Women leaders set example for rest of Nepal

Hupsekot Rural Municipality recently inaugurated a 10-bed coronavirus-dedicated hospital. Municipality chair Laxmi Pandey is at centre. All photos: LAXMI BASNET

After the first elections under federalism in 2017, Hupsekot became one of only two municipalities in Nepal in which women were voted both chair and deputy.

Laxmi Pandey of the Nepali Congress was elected chair, and Kopila Malla of the UML was voted vice-chair. In the three years since, Hupsekot in Nawalparasi district has exemplified how this has made all the difference in the quality of education, agriculture, nature conservation, and now Covid-19 control.

Hupsekot is Nepal in a microcosm in more ways than one. It encompasses the Mahabharat and Chure ranges, as well as the Tarai, and these days when the air is clear the Annapurnas are visible to the north. Hupsekot is also an example of what is possible for the rest of Nepal.

Under the 2015 Constitution a vice-chair or deputy mayor has to be a woman, but Hupsekot and Jumla elected women to both positions. Now, imagine if Hupsekot was replicated in more of Nepal’s 736 municipalities and 17 metropolises. 

“Because both of us are women, it has been easier for us to work on delivery of social services to our people,” says municipality chair Laxmi Pandey. “In many other local governments we see the male chair and female deputy chair having disagreements.”

Indeed, while in Kathmandu even men from the same ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) are forever quarrelling, here in Hupsekot it does not seem to matter that Pandey and her deputy are from different parties.

“Sometimes, problems arise when there are party-based decisions from Kathmandu, but we manage to resolve them amicably,” says vice-chair Malla. “We have worked together well in the past three years.”

In its very first meeting, this village municipality decided to provide Rs5,000 for institutional delivery in government facilities to promote safe motherhood. Back then the village had only one birthing centre, it has added two more in the recent years. 

Now, even those who can afford private hospitals go to government hospitals because services have been upgraded. So far 1,008 people have received the institutional delivery incentive.

Nawalparasi district borders India, and earlier this year it became a hotspot for Covid-19, as Nepalis returning from India brought the virus home. Hupsekot instituted a strict quarantine and contact tracing rule, and last month it opened a dedicated 10-bed hospital for coronavirus patients.

Pandey and Malla then worked together to encourage local youth as well as returnees to take up farming instead of migrating back to India or overseas for work. A big chunk of the rural municipality’s annual budget is spent on grants for communities investing in commercial agriculture. This has had a direct impact on this year’s paddy harvest, and increased the prospects for agribusiness.

Hupsekot has also launched a 'School Merger Program' to address falling enrolment, and best use limited resources. Four government schools have been combined into one and discussions are underway to even merge public and private schools.

“As a former teacher myself, I have focused on improving the education program without adding to the hardships of parents and students,” says Pandey. “And we are working to improve the quality of instruction, to make it more relevant and impart civic values.”

The rural municipality has launched an awareness drive against deep-rooted patriarchal values and domestic violence by sensitising parents to raise their children right, and as equal. Both at home and in schools, children learn early about tolerance and responsibility, and boys and girls alike are encouraged to help out with household chores.

Hupsekot has also gone further than most other municipalities by promoting local languages and dialects. A language curriculum is being developed for 60% of the district’s population for whom Magar is the mother tongue. The digital charter of the municipality is available also in the Magar language.

Hupsekot’s scenic beauty and places of religious significance make it a popular destination for visitors. And the municipality is now trying to add to its eco-tourism appeal, planting 5,000 rhododendron spalings under the 'One Student One Laligurans' campaign as well as holy pipal plantations around its pilgrimage sites under a municipality subsidised program. 

“Ultimately, we plan to create a natural and pristine environment and cultivate rudraksha commercially. This along with religious tourism will provide regular income for our municipality,” Pandey adds.

The municipality is also working to raise income of female-led households by training women to produce value added goods from maize husk, and is already engaging them in knitting winter wear. The municipality then takes the responsibility of marketting the products.  

An inter-generational skill transfer program is also in operation so that the village doesn’t have to rely only on outside trainers to learn new skills. 

About two years ago when the municipality advertised for two employees, some 60 single women applied for the job. During the interviews, they shared their hardships in finding a reliable source of income. While the municipality office wasn’t able to employ them all, this gave Paudel a much-needed push to plan a program specifically targetting single women. 

“Women in rural areas, especially single women, do not have a reliable source of income. Society looks down on them. But that won’t be the case if the local government steps in to support them,” says Pandey. 

Since last year, the municipality has started allocating a budget for ‘Single Women’s School’ under which widows come up with their owns plans for regular income generation.

The fact that both the chair and vice chair are women helps, and they are leading the charge with progressive plans and policies. This is in stark contrast to other municipalities where the women deputies are undermined and harassed by their male colleagues.

Says Pandey: “We have to use the five years we have been given by working for the people. Bitterness and dispute will only hurt our voters. Our sole focus is on fulfilling our responsibilities.”

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