the sick to hospital, produce to market, and remove days of walking.
Jumla is connected to Surkhet via the Karnali Highway, the airport has been upgraded and the town’s stone and tile houses are being rapidly replaced by multi-storey concrete structures. Like most other cities in Nepal, unplanned urbanisation is becoming a problem.
The once cobblestone streets of Khalanga market are now asphalt, and there are motorcycles, jeeps and three-wheel auto rickshaws. Mayor Sejuwal has plans to open a new track to Rara Lake, which will cut the three-day trek to three hours by jeep.
“The new roads have made life much easier,” says Krishna Bahadur Rokaya, owner of an old tea house in the market who has witnessed Jumla’s transformation in the last 50 years. “Shopkeepers had to get porters to carry their goods all the way from Surkhet. Now it arrives at their doorstep.”
Since road accessibility improved, the region’s very high maternal mortality rate has come down since mothers can be brought to the district hospital. New birthing centres have been set up, providing maternity service to more women from rural areas.
“Women now come for follow-up check-ups and we refer them to Karnali Health Science Institution in case of complications,” says Sabitra Bon Thapa, a nurse assisting at the Rokaya Bada Birthing Centre which has three beds in a birthing centre, with four health assistants doing the shifts.
Jumla is suffering from severe power cuts, since it is not connected to the national grid. But the municipality is working to complete two hydropower plants. Some parts of the town still only get two hours of power a day, when everyone rushes to charge their mobiles and other appliances.
“Some wards are already off the load-shedding schedule, while the completion of the feeder lines is also underway,” says Sejuwal, adding that she inherited a lot of unaddressed issues from the past two decades.
Sejuwal talks as she walks around her lawn below walnut trees. There is a whiff of spring in the air, although temperature at night is still below freezing in this town located at 2,500m elevation.
Jumla is the hub for the region’s biggest technical school that provides vocational education, while another high school in the municipality, where Sejuwal used to be the principal, sprawls at the heart of town.
“There’s a lot more that needs to be done,” says Deputy Mayor Mahat. While her brothers went to more expensive private schools, Mahat’s parents sent her to a government school. "The situation hasn’t changed. Parents still prefer private schools for boys,” she says.
Since assuming office, Mahat launched a survey of government schools to ensure the incentives of free textbooks and lunch were effective, and supported enrolment.
“The number of students has actually gone up since we started regular surveys,” says Mahat, but there is a budget constraint.
Lack of resources is also affecting expansion of the airport, and other infrastructure upgrades. Sejuwal’s dream project is to build a Ring Road to link remote settlements to the market in town and turn Jumla into a “smart city”.
“For me, a smart city is more about the consciousness to serve the people in need. It is about providing quality service to citizens, which requires every government worker to complete their duty,” Seujwal adds.
Some recent infrastructure development projects like the irrigation canals, and distribution of free seeds to single women farmers, have raised incomes. Under the Mayor Employment Program, there is technical training in machinery maintenance, skills development in dairy products, weaving Dhaka, making potato chips and apple jam.
Together, the mayor and her deputy have been working as a bridge to make local women independent and vocal, through interactions on Women's Rights, Domestic Violence, Political leadership.
Sejuwal believes that the best thing about having women in leadership positions is that it provides other women access. "I remember the time when I used to wait for CDOs at the gate, but now a woman in my municipality can come to me directly and talk to me. This has brought involvement and opportunity, as they are open to sharing their problems because they trust us.”