Lily Thapa

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Nepal
Fellow since 2003
This description of Lily Thapa's work was prepared when Lily Thapa was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003 .

Introduction

Lily Thapa helps to bring widows, many of whom are young wives of casualties in Nepal's seven-year insurgency, out of isolation and dependency in their husbands' homes and connects them with each other in groups that are building their economic and political strength throughout Nepal.

The New Idea

Lily is breaching the strong, family-enforced social customs that separate widows from participation in the citizen sector. She invites widows to emerge and join the company of their peers. The groups give the widow–or single women, a term that Lily prefers to the heavily symbolic "widow"–a chance to grieve together and learn how to speak out and deal with the social and economic barriers they face. In the process, the women recast themselves from the role of unwanted and unlucky burden into citizens who once again stand on equal ground with other women. Lily is training them to have more economic independence and also to take a vocal and active part in public life. The women, particularly those widowed by the insurgency, bring a special legitimacy as influences for peace in their society's attempts to end civil strife. Their participation also encourages communities to examine their traditions with sensitivity to the effects of arbitrary social exclusions.

The Problem

When a woman becomes a widow in Nepal, the loss of her husband is not the only ending she faces. Immediately, special rules apply to her. She is considered different from other women. The particulars differ among different castes and religious groups, but always, economic dependence dictates her options as do many other rules that effectively put her on the sidelines. Typically, among Hindus, the women are told they must stay in their husband's family home where the family perpetuates a strict system of rules and separation. Widows are not allowed to wear clothes that are red, a lucky color used on religious occasions. In addition, the women are considered inauspicious, and so they are not allowed to participate in religious functions, even the marriage of their own children. Most widows are ignorant of any legal status or any rights they may have to compensation or inheritance. They lack self-confidence and are depressed, afraid, and immobilized in a life that has just become even narrower than the discriminations they have faced all their lives because they are women. These are facts for all women, even those who are educated.

Lily's work addresses a critical part of the problem: women's inability to alter the situation they find themselves in, which results in part from the fact that many have no sense of identity outside of being someone's wife, mother, or daughter. They lack the confidence to question the validity of the restrictions, propose alternatives to their families, and negotiate with them. Lily is finding that many women cannot even speak when they start coming to single women's meetings. Their lack of confidence is enormously increased by the utter economic dependence most face. They must rely on the goodwill of a father-in-law or brother-in-law to give them money for their children's schooling or even for a new sari. Their numbers increase daily and include young women, in part a result of the Maoist insurgency. Because they are marginalized, widows lose years of future productivity and their children's future is also threatened.

The Strategy

Lily started Women for Human Rights (WHR) and began forming single women's groups in 1995. The number of single women members has grown to 511, in 23 of Nepal's 75 districts and all five development regions. At the beginning, Lily thought she should limit her organization to widows only, but she soon realized that her effort was relevant to the entire community and would benefit from a range of allies. Now her organization has a mixed board of men and married women along with the single women. Professionals who were once reluctant to join such an organization have become enthusiastic supporters. WHR now has four full-time paid staff plus 39 volunteers, including single and married women and men.

Moving respectfully through community connections, the organization contacts widows by sending a team to their homes to invite them to a meeting. Family members are also invited. The single women who participate realize that they are not alone and that together they can make a difference in society. One mother-in-law attended the meeting and shared her enthusiasm at the changes brought about in her daughter-in-law's life and in the lives of the family after her daughter-in-law became a member of the single women's group.

On two fronts, national and local, Lily provides training on the role of society, culture, religion, and law concerning single women. She organized a three-day National Workshop in September 2002 on empowering widows, the first of its kind. The workshop drew attention to the problems single women face–issues that had never been raised before. Participants from 17 districts, who were unable to speak their names in public and had only tears in their eyes, returned to their respective districts after the workshop and formed single women's groups. With ongoing training from Lily and her colleagues, they started advocacy campaigns, savings and credit programs, and partnerships with local citizen organizations and government agencies. The same groups and new members attended a second national workshop that Lily organized in April 2003, where the participants demonstrated a marked behavioral change and spoke with great confidence. They reported that their communities had become more inclusive of them and that government agencies more willing to work with them to implement development programs. Lily organized an Eastern Regional Workshop in February 2003 and plans to have such workshops in each of the five development regions. Lily also provides legal counseling and leadership building for women interested in political participation at the district level where women's participation is minimal. WHR has shown promising, motivated single women the procedures for running for office and linked them both with their Village Development Committees and with an international citizen's organization that offers training for future political leaders.

