JUDIGAON, NEPAL — Subadhra Rai quietly explains the way it used to be for women and water in this small hillside village north of Kathmandu. "It took us three or four hours each day to bring water from a spring," she says as leader of the village women's group.
Using fees raised in the village and help from the international organization World Neighbors, the villagers decided to dig a water pipeline 3.75 miles long.
Months later, when the first safe water trickled through the village spout, it was the women who smiled the most. This was no mere time-saving device. It was a dramatic break from centuries of water-hauling drudgery.
Equally important, the women of Judigaon became part of a slowly growing current of empowerment that is changing the medieval lives of many Nepalese women.
In one of the world's poorest countries, most women are illiterate and live as subsistence farmers. "Women do 70 percent of the farm work in Nepal, as well as child-bearing, cooking, washing, getting water, and caring for the old," says Jeannette Gurung, a researcher for the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu. Villages like Judigaon, she says, "are models, where women can see other women doing something that is empowering."
Average annual family income in Nepal is around $220. The workday for village women in harvesting season can begin at 4 a.m. and end at 10 p.m. Studies indicate that most Nepal women work three hours longer than men do each day, and die younger. Still, most village families cannot grow enough food to feed themselves.
Behind this daily grind are two forces shaping a woman's life, one of which is decided at birth. Her caste or ethnic group usually determines her social and economic status, and the boundaries of her freedom. And the deep-rooted patriarchal structure determines that she will probably have an arranged marriage and join her husband's family without any property rights. If she is Hindu and following old traditions, she would be expected to wash her husband's feet at the end of the day.
While Nepal's 1990 constitution declares gender equality for the nation, men continue to rule Nepal life.
The degree of isolation many Nepal village women experience is mostly unknown in the Western world. In a 1997 USAID report, a village woman said, "The women in this village are blind - we do not know anything. We don't know what is needed to change our lives .... We are all so busy at home that we don't have time to think about our collective problems. A lot of the women in this community don't even know each other."
But the traditional rigidity in villages is now softening. Because poverty in the rural areas has increased over the last two decades, many men are leaving their families and migrating to urban areas for work. Agriculture and forestry in villages are often left in the hands of women, most of whom do not have the education or technical skills to meet the new demands. But many are rising to the challenge.
"With water in the village, women can have seasonal vegetable gardens, and water improves the livestock. [Regular baths] mean better health for everybody," says Tom Arens, South Asia representative for World Neighbors, a US-based development organization.
Over the last 15 years, World Neighbors has helped some 200 villages install water systems. One of the keys to success, says Mr. Arens, is involving women in creating and developing the village plans.
At first glance, Judigaon isn't that different from other Nepalese villages. It's a terraced, farming village of about 400 hundred relatively poor families several miles from a busy dirt road. There are naked or barely clothed children here, although none appear undernourished.
But a closer look reveals significant differences. A nearby health clinic reports that the infant mortality in the village was zero last year while the national average is around 75 per 1,000. Of the married couples in the village, 64 percent are involved in family planning, well above the national average.
"When we started the women's group five years ago," says Ms. Rai, through an interpreter, "it was difficult to get women to come because the husbands opposed it. But after the water line was built, the men formed a poverty alleviation group of their own. But they couldn't unite, and quit. The women's group is still going and most of the men are proud of what we are doing."
And the water is still flowing. "Just building the system is not enough," says Arens, "but also the village has to have the capacity to raise the money to maintain it."
Each house in Judigaon is charged a small monthly fee for water maintenance, and in fact the village raised some of the money to build the water line. Having built the project with their own hands, villagers have an interest in maintaining it.
The success of the water project strengthened the women's group which now has a bank account of $760 dollars as working capital for 24 members.
After a track record of responsibility was established, a local nongovernmental organization, Samaj Sewa Samuha (SSS), arranged through World Neighbors to establish a $125 credit and savings fund for the women.
The poorest members borrow money to buy goats. The loans are repaid with interest from selling goat products, and in turn generate more capital for the group.
"Rai has become so knowledgeable," says Arens, "that instead of sending a PhD to other villages, we send her because she knows so much." Arens also reports that in every case where a women's group is involved in agroforesty management, the workloads drop and production of fodder and grass increases.
In the village of Luwang, a long day's walk out of the big city of Pokhara, women have transformed their lives. "These are Gurkha women," says Ms. Gurung," and accustomed to having men gone for long periods of time as soldiers."
The women in Luwang, with only minimal help from outside sources, started plantations, built footpaths, established day-care centers, launched savings plans, introduced latrines and other improvements. "We took a group of women from another community to visit them," says Gurung, "and they could see how much can be done when women work together.
But Bharat Bista, president of SSS and ex-mayor of Mahadevstan, says successes in some villages are creating high expectations elsewhere. "The biggest problem is unemployment," he says. "People still come to me and ask me if I can get a job for their son or daughter. They don't want to learn how to type or gain experience; they want a computer right away."
One of the more ambitious programs in Nepal is a two-year joint effort by USAID, The Asia Foundation, and the Nepal government. Launched last year, the Women's Empowerment Program seeks to improve literacy, economic knowledge, and the understanding of legal rights.
Working with established women's groups, a spokesman for USAID says, "this project has the potential for a quiet revolution. If the project works for 100,000 women, it can be fine-tuned for 1 million women and for 10 million women."
Then and now
The women of the villages of Benigaon and Ranagaon say it was easier to obtain food three decades ago, but money was harder to come by. There is less sickness in the villages now but debts have soared from medical costs and a shift from homemade and home-grown products to manufactured goods.
Clothing - In 1955, families made their own clothes, and material was grown, never purchased. Families spent the evenings weaving cotton. Clothes were either white or black, with dye made from black mud. By 1995, new roads brought new fabrics with a variety of colors. Soap replaced wood ash.
Toothpaste, shampoo, and light - In 1955, coal and ash were used to brush teeth, and pina, a pine substance, was used as a shampoo. Oil was extracted from madeshi seeds and used with a cotton wick for light. By 1995, Gorkha army soldiers returning from abroad had introduced toothpaste and shampoo. They also introduced kerosene for lighting.
Food - In 1955 millet, maize, and rice were the only crops grown and were plentiful. There was no marketplace. People would collect different types of food from the forest and eat it with nettles. Ginger and chili were the only flavorings. By 1995, village markets offered a variety of foods. People now dislike collecting forest foods and want rice every day.
Source: 'The Elder Women Speak: How The Villages of Benigaon and Ranagaon Have Changed Between l960 and 1995,' a report by the International Centre of Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu.