‘Young people have the power to play a significant role in creating transformative change’: Sujeeta Mathema, Executive Director, ActionAid Nepal 

‘SDG is not just a simple goal or a project. It’s a huge commitment of the nation which ultimately makes the development sustained where everyone can enjoy their rights with full dignity.’

NL Today

  • Read Time 13 min.

Sujeeta Mathema, a mother of a teenage daughter who does full-time care work and holds a full-time job, is looking after a vibrant action-orientated development organization called ActionAid Nepal. With 30 years of experience in the field of the development sector, she has always believed that transformative change is possible. When you believe, it will happen, says Mathema.

She is of the view that every human should be thankful to the life and livelihood he/she gets in and should realize that they are born to serve in every aspect they can. Every situation that brings injustice and inequality makes her angry. She argues that one should realize their privilege and use it for the benefit of a larger group.

Whenever a crisis prevails, as a responsible citizen of the country, one should always put their every possible effort forward in humanitarian work to make the family, society, country fight against injustice and establish a just society, she shares. 

Nepal Live Today caught up with Mathema to learn more about her role and vision working in Nepal’s development sector, human rights issues and ActionAid Nepal’s activities. Excerpts:

How do you like to introduce ActionAid?

ActionAid is not just an organization but a national and global movement. Since 1982, we have been very active to promote social justice on the ground and policy work. Our work in unpaid care work, organic farming, promoting women leadership, especially in an emergency, education financing etc are worthy to take note of. We have been the pioneer of many approaches such as promoting local partnership, REFLECT modules, participatory approach, human rights-based approach (HRBA), social audit, feminist leadership among others.

We know that change is inevitable. However, if we can promote that change into transformative order then nothing can stop us to achieve sustainable development for the nation. And that change needs to be led by the people themselves and the organization needs to play the role of facilitator. Hence, ActionAid recognizes the power of people and works with the people for the people. Intersecting those general categories of people, we do work with women, children, Dalit, informal sector women laborers, smallholder farmers among others. Currently, we are present in 45 countries.

How long has ActionAid been working in Nepal? 

We are celebrating 40 years of our service in Nepal this year. We have been here since 1982.

Globally ActionAid adopted a human rights-based approach to development in the 1990s.  Would you tell us about the human rights-based approach?

ActionAid is one of the pioneer organizations that adopted the human rights-based approach (HRBA) to development in its programming works in the late 1990s. It emerged with the critical review on the past development practices under different approaches–from welfare to anti-poverty and basic needs to empowerment and campaign approaches. The ActionAid’s HRBA to development has been evolving based on the practices in different communities and countries in different systems of governance settings and their capacities.

Every approach has its own underlying understanding, especially on the goal of development initiatives. It acknowledges that the social structure constructs the power relations, and it varies from community to community, and one size doesn’t fit for all. The HRBA program intends to change unjust power relations across different levels–from families to communities and societies–so that the root causes of poverty and injustice can be addressed.

Since human life cannot be isolated from the social structure and relationships, the overarching idea of system theory has been popularized in the development sector. HRBA to development is the most popular system theory of development in the current context. It provides a framework rather than a specific solution to facilitate the transformation process that is largely applicable in different societies.

But sometimes in practice, we see the focus more on results or on the system and policy change but less attention on the processes like strengthening the people’s agencies and rootedness of the campaigns. That is why we see the need for applying the different theories of change by different development organizations under HRBA to development. So, it is important to say that the result and process both have equal weightage in HRBA programming to achieve sustainable change in the life of the poor and marginalized people.

The HRBA also acknowledges the importance of solidarity support from like-minded individuals, groups, and organic intellectuals on the agenda of people living in poverty and exclusion that ease the transformation process.  

In the course of HRBA in practice, when the discourse started on the development model in around mid-2010, development organizations like ActionAid updated their working approaches by defining an additional component of the alternative building. The pro-poor knowledge generated by people’s struggles and practices can build a credible alternative to transform the policy instruments, systems, and development priorities so that the mainstream development process could be informed and influenced by these alternatives.  

In a nutshell, we can say that empowerment, solidarity, campaign, and alternative buildings are the main pillars of HRBA to development. The evolving process is continuing and will be continued by challenging the contemporary development narratives.   

