UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Fall 2009
mission
incredible
power to
the people
moving at
warp speed
wide world
of deportes
under
pressure
a passion
for justice
power to the people
Empowerment for women in Nepal lies in education
by Ryan T. Blystone

PHOTO BY MARSHALL WILLIAMS

[life coach] Nepal is all about contrasts. Nestled along the greatest heights of the Himalaya, the country’s jagged, snow-covered peaks loom above the muggy verdant villages of the plains far below. The birth country of Buddha has been torn by conquest and consolidation, has sired both enlightenment and struggle, been home to democracy, uprising, insurgency, disillusionment and, against all odds, hope.

Like Mount Everest and Buddha himself, Nepal commands awe and respect, much like Sangita Nirola.

“I love my country, I’m a very patriotic person,” Nirola says. Her dark brown eyes never seem to blink when she speaks of her quest to empower Nepalese women. The freshly minted graduate of USD’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies master’s program views education as the key to unlocking her wildest dreams. And she’s not afraid to aspire to great heights as a political leader, setting her sights as high as becoming Nepal’s prime minister.

“You can have the dream, but you need the intermediary steps. Sangita can do it,” says Dee Aker, deputy director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice. “She’s got a much broader perspective, now (that she’s earned her master’s). Her heart has always been in the right place, and so have her skills, talents and intelligence.”

Nirola says it’s all about having the tools you need: “Education is the key to success. Without education you can’t do anything.”

She’s been one of the lucky ones; her father supported her education from a young age. She had early aspirations of being a doctor, but wound up focusing on geology instead. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in science from Nepal’s Tribhuvan University in 1985, she married and started a family. She focused on her two children for seven years, then felt a renewed determination to make a larger contribution. “I wanted to grow intellectually. I wanted to do purposeful work.”

Nirola taught science for a year, which helped her realize how much she enjoyed working with younger children. “The experience motivated me to start my own school,” she recalls. She ran a pre-primary school for five years. “It was very successful. I came up with different ideas. I treated the children as they are in the family and not like students. We gave them more care.”

When her husband was accepted into a graduate leadership program at Nebraska’s Bellevue University in 1996, she placed the school in the care of friends, and the family came to the United States. After returning to Nepal in 1998, she wound up working as an assistant manager for a five-star hotel property. Then she was passed over for a promotion.

“I was discriminated against,” she recalls. “I was supposed to get a promotion to manager, but the top-level management brought in another guy. I felt if a woman like me who is educated, born in the city and knows these facilities can face discrimination, what would be the situation for other women in my country?”

It struck such a chord with Nirola that she resigned the same day. She subsequently created a nonprofit organization, Swati, in 2002. Named for a goddess, it was dedicated to empowering all women of Nepal. Swati promotes women’s empowerment via advocacy, awareness and training, focusing on the underprivileged and dealing with issues stemming from a lack of economic independence, such as early marriage, domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Teaching useful skills that help these women gain access to a better life is key: Offering training on everything from driving cars to making handicrafts, improving public speaking skills to becoming a beautician, pragmatism is the order of the day. Swati provides loans and helps them market their products and build a network among women entrepreneurs. “In this way, Swati empowers women with knowledge and skill,” she says.

Aker has seen Nirola’s work firsthand. Nirola attended one of Aker’s peace-building workshops in Nepal a few years ago and brought two women who had been affected by conflict and had been on opposite sides in their country. “Sangita puts them in programs so they can learn skills. She’s making them independent, giving the victims a possible way out,” Aker says. “Their relationship became so profound that they really moved everyone at the workshop because they could both speak, not about the things that tore them or their families apart, but what was bringing them together.”

Swati’s success hasn’t held Nirola back from her own educational goals. She completed an online management program through London’s Open University, and thanks to financial assistance from a Mahatma Gandhi Fellowship and Jean Gilligan Scholarship — both of which assist graduate students entering the Kroc School of Peace Studies’ master’s program — she arrived at USD in August 2008. Nirola’s actual experience of running a nongovernmental organization brought her instant credibility to classroom discussions, and her friendly demeanor and caring nature made her a favorite among classmates.

“Sangita is a genuinely caring and loving person,” says Tanya Susoev, who was in the master’s program and works in USD’s Center for Awareness, Service and Action. “Throughout the year she made an honest effort to reach out to each of us, wanting to know more about who we were while sharing her life, family and culture.”

Education, as Nirola says, is key. But how can one measure its success? “A widowed mother of two came to me. We got her in the driver’s training program. I heard about an opening and we sent her to take a test. She passed it and got a very good job. She came back to me, crying, and she hugged me. ‘You have done so much for me. Now I can educate my children, I can bring them to Kathmandu, and have a good life.’ It’s an amazing feeling to be in a position to change someone’s life.”

But for women to take spots at the table in Nepalese politics, affirmative action is necessary. An interim constitution drawn up by an interim parliament in 2007 required females to represent at least 33 percent of a party’s candidates. Nirola — who explored the formation of a women’s political party, only to be told by government officials that she couldn’t do it without some male representation — has turned her attention to educating Nepal’s youth about the political process.

It was the 2008 U.S. presidential election that opened her eyes to the potential in her country. “I was really thrilled by Obama’s victory,” Nirola says. “I was watching it at the university and I cried. It was the victory of a real leader. It gives you the notion that you can really bring change. Youth need to be politically aware. We need to let them know their political rights and what’s happening in our country. We need an emerging, dynamic leader who works for the entire country. For that, we have to educate our youth.”

Nirola is more than ready to be the catalyst. Just stand back and give her room.

mission
incredible
power to
the people
moving at
warp speed
wide world
of deportes
under
pressure
a passion
for justice