Participation for Inclusive Society

Many of the skills Saraswati needs for her role as a leader and voice of a marginalized segment of society she is getting from the PEER project. Saraswati understands that although she finds herself in a position of influence, without the technical skills and the confidence to be an effective leader, she risks letting down her community. “Expectations in my community are very high, especially in the Dalit community which community I represent in my ward', says Saraswati.


Don't underestimate the power of women

“Unless a child cries, a mother does not know it is time to feed her. Likewise, our federal system does not act unless we demand solutions to our problems,” says Saraswati Pariyar Nepali, an elected Dalit women representative in Butwal, Rupandehi in Nepal.

Along with more than 13,000 women across the nation, Saraswati was elected to the ward committee. “People need to raise their voices and ask questions of representatives like me, because people are the most powerful drivers of social development. Unless and until people bring their problems to us, we can't help them promote social development” she says.

The PEER project, supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in five districts in Province 5, aims to give voices to women and marginalized communities by providing training to newly-elected Dalit women representatives. Saraswati was one of 300 women getting training through the Center for Dalit Women Nepal, a national non-governmental organization that works towards eliminating gender and caste-based discrimination.

Saraswati recalled when she first heard about the Election Act of 2015 that set a mandate to elect at least one Dalit women in each ward. Saraswati had never really been involved in mainstream politics before, but she knew she wanted to run for the position of ward representative. It was really difficult for her to convince her family to allow her to take part in the election. But her husband, who has been working abroad for years, Saraswati in front of her home in Bhutwal.

supported her decision and encouraged her to run.

"I was practicing my speech in front of the mirror every night at my house,” Saraswati recalls. “I moved my hands a lot to get the attention of people, so I could make an impression on the audience. My daughter told me she was going to shoot a video of me while I was practicing because I looked like a dancer in front of the mirror,” she goes on. “That comment really made me smile, and I kept practicing my delivery,” Saraswati remembers.

But the changes her new role has thrust upon her haven’t always been easy.  As a Dalit ward member, Saraswati remembers those early days were quite challenging for her, having to balance the needs of her family with her new responsibilities to the community. Previously, Saraswati had had a reputation for being skilled seamstress, and she made her living sewing dresses for women. Women would often come to her house and give her fabric to make nice dresses for them. “But now, she says, “they also come to ask me about road construction, health issues and education.” 

It used to make her nervous when people came seeking her advice, but she has embraced her new role, handling all manner of community issues. “People have a lot of expectations of me. I listen to them and try to find solutions,” says Saraswati. “My life has been transformed since I was elected,” Saraswati says. “Suddenly I have a lot of responsibilities to the whole community. My family has accepted that reality.”

Many of the skills Saraswati needs for her role as a leader and voice of a marginalized segment of society she is getting from the PEER project. Saraswati understands that although she finds herself in a position of influence, without the technical skills and the confidence to be an effective leader, she risks letting down her community. “Expectations in my community are very high, especially in the Dalit community which community I represent in my ward', says Saraswati.

The Center for Dalit Women Nepal, through the PEER project is helping women like Saraswathi become informed and effective leaders in their community. “It was really difficult in the beginning,” she says. Without the necessary skills, she felt out of place in her new role, but she devoted herself to learning about her roles and responsibilities.  Now, along with 300 other recently-elected Dalit women representatives, Saraswati is attending a series of trainings that teach them the ins and outs of local governance, including planning and budgeting, persuasive speaking and how to write articles.

Already she feels more comfortable. She learned about budget planning and allocation through trainings provided by CDWN, a subject that was completely new to her. “All women should know about budgets and planning,” she adds.  “It’s a really good skill that all women should have.”

This new knowledge helps her set aside a budget for women-related programming every year. Although shy at first, she now actively participates in local planning and budgeting. Last year, for example, she managed to allocate a significant portion of the budget for education for Dalit women and an awareness program that highlights issues facing Dalits in the community. Saraswati is particularly proud of this last program. “It is so important to make more people aware of inclusiveness and development,” she says.

Saraswati has so far attended five rounds of training through Center for Dalit Women Nepal. She even went to a series of writing workshops where she has been learning about how to write articles and stories. She is particularly excited about creating her own stories and advocating for women’s and Dalit rights through her writings in the future.

At the same time, Saraswati realizes that she needs support. Speaking generally about women representatives, she raises the issue of how to deal with political struggles and problems within the ward. "There are times when representatives need to debate and compromise with other ward members,” she says, and she isn’t yet confident navigating political bias and other hurdles while dealing with other political leaders.

The new constitution and federal system is an important step in developing Nepal, but it is not enough. Real transformation will only happen when we bring the changes into the people's lives in a way that improves their day-to-day lives. As Saraswati says, women's representation in local government alone is not enough. Women need to be leaders, not only in wards and municipalities, but at all levels of government. They should aim to run the central government and the nation!