Why is the rights-based approach relevant in today’s context? How is it relevant in the context of Nepal?

As an evolutionary approach to development, HRBA is still relevant in the contemporary context of Nepal. It provides a way of analytical framework informed by the political-economic outlook that remains useful not only to understand the status of human rights of the people living in poverty and injustice but also to analyze the root causes and to find the way for transformative change in the existing social structure.

HRBA believes that poverty is the consequence of human rights violence that is perpetuated by the unjust and unfair power relationship among the people, communities, and nations. Nepali society has diverse characteristics in terms of geographical location, natural climate, caste and ethnicity. This is quite natural, but unfortunately, it has been taken as the ground of marginalization. Diversity should not be a problem rather it should be a strength of societies. But when we observe and analyze it, we find the people who have their own linguistic and cultural orientations and living in remote areas are lagging behind in terms of HDI. This gives a clue about the root causes of historical marginalization which is constructed by sociopolitical power and structure.

No one can bring prosperity to economically poor families without their active involvement in the journey of prosperity. This is the true example of ‘nothing about us without us.’ For this, HRBA to development suggests an empowering approach to enable people living in poverty to become rights activists and change agents through a critical awareness of power relations and a strengthening of their own individual and collective power.

HRBA to development is relevant to understand the roots of the problem and find the pathway of the solution to secure the rights of the people who are living in poverty and exclusion. In today’s context, the scope of rights is also widening day by day due to the peoples’ actions through the active involvement of civil society organizations and awareness. So, there is a potential to link rights-based actions with contemporary and emerging issues. Sometimes the establishment denies providing the space and may try to narrow down the spaces. Even in such a scenario, the rights-based initiative can continue if they are rooted enough and based on the ‘people’s power’. 

Unemployment and economic instability not only created huge mental stress on women but also triggered domestic violence in the family which again, in turn, exacerbated the frequency and severity of violence.

UN sustainable goals 2030 have been framed under the rights-based approach to development, where Nepal has also shown its commitment to fulfilling the targets and even has added more targets from its own side. So, this also opens up the opportunity to engage with different tiers of governments to change the commitment into reality.

Which are the areas of focus of ActionAid in Nepal? 

We truly believe in an integrated approach. No single thematic area can uplift the life and livelihood of those who are being oppressed. Based on our expertise, skills, knowledge, and financial strengths we have been focusing on women’s rights, disaster risk reduction, sustainable livelihood and quality education.

ActionAid’s one of the priority areas is fighting violence against women and girls. In your opinion, what is the impact of the pandemic on VAW? Reports say that the pandemic has resulted in an increase in the violence against girls and women. 

No doubt the pandemic has heightened the violence against women and girls globally and Nepal is no exception.  The lockdown which restricted the movement had kept women inside the house. That increased the risk of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, child abuse and other forms of sexual violence. It also increased the frequency of violence.

Likewise, the pandemic also hit hard the employment of women as many women workers, especially women laborers of the informal sector, had to lose their jobs due to the pandemic. Unemployment and economic instability not only created huge mental stress on women but also triggered domestic violence in the family which again, in turn, exacerbated the frequency and severity of violence.

At the same time, the pandemic also generated additional barriers for women’s access to essential life-saving services such as counseling, justice and legal support. Sexual and reproductive health support and other necessary medical services were also difficult to access by the women. The low motivation and confidence level kept women at more risk of extreme violence. Besides that, different priorities in controlling and addressing the pandemic failed to address the safety and security of women. Because of this, the cases of rape and other criminal activities against women are increasing.

As one of the non-negotiable principles of ActionAid to develop women leadership during the emergency, we took our covid humanitarian response keeping women at the top priority. They decided what package needs to be delivered as humanitarian assistance. We conducted programs such as delivering food, establishing toll-free numbers, installing complaint handling mechanisms, 24-hours call for doctor campaign, psychosocial counseling among others. We also have carried out a study on cyber-based violence that affects the psychology of children, especially girls. A total of 78 percent of adolescent girls in the study reported facing different forms of cyber-related violence.

Your organization also works in the area of resilience against disasters. Do you agree that women, girls and poor people have been disproportionately affected by the disasters?

