‘Combination of awareness and legal intervention from state crucial to eliminate social malpractices’: Kaajal Pradhan, Hub Director, Restless Development

‘If we unleash the power of young people to change our world, every generation will benefit.’

NL Today

  • Read Time 8 min.

Kaajal Pradhan is the Hub Director for the Restless Development in Nepal. Pradhan, with more than 17 years of experience in the field of youth engagement, is one of the Steering Committee members of the Association of INGOs in Nepal (AIN), an agency for 121 INGOs in Nepal. Nepal Live Today caught up with Pradhan to talks about youth leadership and different activities of the organization among others. Excerpts:

Restless Development has been working in various parts of Nepal. How do you prioritize and select working districts?

In most cases, the needs and demands of the young people and the community (at large) have propelled us in prioritizing and selecting the districts. In addition, we have held preliminary meetings with the stakeholders and youth in some proposed working districts to understand the value system, institutional capacity, existing problems, possible challenges and most importantly the necessity of Restless Development’s programs in the communities. Understanding the social and institutional structures is also vital criteriaa for selecting our working districts. In addition, prioritizing and selecting working districts can also depend on the goal areas we are trying to focus on. For instance, we are always keen on working in districts which has significant gender disparity; sexual and reproductive health and rights problems and limited youth participation in social and political spheres among others. Most importantly, we map out the districts that have lower HDI and are in the concerned districts for the government.

Restless Development adheres to the ‘young people’s leadership to solve greatest challenges’ principle. How does it work?

Restless Development’s initiative supports the leadership journeys of young people to accelerate their progress in their career, ability to lead change and multiply leaders. The act of a youth becoming a leader is an act of redressing injustice, claiming power and exercising agency. This is the core essence of our organization. We have always believed that youths, by virtue of their age, cognitive and physical strength, and openness to positive changes are rightly placed to not only understand the local issues in their communities but also to identify the possible approaches to solve it. These young people are always in the forefront of co-creating, initiating and implementing the programs. These role models are trained intensively in some of the core issues affecting them and their communities. Throughout their leadership journey, they work closely with experts within the organization who provide mentorship and any other required support.

So, when they are on the frontlines, they are fully equipped with the knowledge and skills. As leaders, they further collaborate with development partners for raising awareness, advocating for essential matters, conducting global dialogue and engaging in the rescue and recovery during emergencies.

How does Restless Development support the journey of youth to become a leader in Nepal?

This is a Peak Youth Era where a quarter of the globe is young. In Nepal more than 40 percent of the population is youth. If we unleash the power of young people to change our world, every generation will benefit. There are more young people in the world than ever before. Their time to lead is now. A young person becomes a leader with our Restless Model, putting youth at the heart of development, we believe we have the key to unlocking this potential on a global scale. It recognizes that transformative change only happens when the individuals involved not only deliver, but also influence and inform every aspect of development at the same time. Deliver is when young people directly improve lives through community engagement and mobilization, with youth leadership at the heart of all interventions. Inform is where young people create and share evidence and understanding of the real-life experience of communities where young people live and work. They act as a knowledge bridge between communities and the institutions that serve global development. Influence is where young people change the cultural norms, policies and systems that affect people’s lives, driving accountability from the center to government and aid agencies.

Your organization also works in the area of sexual reproductive health education. What changes have Nepal achieved and what are the rooms for improvement in the issue?

Since 1991, we have been amplifying the voices of young people from every caste, ethnicity and religion across 45 districts of Nepal to ensure that they receive Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) Education, claim their rights and end gender-based violence, early marriage and Chhaupadi.

In Nepal, girls and women are victims of systematic menstruation-based discriminatory practices as menstruation is considered impure in some traditions and cultures. It is prevalent in all over the country and most severe in some part, also known as Chhaupadi. Our intervention with an aim to reduce discrimination during menstruation has reached more than 85,000 relevant stakeholders which helped to reduce such practices up to 73 percent. Steep drop-off as students transition between primary and secondary level schooling and beyond and not having access to education is another challenge we face. It is mainly due to social malpractices like caste discrimination, gender-based violence, child marriage, social exclusion and stigmatization during the menstrual period. Through our youth-led model, we are able to increase a positive attitude among adolescent girls and boys to create social change of harmful social norms and to promote pro-social behaviors. The key stakeholders, we work in collaboration, have reported being motivated to create social change and build a just society. Our program focused on SRH Education and life skills which integrates an innovative approach of using music and dance to enhance SRH knowledge. It has been proven to be very effective, where the knowledge of SRHR and the perception of the risk associated with child marriage has significantly increased.

The act of a youth becoming a leader is an act of redressing injustice, claiming power and exercising agency. This is the core essence of our organization.

Nepal is a pioneer in promoting LGBTI rights amongst the South Asian countries who have comparatively progressive legislation that allows LGBTI people to live a safer and healthier life than in any other country across the region.

