Nicola Pollitt was appointed British Ambassador to Nepal in November 2019. Prior to this appointment, she was the Additional Director in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Directorate in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) from 2017-18. She joined FCO in 2003 in the Consular Directorate as the Head of Child Abduction Unit and has since worked across different departments in the FCO [now FCDO] including in the role of Assistant Private Secretary to the British Prime Minister from 2014-16.
She has experience of working in various countries in different capacities since 2003 at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office(FCO). Since her appointment as the ambassador in Nepal, she has traveled to various parts of the country touching lives and livelihoods of people.
The United Kingdom is a special country for Nepal in the sense that it was the first country in the world with which Nepal had established diplomatic relations. Our diplomatic ties extend over 200 years. Our development support has always been anchored in Nepal’s needs, she shares.
Coinciding with International Women’s Day, Nepal Live Today caught up with Nicola Pollitt to learn more about her role and vision working in Nepal as an active diplomat and proponent of freedom, rights, justice and equality. Excerpts:
UK aid goes to many development projects in Nepal. How do you evaluate the UK aid to Nepal’s development over the decades?
The UK has been a long-standing partner of Nepal. Our diplomatic ties extend over 200 years. Our development support has always been anchored in Nepal’s needs. We work closely with the government, civil society, and the private sector to do this, always aiming to drive up equality and inclusion. We have worked with the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and other development partners to help bring gender equality and social inclusion into programs and government plans in areas as varied as climate change, health, education, irrigation, water supply, sanitation, forestry, earthquake resilience, governance, and infrastructure among others.
“I have had the pleasure of meeting many Nepali women leaders and activists and I see huge potential in their ability to usher in change.”
I feel that our development work as well as humanitarian efforts, most notably in the aftermath of Nepal’s 2015 earthquakes, have helped establish stronger UK-Nepal relations. We have always worked in partnership with communities, including now with local governments and this element of ownership helps to make our work more sustainable.
What are the UK government’s priority sectors in Nepal
We are supporting the government of Nepal in a diverse range of sectors, but our top priorities are in providing support: to improve the health of the Nepali people; protect against and adapt to the impacts of climate change; improve Nepal’s capacity for sustainable economic development; strengthen local governance; improve girls’ education levels; and support human rights including through fighting gender-based violence and encouraging women leadership in key decision-making roles.
Today the world is marking International Women’s Day to raise awareness about women’s equality and lobby for accelerated gender parity. Could you share with us how gender issues are incorporated in the projects and assistance provided by the UK government to Nepal?
Gender issues are at the heart of all the work done by the British Embassy. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Globally, sadly including here in Nepal, women face specific challenges, like greater poverty, inequality, and exclusion from education and jobs markets. They are also more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Globally, poverty among women is higher than it is among men, which obviously creates a huge gender inequality. This explains why empowering women and girls is at the heart of our work. In our Women and Girls Gender Equality Strategy, the UK commits to extend its support to empowering women and girls in five broad areas. All UK-funded programs implemented in Nepal must comply with the UK’s Gender Equality Act of 2012, whereby they need to demonstrate how they are reducing gender inequality gaps.
The first is through educating girls. Our Girls Education Challenge (GEC) program has worked with local governments and partners in Nepal to identify girls from the poorest and most excluded communities, who due to life circumstances and rigid social norms have missed out on education. We have supported over 33,000 girls to improve their reading and give them the confidence to enroll back into mainstream schools. The impacts of this are immense including decreasing cases of child marriage. Some have successfully pursued higher education. When COVID-related school closures forced girls to stay home, GEC used a mix of virtual and small in-person meetings to help adolescent girls continue learning and protect their health and mental wellbeing. Once empowered, girls can do amazing things, like Amisha Bhandari from Kailali for example, who told me how she and her friends were challenging harmful menstrual taboos, such as chhaupadi in her area.
The second area is women’s economic empowerment. The UK’s Skills for Employment Program (SEP) helps train women and find them jobs, including in non-traditional roles. Globally, 75 percent women and nearly a similar number in Nepal, are employed in informal jobs. Women in informal jobs are paid less, are vulnerable to losing their jobs and work in poor conditions. The UK government also supports efforts to make migration safe for women.
Thirdly, we are working on protecting women’s sexual and reproductive health through building critical health infrastructure and health service delivery as well through strengthening health systems. One-stop crisis management centers have been established in almost all district hospitals of Nepal through our Nepal Health Sector Support Program. These support women and girls in cases of gender-based violence, among others.
“Only 22 percent of working age women are in paid employment in Nepal. Our Skills for Employment Programme (SEP) is working with the private sector to address key barriers and expand livelihood enablers for women, including in non-traditional and emerging jobs.”
The fourth area is around violence against women and girls. The UK’s Integrated Program for Strengthening Security and Justice has worked closely with the Nepal Police to build 58 police buildings. Fifteen Women and Children Service Centers have been added where women and girls are able to access support for security and justice against gender-based violence. Close to 3.4million people now have access to a police station which is women and disability-friendly, in addition to providing better working conditions and accommodation for 1500 police officers. The UK has also helped train 11,800 police officers of which 1050 are women, in gender sensitive investigation, counseling, crime prevention, citizen-friendly policing and human rights, and local accountability, to help improve policing services.