Yes, we agree that women, girls, and poor people have been disproportionately affected by the disaster. We say this from our experience of working with poor and marginalized communities in different districts of Nepal and incidents from different countries. We analyze the impact on women, girls, and poor people during the disaster and after the disaster.

The causes of death are associated with the gender roles and power dynamics in the community along with investment in life-saving skills of women and girls in the community. The 2015 earthquakes alone caused 5,026 female deaths. Reports suggest casualty in 2015 was caused by structure failure, delay in search and rescue among others. Women in rural areas are engaged more in household chores. Therefore, they were trapped inside the house during the earthquakes. Similarly, many women lost their lives while trying to rescue their kins–mainly children and the elderly. 

The engagement of women and girls in disaster risk reduction planning is gradually increasing over the years. However, their concerns are still not fully considered during disaster risk reduction planning. This has resulted in infrastructure and services which do not cater to the specific needs of women and girls during the disaster. This is to say, although the disaster has a similar effect on the infrastructure, the life post-disaster could be harder for women and girls.  

For people living in poverty, disaster is another trigger to further push them into the poverty cycle. As universally observed, poor people are often forced to, or due to their limited affordability, live in hazard-prone areas. We have seen in districts like Bardiya, Parsa and Siraha that poor people are often residing near the riverbanks or flood-prone areas. This increases their exposure to disaster.  

Their sensitivity to disaster is also comparatively higher. As they are already facing multiple challenges to earn a living and maintain the quality of life, any disaster event potentially causes loss and damage of life and property. Unavailability or limited availability of stock, lack of savings, and alternative sources of income make it worse. The poor feel the impact on a much larger scale.  

Similarly, the loss of shelter is another critical aspect for people living in poverty. Due to limited financial resources, the houses constructed by poor families are often substandard and are prone to damage due to multiple hazards. Once the flood and landslide hit these houses, they become homeless. They either resort to being squatters or take loans to rebuild the shelters. With a recurring disaster, they constantly take loans and fall into the debt cycle. 

Recent examples of Covid-19 along with other disasters have shown that care work, household chores, and gender-based violence significantly increase for women. Research has shown that GBV was a major challenge post-2015 earthquake along with an increase in women and girls trafficking.

With additional pressure for income generation to recover from disaster, the women and girls were lured by the traffickers. During the pandemic, with restriction of movement, challenges for income generation, management of available resources for saving lives of families, cases of mental stress among women increased significantly. Safe spaces established by ActionAid and its partners in different districts and psychosocial counseling during the pandemic revealed an array of issues leading to mental stress among women.  

The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 was widely observed among the urban poor as well. For those who were living in dense informal settlements, maintaining physical distance, isolation, home quarantine, and other public health measures were like a luxury. Months-long lockdown and movement restriction exposed the bleak situation of livelihood assets of the urban poor. Loss of income (particularly for daily wage workers), low savings, and dependency upon external agencies for living were common issues. Along with this, access to digital education and health services was challenged. Due to the inability to keep up with the cost of living and continuing education, children from many urban poor families and poor families across the country were forced to drop out of schools.

All this exposes the bitter realities and multiple loopholes in the system. Women, girls, and people living in poverty are found to have suffered disproportionately during and after the disaster.  

Covid-19 has impacted the priorities of the development sector. Have your priorities also shifted? If yes, how?

The lesson was big. The question of how much we were prepared to deal with such an unseen, unpredictable crisis was huge.

The pandemic certainly impacted the priorities of the development sector. Initially, the thought was around health and WASH. The focus of work turned to health and hygiene. The international development partners’ priorities also shifted and that was the need of the hour. It has impacted our priorities as well. However, in the later stage when things were a bit stabilized, the critical reflection showed the impact of Covid-19 on the socio-economic sector was huge. Hence, we have tried to check into our program priorities from the perspective of Covid and its impact. Responsible and accountable organizations have not left any stone unturned to minimize the Covid cases and their adverse impacts.

