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Agent of Change
Bishnu Maya Pariyar

​Kathmandu- When you educate a girl, you educate the community. Former secretary general of the United Nations Kofi Annan called the education of girls, "the single highest returning social investment in the world today." Bishnu Maya Pariyar is a testament to that. From Boston, US, half-a-world away, Bishnu Maya is leading a movement back in her hometown, one girl, one woman at a time. The idea is simple. But it’s impact, profound—educate a dalit girl, economically empower a woman and see the age-old caste system and gender discrimination gradually but surely give way to a just and harmonious community. Herself, a dalit and a beneficiary of sponsorship programmes that afforded her an opportunity at early education, and eventually higher education at some of the best colleges in US, she has been on a mission to create the same opportunities for other dalits and marginalised girls and women like her for the last 14 years, first through Association of Dalit Women of Nepal (ADWON) that she founded when she was 20 in 1996 in Nepal and since 2003 through its new avatar Empower Dalit Women of Nepal (EDWON) based in US.

From UN halls to halls of Harvard, today hers is a story of success that has been reverberated and celebrated far and away from her village of Taklung VDC, Ward number two, Gorkha, many a times. But for Bishnu Maya the true measure of her success was when the same villagers of supposedly higher caste, who only a few years ago would scorn and shun her, would sprinkle water on themselves to purify when they had even so much as brushed against her, started requesting her parents that they ‘made sure’ they send her to their homes whenever she came home.

A total of 73 women’s groups constituting of nearly 2500 women benefiting from its microfinance, human rights, literacy programmes across Gorkha, Baglung, Arghakhanchi, Mugu, Sarlahi, Ilam and Jhapa, six pre-schools, sponsorship of school level education for 3000 girls, the new Ambitious Girls Project that support girls through college, over two crores of funds invested in communities so far—EDWON’s ever growing reach speak volumes of Bishnu Maya’s hard work. But above all, it’s the impact that these programmes had on these communities that really indicate what a success she is today. She has come a long way since her impoverished beginnings with a ‘lot of help’ from others, and today in return, she is extending the same faith to others.

Bishnu lovingly calls Eva Kasell, ama, and credits much of her success to her. “She treats me like a daughter. She brought me here to America, gave me opportunity to go to college here and opened doors for me at things I had not even imagined in my wildest dreams,” she says with gratitude. She recalls how in the beginning they couldn’t even communicate with each other. Bishnu Maya didn’t know much of English, and Eva didn’t know Nepali. But, Eva knew about her organisation ADWON and the work she had been doing back in Nepal. On one of the occasions Bishnu Maya had gifted Eva a pashmina shawl that she had brought back from Nepal. This, Bishnu says, gave birth to an idea of bringing Nepali handicrafts over to the US to raise funds for her organisation and eventually establish EDWON in US. Today Eva as the president of EDWON leads a group of dedicated volunteers and a good percentage of their funds come from handicraft sales they hold throughout the year, especially during the holiday season.

“EDWON just received a $10,000 donation from a committed and great friend to support continued education of young girls who will give back!” Bishnu recently twitted. Much of their funds come from individual donors that write them cheques or give them cash but many choose to help them through their sponsorship programme that allows families, individuals or organisation to sponsor the education of a child.

After a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Pine Manor College, Chestnut Hill, Bishnu Maya in 2007 graduated with Master’s degree in International Development and Social Change from Clark University, Worcester. Now that she is done with her studies, she says she would like to spend more time in Nepal running EDWON’s programmes hands-on, but she also recognises her need to be in the US. She is central to their fundraising efforts, much of which she does through public speaking and attending conferences. “I get invited by universities and organisations as a guest speaker and afterwards I tell them how they can help in our efforts,” she explains.