However, while LGBTI people in Nepal have many rights by law, they are still highly discriminated on the basis of their gender and sexuality and are marginalized in all spheres of life. The vast majority of SRHR services available for young people in Nepal are structured around the needs of heterosexuals, thereby excluding the differing needs of the LGBTI community. Restless Development joined hands to strengthen the nationwide advocacy efforts of the LGBTI CSO networks. The partnership further enabled the LGBTI CSOs to lead evidence-based advocacy to ensure their SRH Rights are effectively recognized and provided for. On other hand, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) is highly prevalent due to discriminatory social norms, resulting in increased risks of gender-based violence, especially for women and girls in schools and at work. It is important to educate them about the issue at a young age, to avoid the devastating consequences it can bring.

Issues discussed above can be reduced more through Sexual Reproductive Health Education for both young people and the relevant stakeholders. This has to be done in an integrated manner together with the duty bearers and other stakeholders. One of the great lessons learned from our experience is that it’s difficult to achieve and sustain transformative change if our program models and initiatives are not integrated well with government systems. Working at the policy level to ‘influence’ policies and practices is important to generate enabling environment at the delivery level.

Despite Nepal’s law prohibiting early marriage it is still prevalent in the country. In your opinion, should there be cultural and social awareness along with legal measures to end the practice?

Nepal is still the third-highest country in child marriage in South Asia where 37 percent of girls marry before the age of 18. Unfortunately, despite numerous efforts from the government and non-government actors, early marriage is still prevalent in Nepal. There are reports of the escalation of cases of early marriage in the eastern part of Nepal during 2020 due to Covid-19. As an organization, we believe that a one-dimensional approach may not be useful in eliminating this practice from our society. Our experience showed, there are multiple layers of causes associated with it -financial being the primary reason and social being the secondary reason. Evidence has shown that lack of economic stability has propelled families to marry their daughters. Also, social prestige and deep-rooted religious belief have also played a part in it. Hence, it would be appropriate to say the combination of awareness as well as legal intervention from the state is crucial if we plan to eliminate the practice altogether from our society. It is a key to make society aware of the legal consequences of child marriage and empower them to report against it. However, in the current context, social awareness is more needed.

What is your organization doing to end Chhaupadi? What approaches have you taken to convince the local people?

We worked together with the government, local stakeholders, CSOs, especially to strengthen the capacity of girls and women to end Chhaupadi which is prevalent in the Far Western part of Nepal. The program which was largely based on the empowerment model, taking a youth-led approach, focused on equipping girls and women on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The project aimed to reduce incidents related to Chhaupadi practices for women and girls, and help them access better nutrition and health, social support and access to education during menstruation. We were able to engage effectively with the community through three major actions: supporting community leaders to promote action against Chhaupadi; empowering young women and men to advocate against those harmful social practices; working with local governments and CSOs to ensure proper response and actions against Chhaupadi.

Talking about overall gender-based violence issues, it is said that the pandemic has pushed the issue on the back burner as the priorities are shifted to other health issues. Is that the current situation?

Yes, we can say that. Our patriarchal mindset and lack of rule of law have fostered the culture of gender disparity which has resulted in the cases of gender-based violence. Due to the Covid- 19 pandemic, the focus of the government has shifted towards administering vaccines and other pressing economic problems created after the pandemic. This has 100 percent pushed the issues from the forefront, however, there are organizations that are rigorously working to address the issues. Losing jobs, staying home during lockdowns, social taboo on sexuality, stigma to talk about sexual violence are some of the major reasons for the increased Gender-Based Violence. Restless Development Nepal has developed a strategic partnership with women led/focused organizations to counter the problem related to gender and gender-based violence.

We cannot work in isolation. All our work directly contributes to the national SDG indicators and to the government’s 5-year plans. This requires us to work in close collaboration with all three tiers of government

What should be done by the concerned authorities to ensure that fundamental human rights are not compromised even in the pandemic?

First thing first, the vaccine should be administered effectively regardless of class, background, and gender (particular). LGBTIQ people are particularly affected as the majority of them do not have a valid legal document that is required for vaccination. Next, to stop the violence against women and girls, we need to strengthen our judiciary system to identify the culprits and to provide justice to the survivors.

Lastly, it said that government, non-government and private sector organizations should work hand in hand to ensure desired changes in society. How does your organization make sure that the programs and activities are in line with the government’s priorities?

We cannot work in isolation. All our work directly contributes to the national SDG indicators and to the government’s 5-year plans. This requires us to work in close collaboration with all three tiers of government. All our projects plans are reviewed before approval and are closely monitored by the government of Nepal. The periodic meeting with them has helped us to form our program and actions within the priorities of the government. Nepal has been placed at 145 in the world youth development indicator. As an approach to youth development, we have a strategic partnership with the National Youth Council to achieve the Youth Vision 2025. However, we are exploring partnership avenues with the private sector and are in the process to work together to strengthen Women’s Economic Empowerment interventions. We would be grateful for any recommendations for the private sectors that would be interested to partner with Restless Development in Nepal. We will be pleased to approach them for the potential collaboration. One of our values ‘Hands’, derives us to connect with our partners, with each other and with those we serve.