In this context, ActionAid also channelized most of these resources into the covid humanitarian responses. We basically used to focus on health issues under Gender Responsive Public Services, and it was more a kind of advocacy-related work rather than direct support. But due to Covid-19, ActionAid also had to divert its fund in the health sector focusing on Covid-19 halting its regular thematic programs. We prepared a program implementation plan and budget under Emergency Response Programme (ERP). A significant amount of the budget was diverted to Covid-19 awareness and response programs in 2020 and 2021.

The situation is still not favorable. The vulnerability from the virus itself besides its impact has affected social, cultural, and political dimensions. In this context, we cannot think of any activities or processes without keeping Covid-19 in mind. Hence our activities are planned in such a way that we will be doing economic empowerment, women’s rights, education, and disaster risk reduction while at the same time also checking the impacts of the Covid-19 on the community.

Do you feel that it will be difficult for Nepal to achieve SDGs due to the pandemic?

The SDG is not just a simple goal or a project. It is a huge commitment of the nation which ultimately makes the development sustained where everyone can enjoy their rights with full dignity. SDG is about life, livelihood, ways of living, nature, business, processes (governance), and many more. Thus even in normal times, it is challenging to achieve those goals. Covid-19 has added extra challenges to Nepal to fulfill the SDG goals. A huge amount of financial and human resources was diverted into Covid-19 response, away from many other important tasks. But that was the call of that hour. The plans and budget of the government as well as many development partners were impacted. The lockdown had a significant impact on the lives of general people. This contributed to increasing the economic poverty rate and decreasing the GDP rate which is directly associated with the SDG goal.

We should be able to create hope for future generations. Our actions will impact the future and the future will learn from the actions that we do. 

Though Covid-19 helped to raise health and sanitation-related awareness, SDG is not only about that. Three years or so is a long period that could have created an opportunity to contribute SDG indicators if the situation was normal and if the government could invest more in the prioritized sectors as per the SDG goal. Not only the financial investment, the productivity and morale of the citizens was also low due to this pandemic and all productive sectors were affected. This will surely have a longer-term impact.

However, I am still hopeful that if we all–the government, civil society organizations, and corporate sectors–come together with full commitment, actions, resources and understanding, we can achieve the SDG.

How do the programs and activities of ActionAid complement the government’s policies and priorities?

Nearly all programs of ActionAid are aligned with the SDG goals and the government’s 15th national plan. Since we work with the human rights-based approach and basically focus on the rights of the people, it helps to ensure the fundamental rights as per the constitution of the country. Since our programs basically contribute to education, women’s and girls’ rights, livelihood and disaster resilience, and humanitarian response, they have a major stake in SDGs and the 15th plan. Just to make it more specific, our program contributes to achieving poverty reduction (SDG-1), sustainable agriculture (SDG-2), quality education (SDG-4), gender equality (SDG-5), employment and decent work (SDG-8), making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (SDG 11), taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (SDG 13) and promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, and providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels (SDG16).

The 15th plan of the government is also aligned with the SDGs. It aims to achieve high and equitable national income (Goal 1), development and full utilization of human capital (Goal 2), high and sustainable production and productivity (Goal 4), well-being and decent life (Goal 5), safe, civilized and just society (Goal 6), healthy and balanced environment (Goal 7), good governance (Goal 8), and national unity, security, and dignity (Goal 10).  Thus our programs and activities are aligned with the SDGs and the 15th plan of the government of Nepal.

Finally, what is your message to our readers?

Young people play a very vital role in transforming and shaping more just equitable and sustainable societies. Young people’s potential for spontaneous action in the face of injustice offers opportunities to counter unemployment, the commodification of basic rights, violations of young women’s sexual and reproductive rights and devaluation of their contribution. Increased civic engagement of young women and men can create an enabling environment for inclusion, and influence in public participation.

We really need to understand the power that includes the invisible power embedded in our socio-cultural and religious norms, the visible power of the state that plays out in our society and the hidden power of elites and corporates. How that power is being exercised is the key to bringing transformative changes in society.

ActionAid believes that young people have the capabilities to play a significant role in creating transformative change. That is why our theory of change is built on the ability of young people to harness their collective power and their ability to affect change together.

We should be able to create hope for future generations. Our actions will impact the future and the future will learn from the actions that we do. Hence, we don’t have any other choices but to do good for the benefit of a larger ecosystem.