Much of public speaking involves telling her story. One of nine children, eight girls and one boy of a damai household, traditionally under Hindu caste system of hierarchy a low-caste in-charge of sewing and repairing clothing for upper-caste families (bistaseune) and performing damai-baja, music at ceremonies, odds were against her early on. Fortunately, she says her father was a progressive man. And the fact that he had spent some time in India as migrant worker and had learnt to read and write helped them in their footing with the villagers. Their settlement was right in the crust of a Magar village, where the majority of men were laures and away from home. Bishnu’s dad would help the families write and read letters to and from these men, and thus compared to other dalits her family members were treated well. Still, she wasn’t completely excluded from ‘heckles’ either. She knew from a young age of her low-caste status. At home, money was never aplenty. She remembers how there was not always rice in the house and how her dad used to somehow ensure there was at least some for her before she left for school. He believed in education and sent all his children to school. But early on, Bishnu says her dad recognised her added enthusiasm. She always stood first in her class. In their one room house, she would go to bed early and wake up once everyone was asleep so she could study in the quiet of the night. In the morning she would wake up earlier than needed to go fetch fodder for buffaloes so she could take time afterwards in quiet of the jungle to study till it was time for the morning meal.

Back then the village school had classes only up to grade seven, which meant she had to walk two hours to the nearest high school if she wanted to continue with her education. Fortunately, tuition was not a problem. As the ‘first girl’ in her class, she won a scholarship to continue her education. But a different village meant she no longer had the immunity to discrimination that her father’s standing in their village had granted her. “To and from, I had to make a total of four hours of journey, imagine how thirsty I would get. But rather than bear the humiliation of seeing others purify taps or jugs after I drank from them, I would wait till I get home,” she recalls. Her accounts as such are plenty. From not being allowed to enter into someone’s house to being called “After all you are a damai…” she says these experiences only made her more resolute in fighting against this discrimination. “I was humiliated, shamed, enraged. But I knew I should not let them get to me. I could have stopped going to school like everyone did, but I knew then that they would win. I never let my rage take over. I think in the end that proved to be my strength, the key to my success today,” she explains.

Bishnu went on to be the first girl from her village of any caste to graduate from high school. Then with the help from a Peace Corp volunteer and a scholarship from Himalaya Foundation she came to Kathmandu for college. After college, she landed a job in an NGO, Centre for Self-help Development. Part of her duties included travelling to remote areas of the country to form women’s groups and implement their microfinance and education programmes. She relished her new job, but soon she got frustrated when she realised that dalits and the poorest of the poor, people who were the neediest were not given loans because they lacked collateral. Thus she left the job and with US$150 help from a few American women she knew from the scholarship programme that had helped her through college, she went back to her village and started out on her own with ADWON.

That was 14 years ago and today the kind of transformation that Bishnu Maya talks of that has taken place in her village is truly awe-inspiring. “There are marriages happening between dalits and Magars now. Men and women of all castes work and eat together, side by side. Economically empowered the rate of domestic violence and gender violence are down too,” she reports.

Much of EDWON’s success, Bishnu Maya says, lies in its grass-root approach, of which she fervently advocates. “Caste is a very sensitive issue in our society deeply rooted in our belief systems. You cannot change that overnight, especially not by holding workshops and conferences in five-star hotels in Kathmandu, or going to villages for a day or two and preaching to villagers. You have to show them the positive effects that change in their belief systems can bring—through action. When we first started out, we had a lot of resistance too, but with the kind of change that they saw in their women, health, children’s education and the overall community, they stopped resisting,” she shares.

With Bishnu Maya Pariyar you feel she has her priorities straight. Thus the immense success, the international awards and accolades—The Bridge Builder Award from the Harvard University, Perdita Hudson Human Rights Award by United Nations Association of USA, Dr Ambedkar Award by Association of International Dalit Organisations, Margaret McNamara Memorial Award by World Bank Family Network, to name a few. She tells me of recently debating over and over again before buying a designer coat for herself. In Boston, besides EDWON, she holds two jobs, and works 64 hours a week in total—as a domestic violence advocate with Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence and as a social worker in a hospital. She tells me she feels guilty even while watching a movie, time she could better spend by doing something for the organisation.

I asked her what the secret to her success is, what thousands of girls that she is helping can learn from her. “Vision,” she says simply. “You need determination and you should be willing to work hard but above all you have to have a vision. I had that early on, definitely not on this scale, but early on I knew I wanted to do something for the community. 'Damaiko chhori… why are you in school, shouldn’t you be stitching clothes', they used to say, but I never reacted, I never gave up on my vision. Even today, if I really wanted to, I can lead a pretty comfortable life with what I earn and care less about others, but then that was never my goal,” she shares.

February, 2011

Text and photos» Sharmila Gurung


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