19 Aug 2016
8 min read
1782 words
Lawyer and mediation expert Preeti Thapa’s mission has been to facilitate judicial practice at the community level

Thapa believes that if encouraged, women can do more than just ‘take care’ of things—that they can also ‘take charge’ of the nation-building process. 

Your career as a mediator expert sounds quite intriguing and unusual. Can you tell us what you do? 

I’m a mediation trainer at Asia Foundation, and currently I manage the programme in community mediation, which is spread across 21 districts in Nepal. Basically, mediation is a process of conflict resolution in which a mediator works as a facilitator to help the parties in dispute come up with a decision—and since it’s their own verdict and their own promise, it’s easy to implement. In a formal justice system, the decision is given by a third party, so the parties who have disputes do not have control over their problem. Mediation is a process through which they can understand each other better. It’s a joint process of problem-solving. 

Why did you want to become a lawyer? 

Growing up, I was a huge fan of Sidney Sheldon’s crime thrillers. His tales, where the lawyers are portrayed in almost heroic light, and who resolve problems in the most effective way, left a lasting impression on me. I guess, it was also because of my outgoing nature and my inquisitive mind, which almost always lead me to ask questions about why things are a certain way. 

That was more than 20 years ago. How was your decision to study law received in your circle? 

When I studied law it wasn’t considered a profession that was friendly to women. I remember my father was quite taken aback when I told him about my interest. In fact, he and my family members dismissed it as a teenager’s passing phase. I grew up with seven cousin sisters in a joint family, and everyone thought that I had lost my mind. But I’m quite headstrong by nature, so despite the resistance, I enrolled in a law college right after passing my SLC. 

How was your transition from school to law college? 

It was tough, but I loved every bit of it. I studied in an all-girls school, so the first challenge was to get accustomed to a co-ed environment. Political activism was at its peak in the 90s, and for me, coming from a cocooned environment of a boarding school, the government college seemed like a different world. Much credit goes to my father for believing in me. Had he not backed me despite all the familial pressure, I wouldn’t be in this position today. 

So after getting into this profession, do you think your family was justified in their fear—that law was not a woman-friendly domain? 

See, you cannot let go of your ambitions just because they do not align with your needs, or gender, in this case. I started practicing law when I was doing my graduate studies, and there weren’t that many women lawyers. The courtroom was essentially a male domain, and it was a challenge just to be heard. Plus, it is a very demanding profession, especially for a woman, as she has to deal with long working hours, late shifts, travel, and so on. And I’m not even talking about dealing with the patriarchal mindset. Initially, I had to endure a time curfew at home, but slowly, everyone sort of reluctantly accepted what I was doing. Having said that, I learned a lot from my senior male colleagues. It’s not just the people but also the system that needs to evolve and become more gender sensitive. 

Lack of professional support vs social acceptance. Which proved more challenging? 

I had to excel at my job, as many people didn’t believe that I could be a lawyer. The main challenge was to deal with the social pressure, the structure of the judiciary and the mentality of people regarding women in this profession. We tend to indulge in gender-based stereotyping, which can be devastating for women, because it can undermine women’s capacity to lead, and it poses serious challenges to women’s career advancement. 

What got you interested in mediation? 

When I was practicing law, there were times when I used to wonder whether a person really got justice despite his or her eventually winning the case because the judiciary system took many years to deliver the verdict, and the process was often very expensive. There were instances when people ended up spending millions of rupees on a small piece of land, and it took generations to get a decision on their case. When I was looking after civil cases, most of the people I encountered were in dire financial states. Many had trouble paying the court fees, and I used to find it uncomfortable asking for remuneration. So when I was introduced to community mediation, which aimed to tackle all these issues from the grassroots, it made a lot of sense to me. When we started it in 2001, the concept was very new for Nepal, but in the last 15 years, mediation as an alternative dispute-resolution mechanism has gained prominence. 

How has it helped Nepal’s formal justice system? 

It’s no secret that we have a very frail and inaccessible formal justice system. Furthermore, we don’t have adequate means of resolving local disputes, which is compounded by the fact that families don’t like to take their disputes to a public arena (court). Hence, a lot of people live with disputes their whole life. This is where mediation comes in handy, as it provides immediate, affordable, and locally accessible dispute-resolution services, filling the void in judicial assistance. Instead of their avoiding problems, we encourage people to come forth and resolve them. This not only builds relationships but also helps strengthen social harmony in the community, and if you can scale it up to the national level, it’s going to aid in the peace-building process. 

But isn’t there a danger of there being discrimination between male and female mediators, or when people from various castes and social strata are involved? 

When you have diversity in a mediation panel, there are bound to be different perspectives. It’s all about complementing each other’s strengths and at the same time comprehending the weaknesses. So, when someone brings out their biases—which they should not, because they are specially trained to be impartial, but if it does come out—the other mediators try to balance it. It’s all about check and balance between various opinions. 

What has been the major plus point of this approach? 

Definitely the involvement of women, both as beneficiaries and providers of mediation services. Over the past 15 years, we have trained over 7,000 community mediators, out of which 48 per cent are women. It was not easy, though. When we invited women to participate, they were not sure about coming on board, as traditionally, they had only seen males resolving disputes. I derive satisfaction when I see so many women in respected leadership positions in their communities. 

Mediation provides immediate, affordable and locally accessible dispute-resolution services, filling the void in judicial assistance

Do you think women are more included in peace efforts now? 

In the former peace process, the role of women was undermined, and that has caused a lot of problem in the implementation of the peace agreement. But if you look at the grassroots, you’ll see an increase in the number of women as peacemakers in communities, and over the years I have seen these mediators becoming trainers in their own districts. Today, these women are working as national-level trainers with international level of qualifications and quality when it comes to training people and mediating cases. We even have a couple of mediators as Constituent Assembly members. Of course, we are not claiming all the credit, but mediation was one of the contributing factors in their journey to the CA. 

The president of Trinidad and Tobago once invited you as a keynote speaker in a high-profile event. Tell us something about it. 

I was invited to give a keynote speech on social transformation on mediation by the president of Trinidad and Tobago. The island nation wants to promote Tobago as a peace hub for Caribbean nations, and they wanted to learn about our method. We had discussions about our regional dialogue forums and the mediation modality we used in Nepal, and we also shed light on contentious issues related to identity politics and constitution-making. We usually seek international experience and bring in international consultants to Nepal, but for a change, there I was teaching Westerners about problem-solving processes that we have perfected in Nepal. 

Nepal’s judiciary has three women at the forefront. What’s your take on that? 

It’s an exciting time for many female law professionals when you have two ladies as Supreme Court judges and one as the Chief Justice. These three have broken the glass ceiling in the judiciary, and they have sacrificed a lot to get there. I have two daughters, and every time I have to get my point across, I remind them of these ladies, including the president, and I tell them that virtually nothing is impossible in this world if you just put your mind to it, and that gender is no bar.