And finally, women’s political participation, which I think is crucial for better policies and implementation that support women. Women’s contribution to strengthening systems and state-building is only possible when an enabling environment is created for them.
Are there any gender specific projects being run by the British government like UKaid Skills for Employment Program? How do these projects support the efforts to increase women’s leadership in Nepal?
Only 22 percent of working age women are in paid employment in Nepal. Our Skills for Employment Programme (SEP) is working with the private sector to understand the challenges that companies as well as women face to address key barriers and expand livelihood enablers for women, including in non-traditional and emerging jobs.
Through Morang Earth Movers Pvt Ltd (MEPL), the supplier of JCB’s heavy equipment operators for the construction sector, SEP has helped expand job-linked training to underserved regions of Nepal, so that women and members of disadvantaged groups are able to find jobs with better salaries. This includes, for example, recruitment of women as trainer role models, to break down gender stereotypes in a traditionally male-dominated sector.
“Let me encourage you all to #BreakTheBias. Small, seemingly everyday decisions to make your own choices and make your own way, can all bring change.”
Our Skills program has helped the decentralization of carpet manufacturing—taking weaving workshops and jobs to rural Sarlahi in Madhesh Province. In addition to weaving jobs, the program has trained women as master weavers—putting women into leadership roles to attract more women workers. In the ICT sector, through the UK headquartered Genese Solutions, the program has promoted female ‘role models’ and offered financial aid to support women to make their own choices and take the opportunities available to them.
For my own part, I have launched a leadership mentoring program for young Nepali women. I have been joined by seven other women ambassadors and heads of agencies based in Kathmandu and we have selected eight mentees from a list of over 300 applicants. I’m looking forward to a rewarding year supporting my mentee’s career and leadership aspirations, as well as learning from her.
You are also actively watching Nepal’s civil society movement, particularly rights-based activities. Where do you see the situation of Nepali women when it comes to the issue of empowerment, rights, and inclusion?
I have had the pleasure of meeting many Nepali women leaders and activists and I see huge potential in their ability to usher in change. There is a need to create a safe and enabling environment for women to express their views, stand in solidarity with other women and lead the change they want to see.
“The UK has been a long-standing partner of Nepal. Our diplomatic ties extend over 200 years. Our development support has always been anchored in Nepal’s needs.”
To improve women’s status in Nepal, we need to invest in their education, create employment opportunities, provide them with skills that have market value, and link women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses with markets and larger business houses. We also need to ensure that women and the voices of those who are excluded based on their gender, caste, ethnicity and disability, are heard and are backed by people in positions of leadership.
Do you feel that Nepal’s constitutions and other laws are sufficient to protect women’s rights? Do they follow international standards of human rights and individual liberty?
Nepal’s constitution and laws in relation to equality and inclusion are strong. But there is no country in the world where laws alone are enough to protect and promote the rights of underrepresented groups. We need enforcement of those laws, action to spot and develop talent and tackle prejudice and advocacy among other groups. The whole of society benefits from greater equality and inclusion, so the whole of society should play its part in championing this. It’s not up to women and girls alone to champion their own rights: men and boys should play their part, too.
It is believed that women are disproportionately affected due to the pandemic. What is your observation in Nepal’s context?
There’s no question that COVID has had different impacts on men and women; the question is by how much, and in what areas? Globally–and again, Nepal is sadly no exception–there’s been more domestic violence during lockdowns, and that mostly affects women. More girls have dropped out of education than boys, more women have been forced into precarious jobs in the informal sector, or into unpaid work, and other health outcomes, like maternal health, have also deteriorated. These are just some of the reasons why laws alone are not enough and why now is an important moment to act.
Looking back at your own career, how difficult is it for a woman to become and serve as a diplomat? Have you seen any significant differences regarding treatment and privileges for female diplomats between the developed countries and underdeveloped ones?
In the UK, women were not allowed to be diplomats until 1946. Until 1972, women had to resign from the diplomatic service when they got married. Since then, change has come. By the time I joined the Foreign Office in 2003, there were many women working there, though far less than 50 percent, and only 10 percent of leadership roles were filled by women.
“I feel that our development work as well as humanitarian efforts, most notably in the aftermath of Nepal’s 2015 earthquakes, have helped establish stronger UK-Nepal relations.”
Now we’ve reached over 40 percent, and we’re still making progress to reach our target of 50 percent. The support for women with families has also improved hugely in the last decade, though there is more to do. I have had the privilege of working here in Kathmandu with many female ambassadorial colleagues and other women in leading roles across the international community. Just occasionally, someone assumes it’s my husband or male colleague who is the ambassador, but generally as a diplomat we are afforded the same privileges as male counterparts. International treaties ensure that that is the case. That is why as women and leaders with those privileges, it is our role to support Nepal to reach that kind of equality for all Nepali women.
Lastly, what message do you like to convey on the occasion of International Women’s Day?
Let me encourage you all to #BreakTheBias. Small, seemingly everyday decisions to make your own choices and make your own way, can all bring change. Have the confidence to know you are doing the right thing for yourself.