A quintessential farming village, Khori in Chhabis Pathibhera Municipality underwent a wave of change a couple of years ago.
Known as one of the most remote locations in the entire Bajhang district, Khori village, situated at an altitude of 2,650m above sea level, used to be riddled with the ills of Chhaupadi, casteism, gender disparity and violence.
The village of 120 families comprise farmers, who would grow millet, buckwheat, wheat, potatoes and other crops in their fields. But it was mostly the women who would work in the fields while the male members spend leisurely hours playing cards and carom all day long. Come evening, most men would be found in the local shops that sold alcohol. The men would make their way home every evening stumbling in their drunkenness.
The women, who would spend the day working not only in the fields but also at odd jobs to earn daily wages to keep the family afloat, would be forced to give up their earnings to their husbands so they could drink more.
“The money we would make from carrying heavy loads on our backs would be snatched from us. If we resisted, the men would beat us up,” said 40-year-old Kitti Devi Bohara from the village.
Bohara has a family of ten and her husband works the fields. “I don’t even remember the number of times my husband beat me and our children. He would come home drunk and ask for money,” she said.
The same story would play out in every household most evenings, says Bohara.
“Fights would break out; you could hear women and children wailing in almost every house in the village as the drunk men returned home in the evenings,” she said.
There was no peace. The women were desperate for their men to stay sober and contribute to the welfare of their families and the community.
So the women folks decided to do something about it and take charge of the situation.
“Initially, all the women in the village came together to form an informal committee. Then we took charge of the users’ committee group. Our first decision was to stop the production of alcohol in the village,” said 60-year-old Bhanuri Bohara, another local woman. “We went to the houses of those who made local alcohol and asked them to stop. That was six to seven years ago. Since then, peace has returned to our village.”
The women imposed a ban on alcohol sales and consumption in the village and levied a fine of Rs 5,000 to anyone who came to the village drunk. The money collected from the fine was used on development projects in the village, says Bhanuri.
Ridding the village of alcoholism was the first step the women took in their bid to improve the living conditions of the villagers. They took charge of most of the development projects under the purview of the users’ committee.
With women at the helm, the village has turned a new leaf. While earlier, the rural roads were just open tracks and shortage of drinking water was an eternal problem, now the village roads are clean and public spaces well-tended to, and drinking water problem a thing of the past.
Gone are the days when women had to line up in front of the community well to fetch water. Now, a drinking water tap has been installed in every household. With 66 percent financial support from the Rural Village Water Resource Management Project, the users’ committee successfully initiated a project wherein every house has a toilet and separate areas to wash and dry utensils.
“The villagers contributed 34 percent of the total budget with the money collected from fines on alcohol consumption and sales. The villagers also donated labour with the technical support from the Rural Village Water Resource Management Project,” said Bhanuri.
All the developments that took place in the village in the last five years happened under the leadership of women. It took a while for the men to get used to the idea of women making decisions, says 37-year-old Belu Devi Bohara, the secretary of the Users’ Committee.
“We told the men that they are welcome to leave the users’ committee and let the women handle it if they have an issue with women leading the committee,” said Belu. “We undertook projects and completed them well before time. We completed a 15-month-long water and sanitation management project in eight months.”
Given the high altitude location of the village, it was difficult to grow vegetables. Before the transformation of the village, the villagers would rely on salt, chilli peppers and whey bread as their staple food. The women soon started organic farming and learnt to build greenhouses that allow for vegetables to grow in controlled temperatures. These days, the villagers always have a vegetable or two included in every meal.
“We now have enough water for drinking and household purposes. So we use the extra water to irrigate our vegetable fields. We asked the municipal officials and Rural Village Water Resource Management Project to help us,” 33-year-old Sunita Buddha, the chairperson of the users’ committee, told the Post.
“They were happy with our initiative and built us a tunnel to channelise water to our fields. They also trained us in agro products,” she said. “These days we grow enough vegetables to feed the village. We sell the surplus to other villages.”
The economic impact brought about by the women of the village is commendable but what has changed the face of the village is the social change, especially in gender-based issues.
Menstruating girls and women and pregnant and new mothers no longer have to leave their homes for chhau sheds as has been the longstanding practice.
“Earlier, women were meek and did not know any better. We didn’t have the know-how of hygienic practices during periods. But now everybody is aware of how to take care of themselves during periods. It was time we stopped sending our women and children to chhau sheds,” said Chandana Japrel, another local woman, a 24-year-old woman. “Initially, there was some resistance from the elders in the community but we stood our ground. Now they are getting used to the new custom.”
The women of the village now produce their own sanitary pads with the older women teaching the younger ones about its usage and advantages over unhygienic options. The sanitary pads they make use organic materials and the women have even ventured into commercial production of sanitary products.
Under the leadership of the members of the Water and Sanitation Consumers Committee, the women have now started selling their home-grown products in markets outside the village. “This has led to the economic empowerment of women. If a woman is financially independent, there is little she can’t do,” said Shanti Bohara, 21, another local woman.
The women of Khori have surpassed one challenge after another for the betterment of not just the women but also of the entire village and the men have come to acknowledge their contribution.
“When the women first got together to bring positive changes to the village, we mocked them,” said Laxman Bohora, a 45-year-old local man. “They proved us wrong and showed us what the village needed was women leadership.”
Applauding the women of Khori village, the Chhabis Pathibhera Municipality awarded a cash incentive of Rs 1,00,125 to the users’ committee group.
“The women’s role in bringing about positive changes in the social, economic, development and education fields is an example the rest of us should follow,” said Akkal Dhami, chairperson of the municipality. “The cash incentive is to encourage the women to continue on their path to prosperity for the village. We hope the rest of the villages in the municipality will also follow suit.”