Baby on her back, Dalit mother on campaign trail
With just a week to go for Nepal’s local elections, 28-year-old Mina Biswakarama is on the campaign trail with a three-year-old son strapped to her back.
She is a candidate from the Maoist-Centre party for chair of Raghuganga Rural Municipality of Myagdi district, and is going door to door asking for votes not just from her own Dalit community but from others as well.
“I have suffered the same problems you have, I am going to try to solve them if you vote for me,” she says simply as she reaches the remote village of Phuldanda.
Biswakarma knows the problems of her community well. Aside from poverty, she has experienced discrimination because of her caste, as well as for being a woman. Her party wanted to change that with the bullet, but she now seeks to uplift her people through the ballot.
Mina was just six years old when the Maoist launched their armed struggle. Myagdi was the scene of one of the fiercest battles in 2004 when about 200 people were killed in the attack on the nearby district capital of Beni.
“There are layers and layers of problems we face in the village. There is discrimination against Dalits for being untouchable, there is domestic violence, us women have to wait for hours at the village tap for a bucket of water,” she says.
“I saw no progress after the last local election five years ago, so I decided to stand for municipal chair myself,” she adds.
Mina lost her mother as a child, and was in Grade 10 when the family married her off. She then left her studies and volunteered in the local Mother’s Group where she earned the respect of peers for her commitment to social reform.
Despite being involved in community projects, she found that society’s problems are structural and decided that she had to get into politics to bring about real change for the poor, the downtrodden and women in her constituency.
Mina’s chances for winning are good. Most of the nearly 14,000 voters in Raghuganga are Dalit, and because of the outmigration of men, more than 55% of the voter’s list is made up of women.
Candidates from the other parties are supported by local traders and businesses, and spend lavishly on elaborate public meetings with free lunches for attendees.
Mina Biswakarma’s funding is completely crowdsourced with small donations from her community.
“I don’t even have money to hire a jeep and loudspeakers or to print posters, so I just walk door to door as much as I can,” says Mina who is not deterred by villagers who make fun of her simple campaign style.
She has a list of priorities if she gets elected. Top on it is affordable healthcare, especially for women, and to help raise living standards of the poorest and most under-served families.
As she walks past elegant stone houses of Phuldanda, Mina is greeted by an elderly relative, Gau Bahadur Biswakarma, who kneels on the ground and respectfully touches her feet with his head.
Mina is overwhelmed by this gesture, and starts weeping uncontrollably, wiping tears with her red shawl. Being a Dalit activist, Gau Bahadur had never got the chance to stand for election, and wanted to bless Mina and her campaign.
The photo of Gau Bahadur touching Mina’s feet has been widely shared on Nepal’s social media, accompanied by many messages of support and best wishes for her candidacy.
Says Mina: “I think he was happy that even though he never got the chance to stand for elections, that I did even though I am a woman from a poor Dalit family. He touched my feet because it was these legs that have brought me so far.”