Leadership from the margins

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A partner initiative aims to strengthen the relationship between the most marginalized communities and the public institutions at the local level.

Owning a tiny plot of land, barely enough to grow a basket of flowers, 65-year old Shahida Khatun and her husband have to make ends meet working as labourers in the Haripur Municipality in Sarlahi district. Their two sons work as overseas migrant workers to supplement their household income and support 10 family members.

Shahida’s family belongs to the Muslim religious minority of Nepal. Muslim population scores the lowest on the Human Development Index (HDI) among the five major groups namely, Brahmans, Chhetris, Janajatis, Dalits, and Muslims. According to the Nepal Human Development Report (2014), the Muslim population is characterized by low level of literacy, widespread poverty, and inadequate representation at the decision-making levels. The vulnerability of Muslim women is further exacerbated by their gender.

Shahida says that as a poor and non-literate person, she didn’t know how to avail of even the most basic services from the local government authorities. Every time she had to visit the VDC or other local authorities, she was bound to seek assistance from her neighbours.

In early 2016, Shahida became a member of the Civil Pressure Group (CPG) formed under the project “Strengthening Voice and Accountable Governance” run by the Nepal Madhesh Foundation (NEMAF). The main goal of the project is to strengthen the relationship between people and local public institutions. It covers 20 VDCs of Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari, and Sarlahi. Some of these districts have the lowest HDI scores.

Through a rigorous selection process, NEMAF identified women from the most marginalized sections of society and organized them into 80 CPGs. A total of 1200 women are members of the CPGs. Like other members of CPGs, Shahida has been receiving training about her rights and the services she can access, as well as strong guidance on how to seek greater accountability from government service providers.

“Simultaneously, NEMAF also organizes training on gender and inclusion, participatory planning, and accountability tools for selected government service providers. The goal is to strengthen responsiveness and accountability of government towards citizens, particularly those who are most vulnerable,” says Tula Narayan Shah, Executive Director of NEMAF.

In the beginning, Shahida was reluctant to join the CPG. Sanju Singh, community mobiliser of NEMAF, motivated her to join the CPG. “During the training, Shahida was initially not comfortable expressing herself, and knew little about her rights,” recalls Sanju. But over the years Shahida has become aware of her rights and entitlements. Now she can go to the VDC office all by herself.

“Just last year, I went to the VDC office by myself to obtain birth registration certificates for my grandchildren,” says Shahida. People in the community seek Shahida’s help for making birth certificates or getting other services from the local authorities. She has established herself as a committed advocate respected by the community as well as the local authorities.

“Shahida now serves as a representative in several key forums and user committees where she makes important decisions in the interest of women and marginalized communities,” says Sanju, who has witnessed how Shahida has grown and evolved.

 

(Photo courtesy: NEMAF)