Dr. Shanta Thapalia uses gender-conscious mentors to help Nepali women successfully become lawyers - a key step in winning greater legal and basic rights for women and children.
The New Idea
Shanta's mentoring program draws on lawyers, judges, government officials, university professors, social workers, and other members of the emerging professional class. The program selects women from poor, often remote, rural areas and operates out of Tribhuvan University's Legal Aid and Consultancy Center (LACC), a private nonprofit established for the protection and promotion of the dignity and well-being of women and children.
The mentors, each matched with a young woman, are specifically interested in women's issues. They give their time and counsel, guiding the women patiently past each barrier. Their guidance develops a trust, a trust that should increase female enrollment and reduce the very high dropout rate of women law students.
The program has several important reform implications: it is a model for a new approach to legal education in Nepal. It will also help to bring social change, forcing the community to accept women at senior levels in the workforce.
As law students, these women jump into counseling, providing legal aid to poor women, building both the students' skills and, it is hoped, a commitment to serving that will guide them once they graduate. In the meantime, these law students are dramatically increasing the legal assistance available to Nepali women.
The number of women students enrolling in law courses is slowly on the rise, yet it is still only twelve percent. However, even that small progress is quickly lost. Fifty percent of the women law students drop out - a much higher rate than the male dropout rate. The number of women law graduates who then go on to take up law as their profession is negligible. Even with the several kinds of potential careers open to law graduates, the statistics show that almost none become pleaders. According to Shanta, they fear to enter the profession because they lack assertiveness and familiarity with the legal and administrative system. Some efforts have been made regarding the overall empowerment of women in Nepal, but this continuing failure in the legal profession illustrates how far the country still must go.
Throwing young Nepali women into a law course, even with a scholarship, is clearly not enough. The jump demonstrably is too radical for most, especially when combined with family pressures to marry, society's discomfort with women asserting and demanding as lawyers must, and husbands' feeling the need demonstrably to be in control. Moreover, these women, especially those from outside Kathmandu, have little familiarity with the all-male institutions with which lawyers must grapple.
Shanta has consequently designed a program that gives promising young women as much peer support and committed mentoring by sensitized professionals as possible. She crystallizes this support through four supplements to the traditional, narrow university courses.
First, her students serve as legal interns, providing legal aid to poor women. The students learn the law and how to apply it practically, gain self-confidence, and build up both understanding of and empathy for their clients.
Second, Shanta's interns, divided into groups of five, visit offices important to the practice of law, such as the Land Revenue Office, Land Reform Office, or Office of the Chief District Officer. They also visit the courts to observe trial proceedings.
Third, an outreach program seeks to build women's awareness of their legal rights. The women students visit nearby villages and communities to disseminate information concerning basic legal rights regarding polygamy, property, child rights, divorce, and other family-related issues. After this fieldwork, the students spend a week at different law firms learning about the preparation and presentation of related casework.
Finally, the "indoor" program conducts debates, speeches, and panel discussions, enhanced by the sharing of personal experiences, within the group. The students also plead cases dealing with current issues of gender discrimination and family law in friendly moot courts.
As these women graduate, Shanta looks forward to their becoming a major, perhaps the most important, part of the leadership for Nepali women's long, difficult struggle toward respect and equality.
Shanta is from a middle-class Brahmin family from eastern Nepal. In her early life, she was influenced by her grandmother and mother, who encouraged her to continue her studies and gave her the courage to revolt against the traditional system of child marriage. At the age of ten, in a village named Shatinager, Jhapa, she gave a speech in a mass meeting regarding the need for female education (the villagers had wanted to close the school to girls). Shanta and her friends managed to inspire others to join them in this fight. The following year the majority of village girls were enrolled in school for the first time.
Shanta's mother and a cousin advocated and financed her higher education despite strong opposition from her father. She obtained a master's degree at the University of California at Berkeley and later became the first woman in Nepal to hold a Ph.D. in law from the University of Delhi. At the age of twenty-three, she married a medical doctor who fully supported the completion of her education.
Shanta has published many books and articles that have appeared in various law journals and magazines regarding law, women, and children. She founded and is currently the managing director of LACC.