Because economic independence remains the most crucial step for single women in order to have a say in the decision-making processes at home, Women for Human Rights promotes entrepreneurship among women. WHR established a microcredit program to help single women obtain credit using only their membership fees as collateral. The money becomes available as loans for income-generating activities. A Single Women's Entrepreneurs Group promotes the products of single women. An "Opportunity Fund" created by WHR encourages local philanthropy and provides educational scholarships to the children of single women as well as to the women themselves. The organization maintains a current database of all the members of the groups in all the development regions with records of the income-generating work.

Lily has designed the program with the requirement that each single women's group plan one program for the community a month. The monthly meetings have opened up previously unexplored subjects that affect many families. In Nepalganj, a city in midwestern Nepal, the whole community has changed some of the social restrictions on single women. The single women from the local group invited their families and the village government officials to a highly publicized event in which they received tika (a ceremonial blessing) that is traditionally denied to widows.

The work of Women's Human Rights invites duplication, which Lily assists. Recently, for example, new widow groups formed in the midwest and central districts, but the members did not know what to do. The Women's Commission of Nepal, having watched WHR and seen its impact on lives of women and communities, asked it to give training to the new group members. Now the new groups have adopted the WHR plan of action and have started similar saving and credit components.

Lily continues to build visibility and partnerships, including membership in the international network of widows in South Asia (South Asian Widows' Association). She has worked persistently with the media, believing that journalists are particularly good allies in Nepal. Talk shows on national and private television feature her, as do the service-oriented community FM radio stations and the leading newspapers and news magazines. Posters, books, a play, and an opera are among the communications tools Lily has created.

Lily is putting the subject of widowed women on the government agenda. After she participated in the talk program "Single Women's Issues–Today's Need," the Joint Secretary of the Planning Commission of the government of Nepal invited her to articulate the issue of single women in the 10th Five-Year Plan. This is seen as an extremely strategic and positive step for the advancement of single women. Only those issues that have been included in the plan will receive government funding in the coming fiscal years. Lily was successful in incorporating not only the issue of single women but also the strategies that thegovernment should take to end ostracism and discrimination against single women. The social security measures to be incorporated provide for single women's empowerment programs, free legal aid, and counseling and effective rehabilitation. These programs will be implemented through the Ministry of Women and Children, the Social Welfare Council, citizen organizations, and local government agencies.

The Person

Lily found herself widowed at 32, when her husband, a medical doctor, died while serving in the military in the Gulf War of 1992. She fought for his compensation through the United Nations and received it only after three years of persistence, since compensation for those killed in combat and those dying of natural causes, as her husband did, were handled differently. She endured discrimination from society and her family, but she took charge of her life and helped others who faced the same situation.

From a very young age, thanks to a progressive, privileged upbringing, Lily had opportunities to travel, as well as opportunities that most girls did not have, like horse riding and driving. At university, she was a leader in the students' union and helped young women coming from remote districts. Later she married into a conservative family–a total shock for her. After three miscarriages, her husband's family advised him to take a second wife, but he refused to do so. Lily remained his only wife, and together they had three sons. After her husband's death, she experienced hardship from his family and realized that widowed women were denied many rights. Lily also recognized that she was more fortunate than most widows and that there were many women in Nepal who suffered even more because they were uneducated and lacked confidence in their abilities.

Since 1994, Lily has devoted herself to establishing her organization as a strong and recognized presence for single women. She first reached out to Laxmi, a widow who experienced bad treatment from her family. Laxmi's mother-in-law refused to let Lily into her home, fearing she would corrupt her daughter-in-law. Lily was undeterred, and she visited Laxmi again, bringing with her a Jesuit priest who was popular in the village. She finally convinced Laxmi's family to let Laxmi take a four-month sewing course. She now has her own tailoring shop and has opened a branch in another village. Laxmi's economic independence has brought about a distinct change in her family's behavior. Her story offers an illustration of the dramatic changes Lily and her team inspire in the lives of widows in the region.

Updates

Featured in Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World, by Bev Schwartz (2012)