Except where noted, all photos on this page were taken in March 2013. Click on the images to see larger versions.
Women in rural Nepal face incredibly difficult circumstances. Lack of sufficient food, lack of education, low status, and early marriage and child-bearing all contribute to cyclical poverty.
With little or no education, and given their traditionally low status in both domestic and community settings, poor and low-caste women have very limited opportunities to improve their own and their families' lives. Thus, the cycle of poverty and illiteracy is perpetuated.
Since the mid-1990s, ETC has been working to ensure that women have the skills and resources necessary to break this cycle. Through their own hard work and with ETC's help, thousands of women are now able to earn money from their own entrepreneurial efforts. They have improved their families' standards of living, earned greater respect from their families and communities, and gained a strong sense of pride and confidence in themselves and their abilities.
One of the first things ETC does, upon arriving in a region, is to form women's groups. In Dolakha, there are 42 women's groups with a total membership of more than 840 women. These members of Suryodaya Women's Group worked hard to become literate - they participated in our intensive literacy program, which ran six nights per week for 18 months. (Photo from 2009)
As time goes by, group members choose officers and are able to run the regular business meetings with minimal assistance from ETC. These ladies are listening to the discussion during their monthly meeting.
Women's groups also offer a means for women to invest in their own and their peers' small business ventures. Here, officers are collecting and recording members' monthly contributions to the group's microcredit fund. All women contribute, even if they can only afford a few pennies.
After the money has been collected and recorded, it is available to be loaned out again immediately to members who want to start or expand their own small businesses. Members seeking loans state how much they'd like to borrow and why, and if there is more demand than money available, group members engage in discussion and work out a compromise. A member taking out a loan must have a friend agree to act as guarantor. The information is then recorded and the funds distributed. Here is a woman receiving a loan.
Women's groups often undertake projects to benefit their entire communities. Some keep the public trails clear of brush and in decent condition; others improve schools and other public buildings. The women of Sagarmatha and Iksipola Women's Groups pooled money and rallied villagers to build this community hall.
Here are many of the 40-plus members of the Sagarmatha and Iksipola Women's Groups posing outside the community hall, before their monthly meetings. The building is large enough for both groups to use simultaneously.
Women's group members learn basic business skills, such as appropriate price-setting. The small businesses that women in Dolakha have started are mostly agricultural in nature. Many like this woman grow vegetables in their kitchen gardens; their families consume much of the produce, and they can sell the rest for a profit.
Livestock farming is also popular among women in Dolakha - goats and poultry are especially popular, and provide milk and eggs as well as meat. Many women's group members have taken out and repaid loans to start livestock businesses. ETC's training and resources also ensure that these farmers can feed and house their animals properly.
Other women have started successful shops and other small retail establishments. This is Sunita Thami, who has taken out and repaid several loans from Bhimeshwor Women's Group, of which she is a member. She runs both a small grocery shop (pictured here) and a meat shop - her husband is a butcher. Her income covers the educational expenses for her school-age children, and there is some left over for other household expenses.
This lady, Nira, is a dalit ("untouchable") who has worked exceptionally hard to improve her own and her family's situation. She has taken out and repaid three loans from her women's group. Her tailor shop is busy and full of stacks of bright, attractive fabrics, and her husband works there too. Her next goal is to take out a fourth loan to expand her shop space and offer training for aspiring tailors.
Other aspects of ETC's Women's Empowerment Program are less well-known outside the villages, but no less important. For example, consider the traditional means of cooking - over an open (indoor) fire. The smoke produced and unavoidably inhaled is a significant health hazard for all residents of the house, especially the women, who spend many hours every day in the kitchen. Moreover...
...the daily need for firewood means that women and girls must spend many arduous hours every day seeking, gathering, and hauling heavy basket-loads, often for long distances. The 20-year-old at the left of this photo, who does not live in ETC's service area, is carrying her toddler on her front as well as a loaded basket on her back. There are also serious environmental implications: Daily firewood-gathering denudes the steep landscape and contributes to landslides.
ETC promotes the use of improved cooking stoves (ICSs) in Dolakha. These are more efficient (burning less firewood) and allow the smoke to escape up a chimney and out of the house. Through ETC's partnership with the Resource Management and Rural Empowerment Centre, many dozens of households in Dolakha now have ICSs.
ETC also promotes the use of biogas cooking. This burner is fueled by gas produced from animal and human waste, which is stored underground. It is a clean-burning, renewable source, and also means that the waste that would normally be left to decompose in open air (thus emitting harmful gases linked to climate change) is used productively instead of constituting a health and environment hazard.
In addition to the obvious public health and broad environmental benefits, having such devices in the home frees up some of the countless hours that women would otherwise spend in gathering and bringing home firewood. This removes some of the drudgery from everyday life and means that they have more time to tend to their gardens, livestock, shops, and other income-generating activities.
ETC's programs are so effective and long-lasting in large part because ours is a highly integrated model: Each of our three program areas - children's education, women's empowerment, and sustainable agriculture - supports the others. For example, each member of an ETC women's group is eligible to receive a scholarship for one of her children to attend school, with preference given to a daughter if she has one. (Photo from June 2010)
Our sustainable agriculture training activities are also designed to help women contribute to their families' well-being and household incomes. In regions where ETC has worked in years past, women whom we helped to start small farming enterprises have increased their incomes by as much as 50%. This photo from March 2008 shows a family sorting flowers they have grown; flowers are important in religious observation, and can be sold year-round for a steady profit.