Unlocking women’s potential from the grassroots up

Oxfam Gender


Lorina Sthapit and Mona Mehta from Oxfam in Asia look back on a women community leaders event in Pakistan and share exceptional stories of women in leadership.

“What will these village women do or say in such a high level conference? Look at their photos[on visa application], it doesn’t look like they will understand anything, let alone contribute.” – Anonymous government official

It was shocking to hear such a statement from a government official about some incredibly strong and able women community leaders attending the Pre-SAARC Women Community Leaders’ Regional Conference, organized in Islamabad, Pakistan, in January 2016.

Sadly such stereotypes about rural women are common. More often than not grassroots women are reduced to passive receivers of plans and projects. Yet when one delves into the history of the women’s movements across South Asia, it is the voices, leadership and activism of grassroots women leaders that have shaped national and global actions, and brought lasting change.

Narmada, Tika and Pampha who hail from different parts of Nepal have demonstrated courage and leadership to bring about social change and women’s empowerment. Narmada with her group, was able to secure land to set up a 24-hour birthing centre in the local health post in her village. Today the birthing centre is serving women who would otherwise give birth at home without proper medical assistance. Tika is rigorously engaged in anti-corruption and fraud prevention and has been controlling deforestation in her community. Pampha is promoting women’s rights and issues in political
agendas and paving the way for women’s political leadership both at her village and at the national level.

The women leaders conference was a pre-cursor to the 19th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation(SAARC). Its overarching goal was to deliberate on the opportunities, challenges and approaches towards enhancing and empowering women community leaders in South Asia and generate recommendations for the empowerment of community women leaders to take to SAARC member countries.

As Oxfam, we felt proud that many of the women leaders participating in the conference were from Oxfam supported programmes across Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh (Bangladesh women leaders were unable to participate physically due to visa difficulties but are engaged in the follow up process.). Narmada, Tika and Pampha not only represented Nepal at the conference but their ideas and suggestions were incorporated in the final recommendations to be presented to the SAARC Secretariat.

There are many thousands of women leaders across South Asia and they are bringing about critical change in their homes and communities. It’s by making visible these unsung heroes and enabling them to share their experiences that real impact can happen. 

Initiatives for women’s empowerment need to draw directly from the experiences and needs of these inspiring women. This conference was just a small step towards unlocking the potential for grassroots-led transformative change.

Tika, Narmada and Pampha’s experiences are captured in this video:

The women leaders movement:

  1. Has resolved to establish a SAARC Member States’ Community Women’s Alliance and therefore calls upon the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation SAARC) to recognize it
  2. Underlines the significance of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with particular emphasis on SDG 5 and therefore calls upon the SAARC to establish a SDG 5 Desk
  3. Calls upon the SAARC to encourage its members for submitting periodic reports on SDG 5
  4. Recognizes the SAARC’s commitment to Gender Equality and Women’s Importance, therefore calls upon the SAARC to declare a policy and suggest mechanisms for zero tolerance for all forms of Violence Against Women across the SAARC member states.
  5. Commends the SAARC on its commitment to realization of fundamental human rights in its member states, therefore calls upon the SAARC to encourage its member states to review, revoke and abstain from laws, policies and institutional mechanisms that control and impede women’s activism and assembly for promoting human rights
  6. Calls upon SAARC to assert upon its members states to ensure inclusion and representation of women’s group, women community leaders and feminist groups in all peace and security initiatives at decision- making levels
  7. Calls upon the SAARC to encourage its member states to monitor, articulate punitive action against and ensure eliminating anti-women stereotypical content in media
  8. Recommendations given in the AAWAZ pre-SAARC Conference will be further articulated and included. 

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Photo credit: Tika receiving AAWAZ Community Leader Award. Photo Credit: Kami Images

Author: Lorina Sthapit
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.