Renu Rajbhandari


Plenary Panel- Thinking and building a new for the 21st century. Future visions from today’s grassroot movement.

I’ve been asked to tell a bit about my story of activism.

I am a physician by training, but became a full time women’s Rights activist after working in Hospitals for more than 10 yes. The journey as an activist began in 1991 when I met a trafficked girl in police custody, where she was kept because the police in charge knew that a medical research team, of which I was a member, wanted to check her blood sample to screen her HIV status. I was working on an HIV control program for the Government. We were just starting to discuss HIV in Nepal at that time and we needed statistics.

My work and my entire life changed when I met that 19 year old girl. The police rudely asked her to describe her story to me. I could see anger hatred and anger towards the police and me in her eyes. The police reluctantly allowed me to speak to her in private.

Once alone, she became very aggressive. She started to say yes, I was in Mumbai India, yes I was involved in sex work, yes I might have HIV but why should I give my blood to you? You will sell my blood and make money and what good is that to me? After that she started to cry. After a few minutes when she got bit settled, I asked her why she was so angry. Her story numbed and depressed me. She was the child of a deaf and mute mother from the dalit (Untouchables) community. Her mother was thrown out of the house by her brother as she was considered a burden for the family. On the streets her mother was raped and became pregnant giving birth in a cow shed. At 12 years of age her maternal uncle, the only person who had been kind to her and spoken to her took her to Kathmandu and told her she would learn to become a tailor. Her uncle introduced her to an ‘auntie’ that she’d never met and her uncle disappeared.

She was sold to a brothel. She was immediately brutalised and after resisting suffered horrific injuries from which she retained scars. For the next 5 and half years she worked in that brothel until she finally escaped and found her way back to Nepal and her home town.

After telling me her story she asked: Tell me was this all my fault? What did I do to cause this? What do you think will happen to me now? Do I deserve to be treated like dirt when I walk on the street or in my own villate? I had no answer to her questions. I tried to offer some reassuring words but knew that in our society and culture she was right. She was also right that as a doctor I will take her money and earn my income with no good for her. I felt really small. I came away with her blood and a deep sense of shame. I fell into depression but realised that I needed to act.

The most critical element is to build movements. Without the authority and support of movements our work would be illegitimate. Movements embolden me, give me courage to continue and constantly astound me.

And so I founded WOREC. I tried searching for the girl but couldn’t find her but in my journeys around our country discovered more and more about trafficking and about the rout causes of discrimination and marginalisation. So I started work on to end Violence against women focusing my work against trafficking. I started focusing on community level organising. We started with a small group of 7 women and now we have reached more than 1.7 million women all around the country.

This movement has managed to produce a national plan of action against trafficking. Many Laws got changed, new policies got formed. However women’s right are still far from being materialised and ensured.

In 1996, after a long campaign, 126 trafficked women and girls were rescued in Mumbai. Through extensive movement and capacity building we supported the women to form their own organisation; the first survivors organisation in the world, called Shakti Samuha (power group). Many rural women who come to Kathmandu looking for work end up working in the Entertainment sector and I helped them organise themselves into a group called ‘women for women’ or WOFOWON where more than 5,000 women have been organised and able to achieve remarkable success in a short time.

Similarly my interest in health led me to focus on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and the need to organise women. Even talking about women’s reproductive health was considered improper when I started. With an initial focus on uterine collapse I began to organise women to understand their rights to be informed and make decisions over their own bodies. With new global standards and the start of the women barefoot gynaecologists, coupled with women’s movements and agency we’ve been able to make progress.

Through these many groups thousands of women became active and started to work as change agents in their own communities but they were not recognised as human right defenders – particularly the most grassroots women who risk the most to advance women’s rights. During 12 yrs of violent political conflict in Nepal, women who were resisting violence and demanding women’s rights were considered Maoists by the army and informers or traitors if they also challenged the resistance culture.

At the height of the conflict we decided to come together and recognise ourselves as Women Human Rights Defenders and we started the National Alliance of Women Human Right Defenders.

Through the past 20 years of activism I’ve learnt many things. Amongst them is that nothing can be really altered without passionate, committed hard work and courage. The most critical element is to build movements. Without the authority and support of movements our work would be illegitimate. Movements embolden me, give me courage to continue and constantly astound me. This year I’ve been part of a movement to demand more action to end violence against women. Women from all sectors have joined our weekly protest and our ‘occupy balwater’ movement. Log frames and measurable indicators don’t really capture this work – but there’s no doubt that no real change comes without it.

In 2012 the largest global study on policy making to end violence against women came to the same conclusion. After studying the political climate and women’s rights context across all continents, Mala Htun and Laurel Weldon found that the single most important factor in achieving policy and legal change for women’s rights is the existence of autonomous feminist movements.

As members of APWLD we build our collective analysis, comparing and analyzing global and regional shifts. Together we are determined that the structural causes of women’s rights violations lie in the intersection of globalisation, militarism, fundamentalisms fused with patriarchy. Together with other social movements in the Asia Pacific region we are calling for a new global order where inequalities of wealth, of resources and of wealth are more equitably distributed. We are calling for Development Justice. – a framework that requires five foundational shifts of redistributive justice, economic justice, gender and social justice, environmental justice and accountability to the peoples.

Bringing together women from across the region, APWLD amplifies our voice and gives us stronger influence. Most importantly it gives us solidarity and power. And it is here that the international community can be most effective – in supporting the agency, voice and knowledge of women in the global south. That support takes trust, faith and genuine solidarity – not simply re-framing women’s rights as greater economic value to the global North.