29 Jul 2016
8 min read
1741 words
Lily Thapa strives to empower stigmatised women, especially widows, who are considered unlucky and unwanted in our society

Life is the greatest and toughest teacher—tell us something about your journey.

Few events in life are as painful and as life altering as the death of your spouse. I was 29 when my husband, a medical doctor, was killed while serving in the military in the 1992 Gulf War. I was dependent on my husband and the thought of facing life’s challenges alone, with three small children, was scary. After being widowed, suddenly, so many restrictions were imposed upon me—from the types of food I could eat to the clothes and colours I could don.

You went through a tough phase, and you even contemplated suicide. From then to Women Human Rights, how did this change come about?

I went through the trauma of not just losing my husband but being discriminated against even though I was a highly educated middle class woman. I was not allowed to participate in any auspicious functions or wear bright-coloured clothes, especially red. In Kathmandu, especially in middle class families, people won’t say anything directly, but they will subtly subject you to discrimination. I found that really hurtful and started avoiding family functions altogether. This experience made me think of those who had less than me—those with no education, skills or assets. That’s how the Sunday Forum started.

Tell us about how Women for Human Rights started.

As a way of healing, I started meeting other widows and sharing my experiences with them. Back then, it was quite difficult for widows to be treated ‘normally’ in society. I started an open forum—Bedana Bisauney Thalo—at my school every Sunday. Initially, I had no intentions of starting an NGO—it was just a place where we could share our griefs and console each other. For most of the women, just knowing they were not alone provided a great sense of comfort. I would say that the forum helped transform sorrow into strength. It also opened my eyes to the real plights of widows in our society.

When did you decide to officially begin Women for Human Rights?

I started reaching out to more women and the weekly forum became a daily event. As chance would have it, while visiting my sons at St Xavier’s, Godavari, I heard of Laxmi, a 22-year-old widow who was having a tough time. I met her secretly after her mother-in-law denied my request to meet her. After that, my mission was to get her into Namuna School and help her acquire livelihood skills. Today, Laxmi runs a successful tailoring business and provides jobs to almost 12 people. Watching her and her family’s transformation, especially her mother-in-law’s, made me realise that the only way to help these women was through education. That was the point when I finally decided to start the NGO. In 1994, we formally established an organisation for the rights of the widows, Women for Human Rights (WHR).

What differences do you see in the plight of widows and women in general?

Vast differences! In terms of social status, economic stability and cultural hardships, widows have to face so many hurdles. The society we live in is still governed by patriarchal rules, so women in general have it hard, but the discrimination a widow has to face is greater. When you go out of the city, widows are called names and are subjected to hostility and treated as free housemaids by their in-laws. Just imagine a scenario where a widow has to carry potey and bangles in her bag to do labour work. If you can project the image that you are married, then people will treat you with respect. It was due to this very attitude towards widows that we adopted the name ‘single women’. They would be called names like husband-eater and weren’t allowed to claim their husband’s property until they were 35 years old; the provision was imposed to curb remarriage among young widows. Also, it is mentioned in the law that a widow can remarry but has to forfeit her husband’s property. We fought hard for this in the Supreme Court and the provision was eventually rectified.

Rato Abhiyan—how did that come about?

When we are born, our mothers put red tika on our forehead, and it’s a colour we are entitled to from birth regardless of our gender. The Rato Rang Abhiyan was a campaign that called for taking back colour as our birthright. We insisted on wearing colours because widows are obligated to wear only white. Nowhere in Hinduism or any religion is it stated that widows have to wear white. In India, when Sati was abolished, religious leaders took it upon themselves to change aspects of religious scriptures so that they could have control over the widows. Revolting against religious and cultural practices was unthinkable then, so the widows silently endured years of abuse.  

Why did you reach out to religious leaders?

Involvement of political and religious leaders will increase public awareness about any issue. Community norms and values can change through the support of leading figures. When we initiated Rato Rang Abhiyan, religious leaders’ attitudes towards our movement varied from full acceptance to clear refusal. We have provided counseling and advocacy, and over the years, awareness has been growing. We do realise it’s a long battle as many of their objections to widows are rooted in religious doctrine.

Which is tougher and more important—convincing the religious leaders or families?

The biggest challenge still is to convince family members. Besides the stigma, a lot of us are threatened with physical violence, rape and financial disownment during disputes with in-laws over property. To tackle that, we started the Sasu-Buhari campaign, where we approached and convinced mothers-in-law. Our mission was never to alienate a widow from her in-laws but to educate the whole family. At least 86 per cent of widows in Nepal are still illiterate so our work is not yet done. But I must say that all the ladies who took part in our campaign are now leaders in their villages and VDCs. Despite many challenges, we have succeeded in promoting the rights of widows through advocacy from the grassroots up to the policy level.

Women coming to each other’s aid: is that the strength of WHR?

Yes, unity is very important. It is also very important to form a community to bring about changes. Men have also been very helpful in our campaigns. You cannot tackle women’s issues by only mobilising women; you need to involve men in the equation.

After 20 years of struggle, what are you biggest achievements?

Today, we are present in 2,550 VDCs. We have more than 100,000 members and have been able to work effectively, especially with families. Some changes have come about in discriminatory laws as a result of strong advocacy and lobbying from the widows’ groups in the districts, mostly through the Eleventh Amendment to the country code of Nepal, which establishes widows’ rights to property. The government has also included the widowhood agenda in the National Action Plan and has established emergency funds for widows. We have low numbers of widows in policymaking and leadership positions, and this can be changed through education. So we created Opportunity Fund, which provides education opportunities to single women and their kids. Single women entrepreneur groups also help the women set up their own ventures, and we have taken government-discarded land and opened Chhaharis, where women provide catering services.

What else have you been upto?

We have a network called Sankalpa, where we are tackling various issues that plague women in general. Apart from advocating for rights for widows, for the last five years we have been actively involved in tackling other women-related issues—increasing participation in politics and including women’s issues in the evolving federal structure of Nepal.

For someone who’s turned her life around, what advice do you have for the youth?

Many of the problems we faced 20 years back don’t exist for today’s youth. They have so many opportunities;however, they are also full of excuses. You should not forget your social responsibilities. I completed my masters, postgraduate, took care of my family, continued teaching and also kept myself busy with WHR after being