“Conversations and advocacy for women’s rights should go beyond 16 days. This should be an everyday conversation”: Mona Sherpa, Analyst, Gender and Development

"To have justice and equality on paper is not enough, we need to ensure that these aspects of freedom and rights are practiced without fail."

NL Today

  • Read Time 6 min.

As the world is celebrating 16 Days of Activism, voices have been raised against injustice and violence against women. Where does South Asia in general and Nepal in particular stand in terms of justice and equality for women? Nepal Live Today caught up with Mona Sherpa, Deputy Country Director at Care Afghanistan and Care Nepal. Sherpa has worked as an advocate of women’s rights and gender equality in Nepal and South Asia. She has also been closely observing the women’s rights situation in Afghanistan. Excerpts:

Where does South Asia stand in terms of justice and equality for women?

I find it hard to answer this question. On the one hand many countries in South Asia, including Nepal, are making progress in terms of ensuring that the rights of women and girls are prioritized. But there are countries which are lagging behind despite making best efforts. We can’t look at rights, justice, governing systems and the momentum around women and girls’ rights in silos.

There are many contributing factors such as social systems, norms, political willingness, economic status and justice structures which need to be aligned. Most importantly, we need to realize that most countries have strong laws, but whether they are actually implemented is my main concern. To promise justice and equality on paper is not enough.

We need to ensure that these aspects of freedom and rights are practiced without fail, and people especially women and girls are not ostracized for demanding rights and freedom. The 16 Days of Activism sheds light on needs, gaps and challenges, and supports in making individuals, systems and communities accountable towards working collaboratively to address violence against women and girls. But the conversation, work, and advocacy should go beyond 16 days. This should be an everyday conversation, and more needs to be done for transformative changes.

Nepal just concluded federal parliament and provincial assembly elections. What is your observation in terms of women’s participation in politics?

The representation of women in the recent election is a blatant display of apathy towards the aspiration of women’s leadership, not only in politics but in all spheres of development. Despite the provision that there needs to be 33 percent women representation, only eight female candidates (out of 165 seats) have been elected for the House of Representatives (HoR) in the first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections.

Also, I am concerned about the narrow lens in which we look at politics. Politics is not limited to elections, we need to diversify our outlook at looking at women’s representation in politics. Starting from home we need to look into representation in community engagement platforms, critically analyzing women’s role and agency in mobilizing funds and local resources, and evaluating whether women are positively pre-positioned in decision-making actions with an enabling environment.

All these are indicators of women in politics. Politics is more of women’s agency, their meaningful participation, and voice, in all levels of development, along with the acceptance of women’s leadership in society and equal human rights. We also need to acknowledge that the process of norming makes us think that women are the weak ones. We tend to believe they need our protection, assistance, and unconsciously we create this power facade. That’s when the imbalance starts–from the mentality to the action. This misconception of looking at women, their role and the social dictation of what women can and cannot do needs to change. If we can address this, we will start seeing results.

CARE Nepal states that a patriarchal society and deeply rooted, harmful social norms are key hindering factors for transforming lives of women and girls. How is your organization working to change the situation?

I would like to reiterate the fact that social norms transformation is a long-term process, and requires consistent efforts, not just from CSOs like us, but also from the government, civil society, community leaders and beneficiaries that we work with and for. Also, the very thought that social norms transformation happens only on the community level is wrong. For social norms transformation to happen, we need constant lobbying and strategic intervention at the policy level, and we need to look at social norms from a devolved perspective.

At CARE, we look at programs from a social norm’s transformation lens, where we work with early adopters, innovators, and even the laggards–the people and structures that are hesitant towards embracing change, mostly due to privilege and power that they hold or due to limited information, knowledge, or conscience. Our flagship approaches such as the ReFLECT model which is based on the principle of community level partnership through experiential learning helps identify social, structural, and political barriers to change.

“Politics is more of women’s agency, their meaningful participation, and voice, in all levels of development.”

