Leading change

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Published:
04 May 2017
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"When I raised the issue of human trafficking in Nepal in 1987, everyone thought that I had lost it"

If the term 'resilience' refers to a person's capacity to handle difficulties, demands and pressures without experiencing negative effects, then Durga Ghimire is the living embodiment of it. The social worker and renowned human rights activist has experienced remarkable turns of events in her life, only to emerge as a stronger person.

She was active in the political movement for the restoration of democracy in Nepal since her college days. She was imprisoned thrice during the movement, spending a total of 13 months in prison. She was the first woman to raise the issue of human trafficking in Nepal in 1987.

In this interview with VMAG's Alok Thapa, Ghimire shares with us the importance of capitalising on our strengths, finding the positive among the negatives to deal with any issue life may throw at you, and also reminds us to speak up against injustice.

What was your upbringing like?
I grew up in an agricultural family in Biratnagar. My father was a simple man, and my mother, despite being an uneducated housewife, was very ambitious regarding her children's education. She made sure that all seven of her children got proper schooling. I must say, having a nurturing and supportive family makes all the difference. Even my interest in social work stems from my parents' beliefs.

Why did you get into politics?
During the 70s, the political momentum was gaining steam, and as a youth, I felt that it was my duty to speak up against the tyranny of the government. In those days, speaking up against the government was punishable by the law; I was imprisoned thrice and ended up spending 13 months in prison for my political involvements. I remember many people saying that I was never going to get married because I had a prison record, but I did not let their words get to me. I was fighting for the restoration of democracy and what can be more serious, and at the same time exciting, than that?

Did your family support you when you got into politics?
My family was obviously worried about my safety, but deep inside, even they knew the magnitude of the situation-the winds of change were blowing across the country. I remember my mother getting very heartbroken when I was jailed, not because I had gotten myself into that situation, but because the state thought it more appropriate to jail students rather than the real culprits in society. After I was done with college, I did try to settle down, but I couldn't secure a job because I was blacklisted for revolting against the state. So I left home without telling my parents and came to Kathmandu to pursue a degree in law. It was during that time that I met my other half, Jagadish Ghimire, the man who inspired me to be what I am today.

Why did you leave politics and embrace social work?
When I met Jagadish ji, I had told him straight up that I had a prison record and that I was already married to politics. However, that didn't stop him from asking for my hand in marriage. I think my parents were ecstatic that their prodigal daughter was indeed getting hitched. After we got married, a lot of things changed, and there were a lot of compromises that we had to make as a couple. Compromising in a relationship is difficult, but not impossible; a marriage is never one-sided. So I decided to give up politics and focus on my other passions such as writing and social work. My husband also urged me to choose social work.

Do you ever regret that you left politics?
I love doing social work. At this stage in my life, I can say that no amount of money or power can beat the amount of satisfaction I get from doing social work. However, the politician in me is not dead just yet. I still keep tabs on what's happening in the political sphere. Now that you mentioned it, I did sense a bit of remorse in my husband during his final days. He used to tell me to get more active in politics. I feel like I had become a more caring and aware citizen after my involvement in social work. Isn't that more important than just going around giving big speeches?

How did the inspiration for ABC Nepal come about?
We all have those moments that go on to forever change the course of our lives. Such events in our life mould our thinking, beliefs and overall attitude. For me, that happened in 1979 when I met a woman who had been rescued from a brothel in Bombay. She had been sold by her father for Rs 10,000. She pleaded with us, saying that instead of sending her home, she would be happier if we gave her a means to earn a living; that incident always stayed with me. My husband later got a chance to work in the UK, so we all lived there for a couple of years.

Wasn't that the time when you also got to work for BBC Nepali Service?
Yes, BBC Nepali Service was an enriching experience. I learned a lot about myself as a professional and got better acquainted with my strengths and weaknesses, and I also tried to come up with ways to improve myself. However, in the back of my mind, I always knew that I wanted to go back home. After we returned from the UK, I had a chance encounter in Thankot with two girls who had been intercepted by the police as they were being taken to India. That was like a reminder of what I had experienced a couple of years back, and I said to myself: this is it. I want to do something for these women. Later, with my friends Prativa Subedi and Mira Aryal, we started Agroforestry, Basic health and Cooperative Nepal (ABC Nepal). We didn't have much money, so we all pitched in Rs 1,000 each and started the initiative.

How was the response to ABC Nepal?    
When I raised the issue of human trafficking in Nepal in 1987, everyone thought that I had lost it. Many people didn't take me seriously, and most of them thought that I would give up midway. Today, ABC Nepal has rescued and rehabilitated countless trafficked women and children, and has successfully organised the national convention related to trafficking. But I must say that my work also kept me afloat when I was going through a lot of personal ups and downs. I felt crippled when my husband passed away. It was a kick in the teeth, but my work sure did help me hold up.

What does the National Network Against Trafficking (NNAGT) do?
In 1990, when I founded NNAGT for women and children, it was just ABC Nepal that was involved in rescue and rehabilitation of trafficked women. The Network finally got registered in 1997. NNAGT is a coalition of grassroot-level community-based organisations and national-level non-governmental organisations working to combat girl-trafficking and violence against women. The network is actively involved in these issues, both in the regional and international arenas, and has more than a hundred organisations within its network.

What do you believe are the root causes of human trafficking?
I'd say it's poverty and women's lack of opportunity to get educated and earn a living. On the other hand, it is also the unwillingness of our society to help these struggling families that leads to women and children falling into the hands of oppressors. And these realities have informed our agenda at ABC Nepal. We need to improve living conditions and stress the importance of education so that young people are not lured into a false sense of employment.

Do you think education alone is enough to end all these problems?
Education is definitely a preventive tool as well as a rehabilitative one, but it cannot work alone. The government should enact practical laws and enforce them with urgency and professionalism to ensure that women and children are protected against all forms of discrimination, violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect.

Apart from a being a social worker, you're also known as a writer. How did you get into writing?
Writing allows me to express my emotions. It is a very cathartic process for me. I wrote my book, Staying Alive: Memories of Women Prison, in 1994. It was highly appreciated by readers and critics alike, and that really encouraged me to write more. My recent work includes Unko Samjhana, a book dedicated to my late husband, and Premko Bagaicha, a collection of poems. I have been writing on issues related to women since 1974, and I still contribute to various national dailies.

What motivates you?
When I see transformations in women and children, that fuels my determination to do more. These inspiring women overcame personal obstacles, transformed their lives and stand today as true role models for society. We are just a catalyst to this process, and it humbles me every time to be a part of this cause.