23 Jun 2017
7 min read
Abandoned by her husband, abused by her in-laws, and forgotten by her own family, Sharmila Thapa could have easily given up on life. But she chose to fight back for the sake of her son, and for the sake of countless other women who were facing domestic violence. She found her catharsis in helping women in situations similar to hers, and founded Samida Women Development Forum (SWDF), through which to conduct her work.
Recipient of the prestigious N-peace award by UNDP, Thapa has risen like the proverbial phoenix, encouraging women to speak up about domestic violence while providing a support system for women through her organisation.
The mother of a biological son and an adopted daughter, the founder and president of SWDF talks with Alok Thapa of VMAG about what it takes to leave an abusive relationship and about her mission to bring dignity to Nepal’s single mothers.
Tell us about the young Sharmila.
I come from a middle-class family from Kathmandu. I’m the youngest of seven siblings and was very pampered. Like any other teenager, I experienced “love” for the first time during my high-school days and eloped with my partner. After my family tracked me down, I was married off at 16. My in-laws, however, didn’t accept me, and thus started a series of domestic violence issues in the form of verbal abuse and threatening phone calls. After I gave birth to my son, I was finally accepted as family. But things only got worse from there on because I had to be part of a very difficult marriage.
My mother-in-law gifted me gold and fancy clothes, among many other things. From the outside, it seemed that I was a privileged daughter-in-law, but behind closed doors, I was living a nightmare.
How did you decide to end your marriage?
The only reason I stayed married to my husband was for my son. I was worried about his future. Plus, in long-term relationships, women tend to lose their identity over time—this I say from experience. I had lost the support of my friends and even my family. Along with the emotional abuse, my in-laws isolated me from the community completely, making it extremely difficult for me to seek any help or talk to anyone. And then, there was the shame factor, which made it very tough for me to open up to anyone. It was when my husband abandoned me for 10 months, during which time I was kicked out of his home and restricted from seeing my own son, that I decided to end my marriage.
Were you prepared for the challenges you would face as a single mother?
I was not prepared for anything when I ended my marriage. All I knew was that I had to get out of it. After the divorce settlement, I opened a beauty parlour with the money I received. I put my son in a boarding school and worked to provide him with the best education I could afford. But it wasn’t easy. As a single mother, I was constantly hounded by society; for instance, I would be asked repeatedly for a father’s identity for my son’s school admissions and citizenships. I even lied to my landlord that my husband was working abroad. But I was adamant about making things work.
What was the lowest point in your life?
A friend who was supposed to help me go to Japan betrayed my trust, and I ended up losing my only source of income—my beauty parlour. I had to survive on biscuits and water because I did not have enough money for a hot meal. My landlord would verbally abuse me for rent, and my son’s school wasn’t ready to listen to my story. That was the lowest phase of my life, and I even contemplated committing suicide. None of my family members or my friends came to help me. The only person who lent me money, and was a companion in such tough times, was my housemaid; had it not been for her encouraging words, I would have given up. I started looking for a job, any job that would help me stand on my own two feet. And that’s when I stumbled upon managerial work at a nightclub.
Were you not hesitant about taking a job at a nightclub?
After I lost everything, and found myself cornered and alone, the only thing that mattered to me was survival. I just needed enough to cover two meals a day, money for my son’s education and rent. I couldn’t care less about what society thought of my job and accepted it immediately.
From a nightclub to starting an organisation, how did that happen?
To cut a long story short, I had a falling out at the nightclub, and I quit after two months. With the little money I had saved up, I started making pickles at home. I also started giving door-to-door beauty treatments to my clients, and I was soon able to support myself. It was challenging, but I was independent. In my free time, I started attending rallies and workshops on various issues concerning women in our society. Upon discovering that there were not many organisations that supported single mothers, I decided to take matters into my own hands and opened this organisation (SWDF). I served as a volunteer for a decade in various women-related programmes before establishing SWDF in 2011.
Tell us about your work at SWDF.
Over the last 20 years, the state has passed several major laws and made a number of international commitments to addressing gender discrimination. However, poverty, lack of education and health services, child marriage and violence against women continue to undermine the struggle for gender equality across the country. At SWDF, we are dedicated to helping single women become economically, politically, socially and culturally empowered. We regularly carry out counselling and advocacy campaigns for the rights of single mothers. We also arrange scholarships for children; we have been able to educate 86 children, who have single mothers, so far. Another campaign that’s close to my heart is the ‘Right To Citizenship Through Mothers’ campaign that we have been working on.
How did your work come to the limelight?
The 2015 earthquake was a trying time for all of us, and it was encouraging to see everyone come together to help one another. The members of SWDF, comprising single mothers, started out by distributing food, eventually helping with rebuilding and clearing out debris. I think we caught people’s attention because of the fact that we were a bunch of single mothers who were undeterred by a difficult situation, and because we did not confine ourselves to the strict stereotypical ideologies of what a woman should or should not do.
What’s your message to men?
I’m raising a son, who is 15 now and well aware of my plight: I’m raising him to respect women. Domestic violence cannot stop if men don’t talk about it amongst each other and are brave enough to stand up when women are being demeaned. It’s the culture that needs to change. For this to happen, we need to stop discriminating children on the basis of their gender. This thinking needs to change.
What motivates you?
I was a victim of domestic violence, but today I stand strong as a survivor and a leader. Yet, I face discrimination. And this discrimination is what keeps me motivated. I find motivation in proving the naysayers wrong. And SWDF, as a platform, helps single mothers do just that by gaining their self-esteem back and fighting against injustice. The women who reach out to me after hearing my story and join hands with me to fight against domestic violence and other injustices also motivate me.
What’s in store for the future of SWDF?
We constantly read about cases of domestic violence and deaths in the valley, but we do not know much about what’s happening in the communities outside the capital. If violence is so prevalent in the capital, amongst the educated elites, imagine how ugly it must be in the rural areas. Our plan for SWDF is to expand into rural Nepal. We currently have around 280 members in Kathmandu and Pokhara, and we have just started our work in Lamjung. We are also looking to go beyond pickle-making and handicrafts, and step into the tourism industry as trekking guides. There aren’t that many women involved in this line, and it can open up great opportunities for single mothers.