Nankala Magar’s journey from a young widow and former Maoist combatant to a rural municipality’s Vice-Chairperson has been long and difficult.

Nankala is thirty-seven years old and from Sunchahari Village in Rolpa. She lives with her mother-in-law and son. In her family home, Nankala grew up together with five siblings, two sisters and three brothers. The family were poor, and none of her brothers and sisters were able to attend school. There was often not enough food for the family or warm clothes for the children.

By the age of 16 Nankala had enlisted in the People’s War with the People’s Liberation Army.

“I was only 16 – I was too young and ignorant to understand about politics and the revolution that was going on,” Nakala recalls. “I joined the PLA not by my choice but because I could not stay at my home during those times.”

During her stay in the camps Nakala noticed that most of the people she met knew how to read and write. But Nakala had never been to school and knew neither. She worked very hard to improve her literacy, teaching herself to read and write. During the war she also found love and at the age of 18, married inside the rebel camp.

“Even after the marriage, we did not get to sit together,” Nankala says. “We only would meet sometimes, and I accepted my fate as a combatant.”

New beginnings?

A year later a son was born to Nakala and her husband.

“We had exchanged our vows, accepting the fact that our life was uncertain,” Nankala remembers.  “We promised whoever among us survived would raise our child.”

Less than a year after the birth of her son, Nankala’s husband died in the war. The sky, Nankala says, fell down on her. Still, she courageously raised her only child, honouring the vow she had made to her husband.

She couldn’t, however, foresee the discrimination she was to face at the hands of her own family.

“My in-laws cursed me, they looked at me with disgust and I was treated as an untouchable,” Nankala says.  “They thought I was responsible for the death of their only son, so I didn’t get any help from them. I was asked to stay away from home. I took shelter in the cowshed. There was no light or food in the barn. There were no clothes to wear. I spent many days and nights in the forest, crying with frustration. Negative thoughts held me back, but for the sake of my son I tried my very best to make ends meet. Even though I was scolded, I still cared for my in-laws and looked after them. I took them to the health post whenever they felt ill.”

It was only when her son was studying in grade seven that they were invited to live inside the home. As time went by slowly things started changing. Nankala had waited patiently for years for the moment when her in-laws would accept her. She bore all kinds of pain in her heart yet never left their side through thick and thin.

Then, in 2017, there was a local election. Nankala was asked to contest the position of ward member. She agreed, but her mother-in-law was not happy about her decision. She made her feelings known and again blamed Nankala for the death of their son. However, this time Nankala’s father in-law spoke up to support her.

Nankala went on to win the election as a ward member but soon things started to unravel. She felt that she had a position but no voice.

“I was part of the local structure but could not meaningfully participate. I didn’t know much,” Nankala says. “I didn’t know how to speak well, so speaking on the issues was difficult. Even when I had the courage to speak out sometimes, they would silence me. I often wondered how I would learn all this, how I could empower myself and how I was supposed to bring change.”

The power to speak

In 2018, INF Nepal implemented the EDUCATE project in Sunchahari RM Rolpa. The project created groups of single women, families of people with disabilities, low-income families and disadvantaged groups in order to help empower them within the community. Nankala became a member of one of the self-help groups, taking active part in the life of the group.

In her own words:

 “We were facilitated to identify our own problems and find solutions by ourselves. We discussed various issues such as sanitation, waste management, gender-based violence and were also provided training in livelihood related activities. In the meeting itself, every member had to take turns as Chair. It was a struggle at the beginning but eventually all the members started to speak out, to lead. We were learning the art of speaking and voicing our issues.”

Nankala took advantage of the unique opportunity through the project’s regular SHG meetings and training, interacting with group members and communities, to develop her leadership skills and take part in discussion of issues that could improve her social presence.

“There was no discrimination. Everyone treated me with respect,” Nankala remembers. “During group activities they encouraged me to speak up and give presentations. For the first time in my life, I felt valued and heard.”

Nankala was also selected as a gender focal person in herself Help Group. She took the lead in identifying and monitoring women’s issues and cases of domestic violence against women in her group. As a part of livelihood support, Nankala also received training and was provided with NPR 20,000 from the project for poultry farming.

Nankala’s quest for empowerment started with the training provided by INF Nepal, on Sexual and Gender Based Violence, which imprinted upon her the valuable lesson that ‘empowerment begins with oneself.’ She had a strong desire not only to strengthen herself but to be the voice of many other women like her.

A long journey

Reflecting back on the abuse and social stigma that she had to face, Nankala says “My journey has been lonely and full of struggle, but things have now changed for me. I realized that to keep quiet was not an option. We need to exercise our voice and share our thoughts to demand positive change, I want to stand for all those women like me through my involvement in groups and as a representative of the ward.”

The training and exposure not only built Nankala’s confidence but encouraged her to make a positive change. Just as Nankala’s tenure as a ward member was about to end, she had a deep sense that she still had much more to do, and that this was just the beginning.

Nankala made a proposal to her party to be nominated for the post of Vice-Chairperson of Sunchahari Rural Municipality in the local election of 2022. In the beginning, it was a struggle for her as no one believed her, but she did not give up.

 ” I did not hesitate to put forward my proposal.” Nankala says.  “The more they said I couldn’t, the stronger I became.”

Nankala contested for the position of Vice-Chairperson, and she won! She is now the newly elected Vice-Chairperson of Sunchahari RM. In this role, she will be leading the local Judicial Committee. This is an important and challenging role which seeks to ensure that justice is home-delivered. The committee has the right to settle disputes through mediation.

Nankala now lives with her mother-in-law and 18-year-old son, who is studying in 12th grade.

“The support provided by INF Nepal for my capacity building has been immense and invaluable to me,” the new leader says with a smile.

“I am always grateful to INF Nepal and Bachapo Self-Help Group for bringing positive change in my life. The seed of women’s leadership has been planted in me, and I will ensure our voices are heard at all levels and that people like me are treated with respect and dignity.”

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