What one radio show and one strong woman can do? Read the story of Ramkali, challenging social norms in rural Nepal

What one radio show and one strong woman can do? Story of Ramkali, challenging social norms in rural Nepal
Ramkali’s husband began appreciating her ability to help support their family, and her community saw how she was creating a fairer society for women and building the confidence of other women to join her

A voice comes through the radio. It is Ramkali Mahato’s favourite show. She turns up the volume to hear local women talking with elected officials about empowerment issues and traditional social norms. Inspired by the show, Ramkali now strives to do the same in her daily life, speaking up against discrimination in her community and ensuring a better future for her own children.

36-year-old Ramkali had only completed the seventh grade when, at 12 years old, she was married. In her area of southeastern Nepal, child marriage is still practiced despite being illegal. At just 14 years old, she gave birth to her son, swiftly followed by another son and a daughter. As part of the Madheshi community, a socially and economically marginalised community in Nepal, many women from her area face structural barriers including discriminatory policies, legislation and social norms, like child marriage, which hinder their access to education, jobs and opportunities. They carry a disproportionate share of unpaid domestic work and are often excluded from participation and leadership in public life.

Challenging social norms

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Ramkali began listening to ‘Sambal’, a radio show broadcast by the Joint Programme on Rural Women’s Economic Empowerment (JP RWEE). The programme was implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), UN Women and the World Food Programme (WFP) and supported by the governments of Norway and Sweden. It aims to tackle the deep-rooted causes of gender inequality and boost rural women’s economic empowerment, which includes facilitating access to opportunities, resources and services, including land, credit and technologies. JP RWEE works with national and local governments, communities and households to tackle unequal power dynamics and discriminatory social norms in order to achieve lasting change.

On the live radio programme, locally elected leaders address the women’s queries and concerns on topics like gender equality, financial knowledge and harmful social norms that underpin violence against women and girls. The show also highlights individual and community actions that can be taken to combat the issue.

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“I loved the radio programme so much that I used to go around to my neighbours’ houses every week and turn on the radio myself if they had forgotten to listen to it,” Ramkali says, laughing.

By listening to Sambal, Ramkali realised how difficult it was for women in her traditional rural community to create a life outside the home, and she set out to challenge these norms. In her area, farming groups and local councils are predominantly led by men with women given little space to participate in decision-making. But with help from the JP RWEE, Ramkali took leadership of the Laxmi Rural Women Farmers Group and encouraged other women in her area to do more outside their homes.

“Our voices are often suppressed by the men in my village. But Sambal has given us the strength, courage and a platform to have our voices heard,” she says.

Put to the test

Her newfound leadership was immediately put to the test by the Covid-19 lockdown, during which, Ramkali says, there were many cases of domestic violence in her community. She used her position of leadership to speak out against these practices, something that in Nepal’s traditional society is already a big step forward.

“Our access to local authorities was limited due to the restrictions caused by the lockdown. Taking inspiration from the radio show, I along with other women from my group raised our voices against violence. I even got a chance to speak about these issues directly with the leaders in my community and to encourage them to take serious steps to tackle the issues.”

A leader in the community

The JP RWEE has helped Ramkali not just to find her voice but earn an income too. Before joining the programme, Ramkali’s family practiced traditional farming and managed to grow just enough to feed themselves. However, after training and inputs from the JP RWEE, she has become skilled enough at vegetable farming to rent a larger piece of land and start commercial farming. In the five years since the programme began, her annual income has risen by over 2000 per cent.

This allowed Ramkali the financial freedom to maintain her house and even pushed her to make sure her daughter had the same access to education as her sons during Covid-19. During the lockdown, sons were given preference to attend online classes whereas daughters were supporting their mothers in the household chores. This seemed wrong to Ramkali, and after she spoke out, girls were encouraged to attend online classes too.

“I struggled a lot in my life as I was married when I was a child and did not have an opportunity to continue my education,” Ramkali says. “I do not want my daughter, or others in our community, to face the same challenge.”

For Ramkali, the JP RWEE programme empowered her to make her own choices. “It changed my life by giving me an opportunity. It has changed my relationship both at home and in my community, as my voice is heard these days. I am now confident that I can live my life without being dependent on my husband or any other family members.”

Though challenged by her community and even her husband at the beginning, gradually, they saw how hard she worked and the difference she was making. Her husband began appreciating her ability to help support their family, and her community saw how Ramkali was creating a fairer society for women and building the confidence of other women to join her. Sometimes, it takes just one strong woman to make big changes to society.

(This story is part of the FAO feature. All information provided by FAO. Agriculture Post doesn’t assume any responsibility for the same.)

In Photo: Ramkali. Photo Credit: FAO

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