We work with justice and security providers to strengthen help seeking behavior to motivate community members, especially women and girls, to report cases of violence in formal justice seeking mechanisms. Also, our work in engaging men and boys to prevent violence in the community is based on our values of feminist leadership, which aspires to promote shared leadership in the community to prevent and address adversities which harm the well-being and rights of women and girls. We understand that social norms change processes can be successful only when we work collectively, and thus we engage at various levels starting from individual to family, community and the state.

For social norms transformation to happen, we need to act as a catalyst, and build onto a system of non-adversarial dialogues and discussions and facilitate a process where individuals in all levels of decision-making, power, and influence realize how they contribute to regressive social norms and understand that for social norms transformation to happen they need to change their mindsets. This realization should reflect in their behavior.

We are celebrating 16 Days of Activism whose main aim is to spotlight gender-based violence. How can this campaign be made more effective?

When we stop thinking of the 16 days activism as a campaign, and look at it as a continuous effort, championed by not only INGOs, but also the government, civil society organization, journalists, and individuals in the community, then we can eliminate violence against women  in the truest sense.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the need for more collaborative, and targeted effort to address the rampant violence that women and girls undergo in their daily lives. We need to understand that the structures might be in place, but then, we need to create an enabling environment where women and girls feel safe to access the services available.

Social media campaigns on violence and reporting may increase people’s knowledge, but we need to work on behavior level change, and that happens when we work with multiple actors–from home to community to policy intervention to concrete actions. Also, let’s look at violence from an intersectionality lens. One thing we need to understand is that society is layered, we need to deep dive on norms which often restrict women and girls from speaking out and protesting against the atrocities that they face.

We need to look at the circle of power, access, privilege, and position, and ask ourselves if our campaigns are resonating with the real needs of women and girls in the most hard-to-reach areas and marginalized communities. We need to see if our campaigns have embraced the agenda of diverse groups including sexual minorities.

“There needs to be solidarity in the way Civil Society Organizations work. But solidarity needs to be solid.”

We can’t work for the rights and equality of women and girls without looking into other intersecting agendas of caste, class, age, origin, ethnicity, religion, age, abilities, sex and more. Also, violence is not synonymous to only women and girls, we need to broaden our horizon, and take into account the issues of people with diverse SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics), and realize that we require a more targeted advocacy to ensure that everyone’s rights and dignity is protected, and when we do campaigns, we are not resorting to cherry-picking.

How important is it to empower local civil society organizations to ensure a just and equal society?

I personally feel that local CSOs today are empowered in Nepal, though the condition is not the same in other countries like Afghanistan. Under the federal structure, there has been a growth of CSOs that are more grounded, targeted, and impact oriented. So, rather than INGOs talking about empowering the CSOs, we need to start the discussion on collaborative leadership, and how we can partner with different CSOs to create the tectonic shift that we want to achieve.

I recently spoke about the role of CSOs in one of interviews and said there needs to be solidarity in the way CSOs work but solidarity needs to be solid. Therefore, as someone who has worked in the development sector for a long time, and starting my career from local CSOs and social movements, I value localized perspective which is enriching and realistic. If we as INGOs can work collaboratively with various CSOs then real change is possible.  But for that we also need to work with the community as it is their buy-in and ownership that supports the shift we want to see. CSOs with their different intent and objective should and can intervene at system level, engage in governance and political processes to shift unequal power relations.

Finally, you have been working in this sector for the last 24 years. How do you look back to your learning and experiences?

Twenty four years of working in this sector has taught me one thing: consistency and collaboration paves way to change and supports creating an enabling environment for women and girls, where rights, freedom and dignity is ensured, and where their agency, voice, and aspirations are celebrated. For which, we need to continue the conversation. We need to acknowledge and celebrate leadership of women and girls, build alliance and cooperation to strengthen our advocacy and collaborate for conscious change, starting from the mind to the action.