By Binod Bhattarai TANAHU, NEPAL, May 12 (IPS) -- Kalpana Basyal is a Nepali government employee with a difference. She rarely works out of her office or handles any paperwork.
Instead, she pays regular visits to village women in this rural district helping them to find ways to tackle their day-to-day problems, mainly those that stem from poverty and sometimes, from the male species.
"The men from some communities here rarely work. They gamble throughout the day or just do nothing," says Basyal. "What they leave undone adds to the work the women have to do. I want to try and change that."
Basyal is the chief of Tanahu district's Women Development Section (WDS). A typical workday for her involves trekking to far-flung villages, holding meetings with women's groups and assisting them to conceive and set up small scale self-help projects.
"More than instant material gains, we try to help them rediscover their self confidence," says Basyal.
Women comprise at least 50 percent of this Himalayan kingdom's 19.5 million people. But in a society with strong patriarchal traditions, they do not inherit parental property, own assets or have a say in household decisions.
More than 75 percent of Nepali women are illiterate. According to a U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) report, the status of Nepali women is further devalued by discriminatory cultural values and practices and a tradition where scarce resources are invested preferentially in sons.
Studies show that Nepali women spend 25 percent more time than men on subsistence activities and domestic work. More than 16 percent of their daily labor involves fetching fuel and fodder, a world bank report says.
A large part of their other activities are comprised of gathering scarce water and helping in agricultural work.
The WDS initiated a "Production Credit for Rural Women' (PCRW) program in 1982 to enable the village women to become self-reliant. The program now covers 64 of Nepal's 75 districts.
It is modelled on Bangladesh's famous Grameen Bank that provides easy credit to the rural poor. The PCRW advocates a collective approach to problem solving, one in which women are encouraged to decide what they want to do with their lives.
They work in small groups. "As a group they develop the self- confidence to tackle both their individual problems as well as those faced by the communities in which they live," says Basyal. The women are provided collateral-free loans on group guarantees
. PCRW workers comb the villages, identify the poor women who earn less than 80 dollars annually and link them to the government supported rural credit and community development programs.
The genuinely poor, especially women lack the skills, confidence and resources to approach the formal banking sector.
"We help to match their energies with the resources available in the banking sector," says Basyal. "The rural women are capable of doing anything. All they need is a little encouragement," she adds.
Proving her right is a group of 35 women from the Gunadi village who have taken a PCRW loan and pooled their resources to set up a nursery which has over 60,000 saplings for sale.
They consider the nursery to be a symbol of their collective pride in having crossed traditional barriers and done a piece of work usually reserved for their male counterparts.
"Our husbands stood by and laughed at us while we hauled poles to fence the nursery," says Jamuna Khanal, the secretary of the committee that manages the nursery. "They said we would not be able to erect the fence and would have to give up the project or seek their assistance," she adds.
The women managed to fix the fencing poles upright, but realized they had no rope to tie the fence. Finally, Jamuna saved the day. She extracted fibre from green bamboo stalks to bind the poles. "I had never done that before. I had seen my father do it and tried it out. It worked," says Jamuna.
The Gunadi women also collected and hauled boulders from a nearby river bank to build a restraining wall.
"These are things we would never do at home," says Jamuna. However, a disgruntled villager who claimed the boulders as his own, invaded the nursery one night and snipped off the saplings.
The determined women lodged a complaint with the district administration and got him arrested. The dispute is still pending a final verdict, but the women are satisfied that they have got a form of what they call "natural justice."
The pruning has only made the saplings stronger. "Look at them now. The ones that were cut down are stronger and better," says Jamuna. The women plan to plant the tree saplings on empty public land in this rainy season. They have also started to look for buyers to sell the surplus.
"The money from the sale will be put into a fund to install a drinking water scheme or a food processing mill," says Jamuna, smiling confidently.
Adds Basyal, the Gunadi women are fulfilling the WDS dream of "development of the women, by the women and for the women."

Hari Srinivas - hsrinivas@gdrc.org
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