Bishnu Pariyar, founder of AJWS grantee ADWAN, with ADWAN staff member Tejendra Lama, during a recent visit to AJWS in New York.
As a child growing up in rural Nepal, Bishnu Pariyar would walk to school every morning with three other children from her village. During these two hour-long treks, Bishnu’s age mates treated her as an equal, chatting and giggling with her as they would any other friend. But when they stopped for a drink at a neighbor’s house along the way, everything changed: While Bishnu’s travel companions were given a cup of water to share, she was forbidden from drinking from it. Forced to beg for a sip, she would watch, humiliated, as the water was poured into her cupped hands. This prejudicial treatment was due to the fact that, despite looking and talking like her friends, Bishnu was different: She was a Dalit.
“Dalits are the lowest Hindu caste, they are at the bottom of Nepali society,” Bishnu said during a recent visit to AJWS in New York. “If a member of a higher caste touches them, the high caste person must then ‘purify’ him or herself with water. We are often called ‘untouchables.’”
Bishnu felt the sting of “untouchability” from an early age. She also witnessed its effects on her family. A farmer by profession, Bishnu’s father worked extra hours as a tailor for the high-caste people in their village—a “job” he was obligated to perform for no pay, simply because he was a Dalit. Bishnu recalls watching him sew by the light of a kerosene lamp each night before she went to bed. To her, his labor was not an act of respect for caste or religion; it was slavery.
The Birth of ADWAN
Seeing her father treated like a slave was too much for Bishnu to bear. At the age of 10, she decided to dedicate her life to ending caste discrimination and promoting equality. She began by working her way through middle school, high school and college. In 1996, while pursuing her college degree, she launched a project that would eventually lead to the founding of the Association for Dalit Women’s Advancement of Nepal (ADWAN). This grassroots group—now an AJWS grantee—empowers Dalit and other marginalized women to overcome the challenges they face. Today, ADWAN works in seven of Nepal’s 75 districts and has supported 74 women’s groups, helped send 13,000 children to school, and provided 97 adolescents with college scholarships.