“I vividly remember the armed conflict. We walked for days on an empty stomach to fight battles. I used to suck on flower nectar to feed myself,” recalls Dambara Joshi, 22, a former Maoist combatant who took up arms in the Nepalese Civil War.
She didn’t join the People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of Nepal, by choice. Rather, it was a way to escape her woes. Her family showed sympathy towards Maoist ideals and was constantly investigated by the Royal Nepal Army. These relentless inspections put Dambara under an enormous amount of stress, until she sought refuge in the PLA.
“I left home to escape the scrutiny of the army. But things were not different inside the Maoist camp. We were forced to stay vigilant and were told not to trust anyone. Life became more uncertain,” she shares. As the conflict continued, Dambara married a fellow fighter and started to accept her fate as a combatant.
Then, the war ended. The Government of Nepal and the Maoists signed the Comprehensive Peace Accord, and Dambara and her husband decided to return home. They hoped for an end to their struggle, but quickly realized that surviving the conflict was only half the fight.
They had another battle to face: the one against social stigma towards the Maoists. Back in her native village, Dambara and her family were shunned by the rest of the community and exposed to constant scrutiny. “There was little trust and people looked at us with suspicion,” she explains.
They decided to move elsewhere, but poverty followed them. With no steady income or education prospects, they struggled to make ends meet. What’s worse, during the uprising in April 2006, her husband had suffered severe injuries. “The sky fell on me. He could not walk anymore. A disabled husband and the tag of a Maoist; life was suffocating!” shares Dambara, her eyes brimming with tears.
One day, she was approached by a facilitator of the Dalit Help Society, a group fighting caste discrimination in Nepal, who recommended to her a training about women’s rights. The training was part of a project led by our local team and UN Women, aimed at creating a space for the voices of women in civil society and eliminating gender inequality.
Dambara decided to join the training and found it transformative. Not only did it teach her about important UN Resolutions and national laws protecting women from abuse; it also gave her the courage to face and fight the social stigma placed on her. She took advantage of the opportunity to interact with activists and community organizers who participated in the initiative and discovered that she, too, could become a leader. “There was no discrimination. Everyone treated me with respect. During group activities, they encouraged me to speak up. […] For the first time in my life, I felt valued,” Dambara says.
After the training and with the encouragement of other women, she joined the local Community Forest Group, an organization dedicated to protecting the environment. At first, it was hard for her to win the respect of the other members, but she did not give up. “Slowly and steadily, I started to interact [with them]. […] Initially, there was resistance from the male members, but after a while, they started listening to me,” shares Dambara.
Using her newfound confidence, she took the lead in designing eco-friendly programs for the village, which were met with praise by the entire community and gained her the position of Treasurer of the Village Irrigation Committee. In this new position, she strengthened her leadership skills, while pushing forward her interest in other forms of activism. She became the focal point of social campaigns to end child marriage, the chhaupadi system of discrimination against menstruating women, polygamy, and sexual violence.
Reflecting back on her story, Dambara credits her involvement with our project for setting her onto a new course. “My involvement in social groups and campaigns helped change people’s behavior towards me. They now know me by name and there’s been a seismic change in their attitudes. Things wouldn’t have changed if not for the training,” she says.
Dambara has earned the respect and affection of her community, but her rise as a social activist is far from over. “One day, I will directly work for the Village Development Committee,” she adds. “The seed of women’s leadership has been planted, and I will make sure our voices are heard at all levels, and that former combatants like me are treated with respect and dignity.”
Ayush Joshi is a Senior Coordinator for Program Development and Communications at Search for Common Ground Nepal.
Alaina Rudnick is a New Media Intern at Search for Common Ground, based in Washington, D.C.