Social media elated by Nepali in BBC list

The BBC included Sapana Roka Magar, an 18-year-old voluntary crematorium worker from Nepal, in its 100 Women of 2020, a yearly list of inspiring and influential women from around the world.

Roka Magar works with the Homeless Management and Rehabilitation Center, a Nepali charity providing assistance to homeless people. For the past three years, she and her team have provided traditional Hindu funeral rites for abandoned and unidentified deceased bodies.

With Covid-19 affecting homeless people in Nepal’s cities and the number of dead at cremation sites increasing by up to four times higher than pre-pandemic levels, Roka Magar's work has become vital. Without her, many of the bodies would be in hospital morgues, be abandoned on the streets, and deprived of dignified funerals.

After Roka Magar’s team identifies and collects the bodies from the streets or mortuaries, they are sent for postmortem examination in hospitals. If the body remains unclaimed for 35 days, the organisation takes it to a crematorium and performs दागबत्ती, a traditional final rite in Hindu religion.

These cremation rituals are usually conducted by male members of the deceased's family. Roka Magar, however, performs the rituals herself for hundreds of unclaimed bodies at the Pashupati Aryaghat  (cremation ground), on the banks of Bagmati river in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Sapana Roka Magar being interviewed by tele-astrologer Harihar Adhikari on AP1 tv.

Sapana Roka Magar was born into a farming family in a small village of Nepal's Myagdi district. She is said to have been a brilliant student during her childhood and pre-teen years. At age 14, she moved to Beni to study — and that is when her life took a sharp turn for the worse.

She married a teenage boy against her parents’ will. The relationship broke down just after a few months, and Sapana found herself shunned by her home village. She distanced herself from her family and became homeless.

While living in the streets, she became acquainted with the Homeless Management and Rehabilitation Center, and began to work with them. Roka Magar now calls the president of the organisation, Dinesh Jung Basnet her godfather.

Gender role remain strict in Nepal, with women generally expected to manage the household and take care of the family. The pandemic has worsened gender inequality in the country when it comes to education, employment, and income.

Women are traditionally not allowed in cremation grounds, and in some villages, only male members of the family are permitted to participate in funeral rites. But by providing final rites for people whose bodies were abandoned, Roka Magar does a job that most men wouldn't accept.

Nepali social media users were elated by seeing Sapana Roka Magar included on the BBC 100 Women of 2020 list and shared congratulatory messages.

Freelance writer Dil Nisani Magar tweeted:

Educator Santosh Upadhyaya tweeted:

Youth activist Nikita Bhusal tweeted:

Kul Chandra Gautam, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF tweeted:

Entrepreneur Kushal Sundar Shrestha complained that Nepal recognised Sapana only after she received the BBC honour:

In 2019, Bonita Sharma, a social entrepreneur from Nepal, was also listed in BBC's 100 Women, in the knowledge category.

In arrangement with Global Voices. This story by Benju Lwagun originally appeared on Global Voices on 5 December 2020.